PERRY, Maine — Herb McPhail is a dairy farmer near Gleason Cove on Passamaquoddy Bay.
He has been a farmer for all of his 52 years and says he knows nothing else. He milks 19 Jersey cows — which he lovingly calls his “Rocky Ledge Girls” — by himself twice a day, rising at 6 a.m. and making his final barn check at midnight.
His ramshackle farm is a bit messy, but then again, so is McPhail. Farming is messy work.
McPhail lives as frugally as he can: He has no car (he drives his tractor to the Perry Farmers’ Union for supplies), he has no Internet or cable television.
As did generations before him, he makes do.
He is one of dozens of small farmers around the state that once formed the backbone of Maine’s dairy industry.
But McPhail is afraid he will be out of business by the time the snow begins to fly this year.
“If I don’t get some money, I’ll be out,” he said Monday.
McPhail is one of six organic producers who provide milk to Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., or MOOMilk.
An innovative and unique company, MOOMilk was formed last November to help 10 Maine organic milk producers whose contracts were not renewed by mega-milk producer Hood.
With no budget for advertising, and an economic climate that has consumers passing by the more expensive organic milk on the grocery shelves, MOOMilk is struggling. The company nearly closed last week when it couldn’t purchase cartons for its milk. A last-minute investor was found to keep the company going for a while but its future is tenuous.
Conversations have been ongoing for weeks between state officials and private investors in an attempt to keep the company afloat.
Sen. Kevin Raye, a Republican lawmaker from McPhail’s hometown, has been involved in the talks.
He has been working with Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet, the Finance Authority of Maine, MOOMilk, Sunrise Economic Development Council, the Northern Maine Development Commissioner, CEI, Bangor Savings Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture toward a financial solution for the company.
“We had a very good meeting last week,” Raye said. “There is a very good spirit of determination to help MOOMilk survive. It is so important to the survival of these farms.”McPhail, understandably, also is interested in the survival of his farm. And he said that surviving has been tougher as of late, as he has been paid only for half of the milk he has shipped since last fall.
“I’ve had to sell a few cows. I can’t go week after week with no income,” he said.
And if he doesn’t get paid before winter, he’ll sell out.
“I’ve got no choice. I don’t want to do it. I’ve got a whole bunch of good girls here,” he said, referring to his milking herd. “I have enough feed.”
But cash is needed for supplies, bedding, repairs, living expenses and the gas for the tractor that McPhail rides to the store.
One of those repairs that McPhail has been putting off involves the chain system that pulls the manure out of his barn. It has been broken since May and so, on a cool September morning this week, McPhail was shoveling the gutter by hand. “I can’t afford to get it fixed,” he said.
Still, McPhail is optimistic that MOOMilk can work, but not without the public’s support. He said unless Maine consumers begin aggressively supporting Maine’s small farms, they will be stuck with the alternative — out-of-state, or even out-of-country, milk.
“Without the support of the people of Maine, the day is coming when we’ll all be buying milk from China, with 2 percent antifreeze, no refrigeration and at $27.95 per gallon,” he said.
“Big business is pushing small farms out of Maine,” McPhail said.
In Washington County, there are only three dairy farms left and all ship to MOOMilk.
“We can’t afford to switch to conventional,” he said. “The trucking [costs from Washington County to a processor in Portland or Bangor] would kill us. And other organic producers have already said that Washington County is too far for them to come and pick us up.”
McPhail said, “Big business has come to Maine and said ‘If you aren’t big, there is no place for you.’ But small farms, less than 100 cows, were the backbone of this state. They are what the entire dairy industry was built on.”
Washington County is still part of Maine, McPhail said, and its farmers deserve the support of everyone in the state.
“People have a choice,” he said. “They can either support MOOMilk and Maine’s small farmers, or they won’t.”
McPhail said Maine needs all its dairy farms — whether they are 500-cow herds or 19-cow herds. “We need them all to support the infrastructure.”
McPhail stopped talking for a while to continue shoveling in his barn. He knows each cow by name — there are no computer chips to identify the animals here. They are Suzie, Ellen, Joyce, Louise, Sweet Pea and Dot.
McPhail stopped and pet three heifers — Carol, Princess and Moo.
“Turn around and look,” he said. “We have sent all of our jobs overseas. Are we going to send all our farms there too? People need to think about where their food is coming from — a half-billion eggs were poisoned with salmonella in massive egg farms. Another 8,500 pounds of hamburger were poisoned with E. coli at these factory farms.
“I am a small farmer,” he said. “But I am a Maine farmer and I deserve a place at the table too.”