BANGOR, Maine — For the dairy farmers who sell their milk to the Garelick Farms production facility in Bangor, which will close in January, the loss of the facility is more than a blow to business, it’s the loss of a tradition.
Dick Perkins, a dairy farmer in Charleston, and his family have been selling their milk to the Bangor plant for decades. Before it was owned by Garelick Farms, it was Grant’s Dairy, a locally owned company that bought milk from local farmers, bottled it and sold it to local consumers.
“It was nice to ship your milk right into Bangor and have it bottled and put on the shelves in the Bangor stores,” said Perkins, who milks 300 cows at his farm. “That will be sorely missed.”
But in reality, the situation hasn’t been that simple for at least 15 years.
Garelick Farms bought Grant’s Dairy in 1994. At the time, Garelick was a local dairy company in Massachusetts. It left Bangor largely independent, leaving the local management team intact, including Benjamin Grant, who had been president of Grant’s Dairy since 1981. Garelick also invested in a new, state-of-the-art dairy production facility in Bangor, which opened in 1995, according to an article in the Bangor Daily News at the time.
Then a company called Suiza, which went on to become Texas-based Dean Foods, purchased Garelick Farms in 1997.
“When Garelick bought Grant’s, I got a little nervous,” Perkins said. “And when Dean Foods purchased Garelick, I joined Dairy Farmers of America.”
Perkins wasn’t the only one. Several area producers joined the Dairy Farmers of America after Garelick changed hands, he said.
“I didn’t want to go one-on-one with Dean,” Perkins said.
The Dairy Farmers of America is a cooperative of dairy farmers that handles the marketing of its members’ milk to producers such as Garelick Farms, Oakhurst or Hood.
The way a cooperative works is a member’s milk is picked up and, if it’s in the Bangor area, say, would first try to be sent to the Garelick facility in Bangor. However, depending on the current market for milk, it might be sent to the Hood facility in Portland or even the other Garelick facilities in Massachusetts, according to Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
“Milk gets moved around and you hope it travels the shortest possible distance,” Bickford said.
In that situation Perkins could still be proud his milk was going to a local producer — even if all of it didn’t always end up at Garelick’s facility in Bangor — and sold locally. Now, that’s changed. The loss of the local connection to consumers is tough for a farmer, Perkins said.
“It used to be when people asked where my milk goes, I could say I sell it to Grant’s in Bangor,” Perkins said. “When people ask me now where my milk goes, I say it goes in a trailer.”
The closure of the Garelick facility in Bangor will also have a financial effect on dairy farmers.
Because Perkins belongs to a cooperative, his milk will still be picked up, but it’ll now be shipped further south to the Hood or Oakhurst facilities in Portland, perhaps.
Dairy farmers pay to have their milk hauled, so more miles means higher costs. Though how much higher is still unknown, according to Perkins, who currently pays about $5,000 a month to have his milk hauled away.
It’s still too early to tell how far away the milk from Dairy Farmers of America members in the Bangor area will be shipped, or how much more in haulage fees farmers will have to pay, according to Jennifer Huson, the group’s director of communications.
But she did offer this assurance: “They’re going to have access to a stable milk market.”
Because the cooperative delivers milk to producers all over the region, it’s able to find outlets for members’ milk, which is one of the benefits of being part of a cooperative, Huson said.
“Our role in a consolidating world like this is to find the most efficient way to market milk and minimize the impact to farms,” Huson said.
There are other dairy cooperatives, such as Agri-Mark, which owns the Cabot cheese brand.
The University of Maine’s dairy farm, which milks about 40 cows, is a member of the Agri-Mark cooperative.
“No one really knows what’s going to happen,” said Jake Dyer, superintendent of UMaine’s J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center, which includes the dairy farm. “The one thing I do know is the milk will go farther south.”
But Dyer isn’t worried about the school’s farm. He’s worried about the effect on the region’s dairy farmers.
“This is really going to, I assume, have a bigger negative impact on the private farms because their family income — likely a high percentage of it — is derived from the milk sales,” he said.
Dairy farmers who will be forced to pay more in haulage fees when the Garelick plant closes have already been under pressure from increases in the cost of fuel and grain.
The higher costs have been a struggle for Perkins, who’s trying to expand to bring his son into the business. The closure of Garelick just adds to an already trying situation.
“It’s been challenging,” he said. “It’s a business, yes. We need to manage it as a business, but it’s much more than a business.”