By KENNETH R. FLETCHER, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - About a third of Maryland's dairy farms have shut down in the last 10 years, the latest in a decades-long free fall that experts believe will continue at the same pace.
Licensed dairy farms in Maryland have gone from 6,700 in 1965 to just 587 in 2007, according to data provided by the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Maryland's decline mirrors a national trend, as technological advances promote larger and fewer farms and demand for milk stays flat. But while milk production has increased nationally, the amount of milk produced in Maryland has fallen.
Michael Iager, who owns Bulldog Holsteins in Frederick, said his 80 milk-cow farm broke even only one year out of the seven that it has been in business.
"We live month to month just like the rest of them out there do," Iager said. "We're not getting rich out of it."
Experts say it's hard to pinpoint a single cause of the decline of the state's $200 million dairy industry.
"There are lots of factors," said Dale Johnson, a farm management specialist with the University of Maryland. "It's kind of like a perfect storm of problems."
The average age of dairy farmers is increasing by the year, leading many to retire, and the younger generation "is saying it is too much work for the money we are getting out of it," Johnson said. And as with all farming, labor is hard to come by.
High land prices in the state have limited expansion, leading some farmers to sell and move to states with cheaper land. The 200,000 acres of open space taken up by Maryland dairy farms could be taken over by development if the farms go out of business, Johnson said.
"That's an incredible benefit to Maryland and we would hate to lose that," he said.
Improvements in milk-producing efficiency and almost no growth in milk demand add up to fewer dairy farmers, said Howard Leathers, an agricultural economics professor with the University of Maryland.
Selective breeding and better feeding have resulted in cows that generate more milk than ever. Machines that milk around the clock have increased production as well.
Better technology has increased the number of cows that a farmer can maintain, but also increased expenses.
The bottom line is fewer cows and farms are needed to keep milk production even, Leathers said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Americans are drinking less milk per person than ever, meaning milk demand is not expected to grow significantly.
Between 1995 and 2006 dairy farms declined 26 percent in Maryland and 39 percent nationwide. In the same period, milk production grew 16 percent nationally but fell 18 percent in Maryland, according to USDA data.
"I'm a real advocate for dairy farms, but I'm pessimistic for the future," Johnson said.
Maryland dairy farmers like Marian Fry of Fair Hill Farm in Easton say that fluctuating milk prices and high land values in Maryland make dairy farming uncertain.
"It ends up driving farmers out of business," Fry said.