The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 1, 2006


Milk regs impact local dairy

Mark Duffy pauses a moment during chores on a day in February 2004. (Photo by Lois d'Annunzio)
Want an excuse to feel virtuous eating ice cream? How about the knowledge that you are supporting local farming?

Mark Duffy, who milks 65 cows at Great Brook Farm and also farms the Cranberry Bog, admits 2006 has been a tough year. Between the torrential spring rains and the August heat wave, high energy prices and low milk prices, it has been a struggle for all Massachusetts farmers. Add to that a dam failure in Chelmsford that flooded the Cranberry Bog, and his year has been particularly challenging.

"On the dairy side," said Duffy, "we're seeing (milk) prices we saw 25 years ago. It's not enough to keep farmers in business." Though he has farmed for 26 years, he said lately the business has become "more and more cyclical." And even on the ups, "better times are never good enough. It's not like we're adding to our IRAs" when conditions improve. "We're paying bills and fixing stuff that needs repair."

The milk price is set by the federal government, based on a formula that reflects conditions country-wide. Farms in the west whose herds average 1,000 head realize scale economies that have driven down their costs, making it difficult for the small Massachusetts farmer to compete. In addition, "labor and energy are big components," said Duffy, and both are more expensive in New England.

Add to the usual difficulties a spring in which rainy weather led to low hay quality, reducing milk production and necessitating expensive grain purchases. Now pile on energy prices that are the highest in history. "It's a disaster," said Duffy. But unlike other industries with rising costs "We have no way to pass on our costs. We're in a commodity business." He noted that diversification into ice cream, compost, and loam has helped him survive. The cranberry harvest will also be coming up, but he added, "You never know what you'll get until you start harvesting."

Carlisle's other licensed dairy farmer is Tricia Smith of Indian Hill Road. Because she manufactures her own goat cheese, she is not in the same situation as a farmer selling milk. Her costs have also risen significantly due to "the huge jump in the price of hay, straw and feed this year," especially as she does not have the land to raise her own. But unlike Duffy, "I can pass on my costs in my prices," and still be competitive with other farmstead cheese manufacturers. Smith said, "Our business is doing very well. We sell all we can produce."

Duffy said most New England states have provided price supports for farmers in this difficult year, but Massachusetts so far has not. "We need some type of safety net." A Boston Globe article (On State's Dairy Farms, Price Pressures are Breeding Trouble" July 23, 2006) noted that two senators, Stephen Brewer of Barre and Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, attempted to get a bill passed but it was too late in the year and the legislature adjourned with no action. Reached by phone last week, David Johnson of Senator Susan Fargo's office said the

Megan Brown prepares to milk one of the Holsteins at Great Brook Farm State Park. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Massachusetts Department of Agriculture is making "an effort to get something done before the new year." However he noted the governor has indicated he will veto any subsidies, so they are looking at "some kind of insurance fund" that would be paid into, during good times and drawn on, in bad. He admitted, "It's hard to see this as a short-term solution" and "it's not likely to be too exciting to farmers." Duffy noted that lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, has shown some interest in the issue.

In response to the article, two letters were printed in the Globe on August 6 indicating a different point-of-view. One said, "The public is supporting these merchants twice: directly and indirectly, and I think both are wrong." Another person wrote, "We don't bail out auto dealers who can't compete . . . . Why are we wringing our hands for a few holdouts whose solution to their problems is a higher milk price for consumers backed by a state subsidy?" Asked to respond, Duffy said, "In my experience, the majority in Massachusetts do not feel that agriculture should disappear. Most want to preserve agriculture, to keep open space, so Massachusetts isn't all parking lots and houses." He adds, "There is support in the legislature to do something."

Duffy suggested writing to our representatives and the lieutenant governor. If we really want to help, buy local agricultural products.

2006 The Carlisle Mosquito