LIBERTY, Maine — The smell has changed at Rocky Acres Farm.
Alan Millay and his wife, Linda, notice it as they walk on a recent afternoon among the barns at what was the last remaining dairy farm in Liberty — a small, rural community in Waldo County. Fresh air has replaced the sweet smell of cow dung and the sour scent of fermenting silage that would have been pulled out to feed the dairy cows.
But the cows are all gone; the barns are all empty.
Alan, 62, and his brother Doug, 60, were forced to sell their herd of dairy cows this month, victims of an industry that’s been squeezed between the high costs of grain feed, which has risen more than 60 percent in the past two years, and fuel, which has increased as much as 30 percent during that period, and the relatively low price dairy farmers receive for their milk.
The morning of March 1, the brothers milked 31 cows, but by 2 p.m. the cows were gone, purchased on the spot when a representative of the Flood Bros. farm in Clinton, the state’s largest dairy farm, visited that morning.
“That happened awfully quick,” Alan said while standing in the milking room with his brother. Visible through an open door are rows of empty stalls where Holsteins had lived for the past 60 years. “A little too quick, actually.”
George Millay, 89, who founded Rocky Acres in 1951 before turning it over to his sons in the 1980s, still lives on the farm with his wife, Margaret, who is 90. Dairy farmers are in the worst predicament he’s seen in his 60 years of farming, he said.
“We’ve seen it all haven’t we, Margaret?” he said, turning to his wife, who nodded.
It’s “about as bad as it could get,” he said. “Everything has changed.”
When George founded Rocky Acres, there were farms up and down his road and throughout Liberty that milked dairy cows. In 1950, the year before George started the farm, there were nearly 5,000 dairy farms in the state, according to data from the Maine Milk Commission. Now there are about 300, and Rocky Acres was the last one in Liberty.
Selling the cows was a blow for George. When asked how he felt about it, he clammed up and looked away.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “I didn’t like to see the cows go.”
Later, Doug said his father sometimes dreams the cows have come back. Doug wants to lease out the pasture land to a cattle farmer so his father will again have the comforting view of grazing cows.
But the farm’s demise didn’t completely surprise anyone in the family, including his father, Alan said.
“He has actually known that this has been coming for about a year,” Alan said. “Every time you sit down and write out checks after the milk check comes, and you have nothing left when you’re done, and you don’t know where the next dollar is coming from to pay the next bill… I’ve been grumbling about that for a year now and tapping into what little bit of savings we had. … The past three years, you keep picking at it and picking at it and picking at it, and finally it’s gone.”
While the Millay brothers didn’t want to go into debt to keep the farm running, many of Maine’s dairy farmers are.
“We’ve been lucky,” Doug said. “We’ve bought what we needed as we went and tried to pay for it.”
But, Alan added, “Some of them guys are probably buried so deep, I don’t know how they’re ever going to get out.”
John Nutting, a dairy farmer in Leeds and a former legislator who was on the agricultural committee for 16 years, said Rocky Acres isn’t the only dairy farm that’s been forced to close. He receives calls from farmers throughout the state as a result of his years in the Legislature, and he’s heard of several farms forced to sell their herds during the last few months.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Nutting said. “The price of grain is so high right now because of the drought out West that it’s sucking the life right out of every dairy farmer in Maine.”
The Legislature will take up the plight of Maine’s dairy industry, which has an estimated annual economic impact of $570 million, in the coming month. Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, introduced LD 789, An Act To Lessen the Impact of High Feed and Fuel Costs on Maine Dairy Farmers. The bill’s wording hasn’t been finalized — Black said he introduced it as a “placeholder” on behalf of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, which is working on the language — but its public hearing is set for April 25 in Augusta.
Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, met with the governor’s office Thursday, and has been working with staff from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources to come up with ideas for how to provide short-term relief to these farmers as they head into the critical spring season, when they need cash and operating loans to seed their fields and fuel up their tractors.
Maine does have a safety net for dairy farmers, called the tier program, that’s designed to help make up the difference between what it costs them to produce milk and what they get paid for it. But the gap between the two has become so vast in the past year that the program’s cost has become touchy in the political realm. Last spring, the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry rejected the Maine Milk Commission’s recommendation, which was based on the most recent cost-of-production study, that the tier program help farmers reach the realistic “break-even” point — which ranged from $28 per hundredweight for the small farms and $21 for the very large farms. Instead, the committee set the break-even points as $21 for the small farms and $17.83 for the very large ones.
The Millays in February received 75 cents per hundredweight from the tier program. If the committee had adopted the milk commission’s recommendation, they would have received closer to $7 or $8 per hundredweight.
While Bickford believes fully funding the tier program, which is expected to cost $2.6 million this fiscal year, is politically unrealistic in this budget climate, she is hopeful that some relief will be provided.
When asked what her message is to Maine dairy farmers who are holding out hope for help from Augusta, Bickford was pragmatic.
“When I talk to farmers, the message I have to tell them is, ‘Do what you got to do,’” she said. “Because as much as we are working hard — and I’m confident we have support coming out of the administration and the Legislature — I don’t know every farm’s individual finances, and everyone will have to make their own decision. I’m not going to mislead anybody by painting an overly rosy picture, just like I don’t want to paint an overly bleak picture.”
But any assistance from Augusta would have come too late for the Millays.
The money Alan and Doug received for their cows, equipment and leftover hay will last the families for a little while, but Alan, who’s now drawing Social Security, is not sure for how long.
“As of right now, I’m going to enjoy it for a bit, and down the road I might have to find something to supplement what I get from Social Security,” he said.
While closing down the farm is the end of an era for the family, Alan and Doug don’t regret their decision.
“It’s a constant struggle when things aren’t going the right way,” Alan said. “It’s a headache I don’t miss.”