ORRINGTON, Maine — When James Howard Sr. started milking cows on his family’s farm on Center Drive in the 1940s, he did it by hand, and he was not alone.
There were several dairy farms in town at the time.
Helping Howard in the barn, when they grew old enough, were his young sons Alan and James Jr., who is called “Jimmie.”
The Howard brothers, now in their 70s, continue to walk in their father’s shoes and work the dairy farm that has supported their family for decades. But they are concerned as they grow older and survey the dairy landscape.
Tween-Hills Farm, a 400-head registered Holstein dairy, is now the last milk-producing commercial enterprise in this Penobscot County town of 3,600 residents. Changes in the industry and the younger generations’ lack of interest in running the farm have left the Howards pondering an uncertain future.
When the brothers were young, “We hand-milked, but when electricity came in we got a milker,” Jimmie Howard recalled recently, standing inside one of the farm’s cow barns. One barn holds the 200 or so adult milking cows, one holds calves and another houses the middle-aged bovines that are too young to breed.
The 200 or so adult black-and-white and sometimes brown Holsteins are milked twice a day and each produces about 65 to 70 pounds of milk daily, which is picked up every other day by drivers for the co-op Agri-Mark, parent company for Cabot Cheese, Howard said.
It takes 100 pounds of milk to equal 11.6 gallons, and Tween-Hill Farm collects about 24,000 pounds, or about 2,800 gallons, of raw milk every two days, according to Howard.
“The milk goes to a co-op and they sell to the bottling plants in Portland and Massachusetts,” he said. “[Nowadays,] it’s sold mostly to Hood.”
Over the past 70 years, the farm has sold milk to other co-ops, local processors and other dairies, but has always returned to the Agri-Mark co-op because it has a large market and guarantees the milk will be purchased.
“We’ve always got a place for the milk to go and we always got a milk check,” Howard said.
The trucks and highway systems of today make it efficient to ship the milk to southern Maine or out of state.
“The milk that was picked up today could be bottled and back up here tomorrow,” he said. “It’s a big change from years ago.”
There have been a lot of big changes in dairy farming over the past seven decades besides electronic milkers, many that have led to the demise of the industry for small farmers, the lifelong dairy farmer said.
“It’s just totally different,” Howard said. “The mechanical stuff you’re dealing with [is one example]. The first new tractor on the farm cost $15,000. Today a comparable tractor costs $150,000.
“That’s part of the problem of getting into this business,” he said. “Equipment is getting expensive. It takes a lot of cows to make a profit.”
Another obstacle for people interested in getting into dairy farming is having enough “tillable land” to grow feed, Howard said. The Howard brothers have 500 tillable acres, but some of the land is on the other side of town, some 12 miles round-trip, which adds transportation to the cost of operating the farm.
Other big changes in the dairy industry the Howards have dealt with include the amount of paperwork and continuing education needed to keep up with all the rules and regulations.
“It’s hard work but it’s not the hard work like you think of as hard work — throwing bales and pitching hay,” Howard said. “No. It’s more hard work of the mind. The business and government regulations they have today, we wouldn’t have thought of before.”
One of the rules requires the Howards to keep an eye on all who walk through their barn for biosecurity reasons, especially if the person goes from farm to farm, potentially spreading disease.
What has not changed over the years is the partnership the farm has with local people who grow and supply the grain, deliver it, pick up the milk and doctor the animals.
“I don’t think people realize how many people are employed in the dairy industry,” Howard said.
While family farms like the Howards’ are disappearing from Maine’s landscape, small organic farms, with “some sort of niche type of thing,” seem to be the way of the future for small dairy farms just starting in the state, said Jimmie Howard, a member of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.
“Back in the ’80s, 50 or 60 cows was enough to make money,” Agri-Mark spokesman Doug DiMento said recently. “Now, it’s a whole different story. We’re seeing a lot of farmers go out of business.”
Agri-Mark is made up of more than 1,250 family-owned dairy farms in New England and New York, which average 100 milk-producing cows, he said. The cooperative is headquartered in Methuen, Mass., and has been marketing milk for dairy farmers since 1913, its website says.
Each spring, small-business owners make a decision about whether to continue dairy farming, DiMento said.
“Thousands of farmers are wrestling with that decision right now,” he said. “This time of year, in the spring, is when most farmers make that decision … to pay for the feed and to plant the crops.
“In Maine, people are a little bit better off because there is better pricing, but it’s still not enough,” DiMento said.
The Howard farm was a family affair in the brothers’ youth, with a sister, their parents, aunts and uncles, 17 cousins and two sets of grandparents living within half a mile on the one-time dirt road, Jimmie Howard said.
“They’ve all dispersed over time,” the septuagenarian said as his son James “Rusty” Howard III of Winterport assisted with the afternoon milking.
Alan and Jimmie’s mother, lifelong resident Carolyn Delle Quimby Howard — the town’s Boston Post Cane holder — was born in 1918 and has always lived within a half-mile of the farm she still calls home. She raised her children and worked on the farm for decades, and still has pet chickens and ducks that have the run of the land.
Jimmie Howard, who keeps himself busy by tackling the never-ending list of farm jobs that aren’t assigned to anyone, said he’s not sure what will eventually happen to the farm when he and his brother retire.
Rusty Howard said the industry has been “good, and it’s lasted,” but it’s not the life for him. He’s working construction and helps out on the farm only in the winter when construction in Maine is slow.
Over the years, there have been times — such as during middle-of-the-night milkings — when Jimmie Howard says he wished he was somewhere else.
But he has few regrets about being a dairy farmer.
“I can’t think of anything I’d rather have done, let’s put it that way,” he said.