HERMON, Maine — Siberia Farms, the small local dairy that charmed customers with high-quality products and home deliveries of milk and more, abruptly closed at the beginning of September.
Sierra Perry, a 22-year-old University of Maine animal science and resource and agribusiness management major who bought the farm last year, said she needed to close largely because of the high cost of business and the current low price of milk.
“It’s tough. We do love our customers, but we just couldn’t make it work,” Perry of Etna said Wednesday. “It’s really sad. We didn’t want to do it, but we had to.”
Perry purchased Siberia Farms last year from founding owners Suzanne and Ed Moreshead. She had begun working at the dairy in January 2015 and loved working with the 25 or so Jersey cows that gave rich milk, which was turned into yogurt, flavored and plain milk and more, at the Hermon farm.
When the Moresheads told their employees in September 2015 that they were going to shut down the farm, Perry jumped into action, according to an article published on the Maine Dairy Promotion Board’s website.
“The farm had a quality product, a solid customer base and loyal employees, and Sierra didn’t want to see that wasted,” the article said. “Within three days, she was the new owner of Siberia Farms.”
Perry got a farm loan through the USDA’s Farm Services Agency and took some time off school while she settled into her new business. But there was a lot she still had to learn about the unusual business model, which included making home deliveries to customers around a sprawling portion of eastern Maine.
“Home delivery is more expensive than you might think,” Perry said recently.
She also had five employees who helped make the dairy products, do deliveries and more. Making value-added products from the milk produced by the herd of Jersey cows allowed Perry to get more money for it than the wholesale price of just $10 per hundredweight of milk, but it cost a lot in terms of labor and equipment.
“Five employees is a lot to have on a farm like this,” she said. “We just got too big.”
Perry said she tried to cut down on the delivery route and to increase beef and dairy prices.
“We tried many ideas,” she said. “None worked enough to save it, though.”
Hundredweight, the standard of volume measure used by the industry, is 100 pounds or a little over 11.5 gallons of fluid milk. At the current wholesale price, a dairy farmer will make just 86 cents for a gallon of milk that sells for about $4 at the store.
It’s a sharp decrease from just two years ago, Perry said, when milk was priced at $24 per hundredweight. At that time, more farmers bought dairy cows, and the end result now is that there is more milk than the market can bear, according to the young dairy farmer.
“It’s frustrating. Farms are barely able to process anything, the milk prices are so low,” Perry said. “There’s so much milk. We’re flooding the market with milk.”
Tim Drake of the Maine Milk Commission, which oversees the milk industry in the state, said he believes the current down period in the milk market has more to do with a national reduction in the amount of milk that gets exported.
“It’s down by at least 3 percent nationwide, and 3 percent of the annual milk production in the United States is a lot of milk,” Drake said. “What’s keeping it from being much worse is that domestic demand is quite high.”
He cited recent news articles debunking the old belief that full-fat dairy products are unhealthy. A new study published this spring in the journal Circulation found that dairy fat may actually protect against Type 2 diabetes.
“Dairy fat is different. It’s actually good for you,” Drake said. “It’s causing butter sales to increase and demand for whole milk, also.”
But in Hermon, the small dairy farm with a complicated business model had simply run out of time and could not wait for the market to rebound.
Perry said her customers are loyal and love the Siberia Farms products, but when many of them suspended delivery this summer while they were on vacation or traveling, it had a direct effect.
“This summer killed us,” she said. “Everyone went on vacation, and we lost 70 to 80 percent of sales. They’re starting to come back, but it’s too late.”
Although sales precipitously dropped, the money owed on the farm did not.
“I have a loan to fulfill, and that’s why we stopped when we did,” she said.
Loss to the community
The response to the decision to close the dairy was immediate and sad, at least according to the posts that flooded Siberia Farms’ Facebook page.
“I cannot express how sad this news makes me. We have enjoyed not only your excellent products but you all personally,” one customer wrote.
Another said he had been getting weekly orders for years.
“So sad. I just don’t know what we are going to do,” he wrote.
Jami Badershall, the communications manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board, said it is heartbreaking anytime a dairy farm goes out of business.
“Much of Maine’s landscape has been shaped by dairy farms, and it’s sad to lose such an iconic part of our state,” she said. “Plus, people are losing a large piece of their community when a dairy farm disappears. Siberia Farms had a wide reach within its community and brought a lot of people closer to farming, which is a connection people are looking for these days.”
But Perry said she has no choice but to dismantle the dairy. The immediate step she needs to take is to sell off the majority of her herd of Jersey cows. She can only take 10 or so cows with her to Garland, where she will work at a conventional dairy farm, and needs to sell the rest soon. Once the cows have gone, then Perry will be able to sell off the equipment. She did not purchase the land, which is still owned by the Moresheads.
Efforts this week to speak with the couple were not immediately successful.
Although Perry is fielding a lot of phone calls about the cows, so far she has been offered prices that are too low. Recently someone offered her $400 per cow, which she hopes may be worth as much as $1,500.
“You love them all,” she said of the cows. “People are concerned about them. They definitely want to know. I love my cows — they’ll be treated well until they leave … and no one’s going to want hamburger out of the Jerseys.”