UNITY, Maine — On West Mudgett Road, surrounded by barns, fields and forest, stands a farmhouse built in 1810. Its walls are made of handmade bricks shaped from the very land it stands on.
When its foundation was laid nearly 200 years ago, Maine was still a full 10 years away from becoming a state.
The barns are old. The house is old. A farmhand’s house hasn’t been lived in for more than 30 years.
Yet, if you think the farm is old, just wait until you get a gander at the farmer.
Robert Elwell, a small, smiley-faced man with rheumy blue eyes, is 87 years old.
He and his wife, Erma, have worked the farm for 66 years. Together they have raised a family, milked cows, harvested hay, grown their own food, and survived blizzards, droughts, floods, and three fires that destroyed barns and claimed a herd.
But today, Erma has to put Robert’s hat and jacket on for him. His shoulders don’t work anymore, after eight decades of manual labor, and he can’t raise his arms high enough to dress himself.
He has had both knees replaced, and underwent intestinal surgery last fall. Once, when he got tangled in the power takeoff on his tractor, his clothes were literally ripped off his body. He fell into his manure pit up to his chin and nearly drowned. And one hot summer, Erma cut off the ends of the fingers of Robert’s right hand while baling hay.
Dairy farming, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart. And it appears that fewer and fewer people have the heart.
A crisis of age
There is an agricultural crisis looming that is quietly discussed at every farm meeting across the state — the crisis of the aging dairy farmer.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released this month revealed that in the past seven years, the average age of a farmer in Maine has risen from 53 years to nearly 57, a trend repeated across the country, and an age that has Maine agriculturists worried.
Maine farming leaders say the statistics are misleading, though — that the age is even higher for dairy farmers.
At the same time that dairy farmers have been aging, there has been an influx of young, part-time farmers, who primarily raise vegetables, goats or sheep. It is those younger farmers who pull the average age down.
“If I had to guess, the average age for Maine’s dairy farmers is probably well north of 60,” said Tim Drake, chairman of the Maine Milk Commission.
For those elderly farmers, this is a tough time to still be doing business. Prices for milk are the lowest in decades, and even though Maine has a unique price support program that provides some relief, that is letting people only keep the farm, not profit or grow, Drake said.
“The older generation is just barely hanging on to the farm, not passing it on,” Drake said. “They just don’t have the money to make capital improvements that would make it attractive to a buyer.”
“It’s a big concern,” Jon Olson of the Maine Farm Bureau said. “Many, many of these older farmers have no one in their families willing to keep the farm going, to take over after they are ready to retire. So they keep on working, well past when they deserve to stop.”
Olson said another major concern is what will happen when Maine’s retired dairy farmers — many of whom lease their land to other farmers — decide to sell that land for development or other nonfarm uses.
At the root of the problem is a federal pricing system that many in dairying say is broken. Milk is the only commodity whose price is set by the federal government.
“We need to create a system that works for the farmer,” said Julie Marie Bickford of the Maine Dairy Industry Association. “Almost 90 percent of respondents in a recent survey of what’s hot, conducted by the National Restaurant Association, said ‘locally grown.’ That plays right in with ensuring that local Maine farms are strong and viable.”
Smaller farms the trend
Marianne Sarrantonio, coordinator of the University of Maine Sustainable Agriculture Program in Orono, said, “Ironically, the worse the news gets, the higher our enrollment goes. We’ve doubled our number of students in the program in the last two years.”
Sarrantonio said that, in reality, only about a third of those students will go on to establish their own farms in Maine.
“But I think they have contributed to a movement seen within the state as a whole: larger farms disappearing but being replaced by smaller, more ecologically managed farms run by young people, often from out of state.”
“The news has been so dire in recent years about the food we eat, the water we drink and the land that we live on that many younger people want to do what they can to reverse it, even if it means hard work without a lot of financial gain.”
Those young people may want to go into farming but may never have the means, said Ken Gustin, acting state director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
“If you graduate college and take a job, you might invest in some new clothes and transportation, but then you go to work. To go into farming, however, there are intensive labor and input costs. There is land to purchase, equipment to get, seed and livestock to buy. These are challenges that many young people cannot surmount.”
For the past two years, 21-year-old Derek Jones has been working alongside Elwell in the barn.
Jones arrives each day at 3:30 a.m., milks the 100-plus cows, cleans the barn, feeds and cares for the calves, beds down the cows and then starts the second milking about 2 in the afternoon.
“I spend the rest of the time fixing whatever has broken down,” he said. “In the summer, I usually don’t even go home.”
Jones wants to buy Elwell’s farm.
“But to do that, I’d need $1 million for the land, cows and all the equipment,” he said. “No one is going to lend me $1 million, especially not in today’s economy.”
Elwell said he bought the farm — the original farmstead and 350 acres — in 1943 for $3,500. Four years later he bought a brand-new tractor for $1,200. “A few years ago I bought a used tractor and it cost me $25,000,” he said.
During his life of farming, Elwell has been paid up to $30 a hundredweight for his milk, along with premiums because his Jerseys produce milk high in butterfat. By March, the price is expected to drop to $8 a hundredweight, the lowest price in history.
“If Derek doesn’t buy the farm or at least rent it and the cows, I don’t know if this is the year we won’t survive,” Elwell admitted. “If it stays like this, there won’t be any milk left in the state of Maine.”
Jones said he already has a dozen cows of his own at the Elwell farm and is saving as much money as he can toward its purchase, despite farming’s poor outlook.
“I’m optimistic, but I’m not wearing blinders,” Jones said. “I will never get rich. But I can make a good life for myself.”
The pair is working on an agreement so Jones can rent the farm until he is ready to buy. “It’s just too expensive for him to take over now,” Elwell said.
After sitting for a while at his kitchen table, talking about the struggles of today’s dairy farms and the toll it is taking on him, Elwell looked over at his wife, who sat in a rocker by the wood stove.
“It’s been a hard life and I have no regrets. But I’m tired now,” he said.