April 18, 2012

Listening for Maine's final moo

George Smith

When Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb started dairy farming, Maine had 2,200 dairy farms.

In 1991, I wrote my first column in this space lamenting the loss of Maine's dairy farms; 600 farmers were still in the dairy business at that time.

In 2002, I wrote a sorrowful plea to save the 412 dairy farms still clinging tenuously to their way of life, urging readers to buy Maine milk and let the governor and Legislature know that dairy farms were important to them.

A few weeks ago, listening to legislators on the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee struggle with complex bills designed to help dairy farmers, I leaned forward and asked former Sen. and dairyman John Nutting how many dairy farmers we still have. His answer: 305.

When the final moo comes from the state's last cow, will anyone hear it?

Of course, nothing is this simple. Maine's remaining dairy farmers are producing just as much milk as they did when young Walt Whitcomb started milking cows. Each farm is bigger, with a lot more cows.

Maine also has led the nation with its program that helps stabilize the price that dairy farmers get for their milk, but it wasn't enough to save our small rural dairy farms and farmers. And their loss has had a devastating impact on communities, wildlife habitat and open space.

At one time, 75 percent of the 25,000 acres in my town of Mount Vernon was cleared land. Today, we're down to 700 cleared acres -- much of which is maintained by our last dairy farmer, Dick Hall.

Dick's mother Mildred once told me, "You have to be stupid to be a farmer," and Dick added, "or crazy."

I thought their comments were amusing at the time. Now they are coming true.

And the loss of dairy farms signals more than the loss of our rural landscape. It's the end of that marvelous rural attitude of independence and neighborliness, the place where doors are left unlocked, where a cash box sits by the roadside inviting the purchase of corn and other vegetables.

It's the loss of a visual landscape of farm fields, stone walls, cows grazing on a hillside, a red-roofed barn dwarfing a white farmhouse. Also lost is a lot of critical wildlife habitat -- for critters who depend on the edges of forests and fields.

I've never wanted to work as hard as farmers, but I sure am glad they are my neighbors. I'll always remember the morning Linda and I rushed from the house at 4 a.m. on the way to the hospital for Joshua's birth -- and flew by Ray Hall on North Road in his truck heavily loaded with hay on its way to some southern Maine farm.

Members of the Legislature's Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee certainly understand all of this -- but most committee members struggled in their recent work session to understand changes proposed for the dairy stabilization fund. Perhaps it's improved, but in one column I reported that 500 people administer the federal milk pricing program.

And as one committee member posed a series of questions about milk pricing, I remembered this long-ago statement from a Dairy Queen executive: "Milk is sort of like the international gold system. Only a handful of people claim to understand it, and most of them are lying."

In addition to the stabilization fund, the committee wrestled with the details of a new Dairy Improvement Fund. Bless their hearts for trying.

Two things jumped out at me. Seven committee members had bottles of soda in front of them. Soda! The enemy of milk!

And the Dairy Improvement Fund would get its money from slot machine income. Lots of Mainers will lose money playing the slots, so we can try to save Maine's last dairy farms. Sad.

When our kids were small, we never missed the annual spring "cows coming out" experience at Hall's dairy farm. Word would spread throughout the community, and so many people turned out that they eventually had to install bleachers.

We'd all be there, beside the barn, when Dick slid open the green door in the early morning dew and the cows emerged for the first time after a winter cooped up in the barn.

The cows danced, kicked, ran, mooed and butted heads. It was an unforgettable sight, our spring ritual, the thing that passes for entertainment in our small rural town.

That ritual is worth saving -- even if it takes slot machines, I guess. Got milk?

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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