December 13, 2018
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Maine dairy farmer wants to retire; who will run his farm?

MONROE, Maine — Twice a day, when it’s time for dairy farmer Jack Hill to milk his small herd of registered Jersey cows, he moves around his old milking pen and climbs up to check the creamy milk in the holding tank with the agility and ease of a man in his 30s.

But he’s not in his 30s. He’s 75, and has been working the 500 acres of Hilltop Farm for 50 years. Hill, who does not want to see the forests and rolling green fields of his farm be broken up into subdivisions, doesn’t have a successor to take over the hard, everyday work of running a dairy farm. And while the spirited dairyman would like to retire one day, he is discovering that is easier said than done.

“This farm here would be good for development, but we don’t want to see that happen,” he said. “They only make so much land. Once it goes under the blacktop, they won’t make any more.”

Unfortunately, Hill’s situation is far from unique in the state of Maine, according to a recent study done by the Washington, D.C.-based American Farmland Trust and Keene, New Hampshire-based Land For Good, two nonprofit organizations that aim to protect farmland and help farmers. According to the study, which used data from the U.S. Census of Agriculture and farmer focus groups, nearly 30 percent of New England’s farmers are likely to stop farming in the next decade, and nine out of 10 of them are farming without a young farmer alongside.

Looming crisis

While the good news story of Maine’s growing crop of young farmers has attracted headlines, the difficulties of the state’s older farmers have not always been as well understood or documented. In Maine, where farmers who are 65 and older manage 527,000 acres and own a collective $1 billion in land and agricultural infrastructure, the difficulties in finding a successful strategy for retirement or transition could lead to a crisis, according to Erica Buswell of the Maine Farmland Trust.

“It’s absolutely a big concern,” Buswell, whose Belfast-based agency works to protect farmland and support farmers in Maine, said. “I think it’s really the founding focus of our work related to land protection. We know 400,000 acres of farmland will potentially be in transition in the next decade, simply due to the age of the farmland owners. It really is huge. But the study that AFP and Land For Good did was still surprising to us in some ways. We didn’t know so many farmers don’t really have anybody to take over their farm. There’s just nobody.”

Farmers often want to keep farming until they don’t have that choice anymore, she said.

“A lot of farmers don’t want to stop farming until they’re physically incapable of doing so,” Buswell said.

Since 1999, the Maine Farmland Trust has helped to protect more than 47,000 acres of farmland and has participated in 193 projects involving agricultural conservation easements, and Hill is hoping Hilltop Farm may be added to that list. To date, the group has named 218 “Forever Farms,” or farms with easements to ensure the land forever will be available for farming. Once the easements are in place, they extinguish the ability to develop land for other purposes and make the farms more affordable for a beginning farmer while still providing fair market value to a retiring farmer.

“I think the report really highlighted the importance of our work around farmland protection,” she said. “Now is the time. These farmers are aging and they don’t have successors.”

According to Cris Coffin, policy director of Land For Good, the study found that older Maine farmers need help thinking about succession and would like conservation easements to be more available. One troubling finding is that younger farmers in Maine are growing different commodities than the older farmers. In particular, far more older farmers than younger farmers raise hay, maple, fruit and beef cattle, and run greenhouses and nurseries.

“A lot of younger farmers are growing vegetables. That’s terrific,” she said. “But for these other crops where there are a whole lot of older farmers growing them, it raises the question: What’s going to happen to those farmers and that land if there’s not another generation coming in?”

Hardships and love of the land

Jack Hill, the longtime dairy farmer, can’t answer that question. He and his family settled in Waldo County in 1966 after coming up from Connecticut, where they couldn’t find affordable farmland. After the move, it took a lot of labor and financial investment to get the farm where they wanted it. Hill said that for the first five years, he worked at the family farm for room and board only. Then, for the next 13 years, he made just $200 a month.

“Young people don’t know what it costs,” he said of farming.

Even after he purchased the farm from his parents, Hill and his own family continued to be at the mercy of the ups and downs of the dairy industry. Those ups and downs — mostly downs, he said — continue. His 20 or so grass-fed cows produce about 500 gallons of rich, creamy milk each week. Their milk is so high in butterfat, Stone Fox Farm Creamery in Monroe uses it to make super premium ice cream, which is sold all over the state.

“It makes a really good ice cream,” Bruce Chamberlain, co-owner of Stone Fox Farm, said recently while filling up several containers with the milk.

Hill also sells the milk at the farm, for $4 per gallon, and in local stores including the Belfast Co-op and Wentworth’s Family Grocery in Brooks. But the majority is sold to a wholesaler for just $13 per hundredweight — a sharp decrease from the $32 per hundredweight he was getting last year. Hundredweight, the standard of volume measure used by the industry, is 100 pounds or a little over 11.5 gallons of fluid milk.

“It’s worse now than it was,” Hill said of dairy farming. “I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. If you don’t love what you do, you don’t want to be doing this. There’s no money in it. Everything is going downhill for the farmer.”

Still, he clearly has affection for his herd of docile Jersey cows and takes pride in what he, his wife, Eileen, and their daughter, Abby, have accomplished at Hilltop Farm. Their daughter is not interested in taking over the farm, so for now the Hills keep on working, milking the cows, haying the fields and hoping that a solution to their problem will be found. A fair price for the 500-acre farm would be no less than $250,000, he said, and he’s talking to the Maine Farmland Trust about the possibility of getting an agricultural conservation easement for his land.

“We’re hoping this will go through, but we don’t know if it will,” he said. “I didn’t work 50 years to see this fill up with houses. We have enough houses as it is. I think the land is beautiful — but I’m prejudiced.”

 


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