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Down on the Farm

By Ben Rayner, Sound Senior Staff Writer:

Article from zip06.theday.com

NORTH BRANFORD - Not long ago the Connecticut shoreline was still peppered with cows, farms, and the healthy vestige of a once-all encompassing dairy industry, but the small family dairy farm is now almost non-existent. The last two dairy farms in New Haven County are in North Branford and, despite recent passage by the legislature and a signature by Gov. M. Jodi Rell of a grant program designed to keep farmers afloat, the aid won’t be forthcoming anytime soon and may arrive too late to save many Connecticut dairy farmers.

Under government mandated wholesale milk prices, Connecticut dairy farmers are losing nearly $1 for every gallon of milk that they sell, according to statistics supplied by both federal and state sources. Government records estimate the state has lost 15 dairy farms in the last year alone and those still in business struggle to pay their costs while they continue losing money on milk sales.

Connecticut has somewhere between 135-151 dairy farms (with dairy farms closing at an ever-increasing rate, an exact count is difficult). According to a recent study by the University of Connecticut, the dairy industry contributes nearly $1.1 billion to the state’s economy and employs more than 4,000 people. State records show as recently as 1990, there were 500 working dairy farms and as many as 210 in 2007.

Bob and Stephanie Page, owners of Maple Tree Farm in North Branford, are fourth generation farmers, but admit the end of Connecticut dairy farming seems to be near. Bob said he has witnessed tough times for farms in the past, but the current situation is the worst in memory on his 126 acre, 65-head farm.

“Both us and the other farms are really teetering on the edge. This was coming for a long time, but the current situation has definitely made it more difficult,” said Bob Page. “These are the lowest milk prices I have seen since I started 40 years ago. Grain, labor, utilities… Energy is our single biggest cost just like everyone else. We just don’t know what to do; we are in a stupor right now. We don’t know how to do anything else. This is what we do. We’re afraid to quit, we don’t know how else to support ourselves.”

According to Page and others in the dairy industry,  the complicated, complex, and sometimes random nature of milk prices, which are tied to price indexes that seemingly have no bearing on this state’s milk prices, compound the a tough market for their product. Currently dairy farmers such as the Pages get $1.10 a gallon for milk that costs them $1.90 to produce. Even with subsidies and grants it’s easy to see the business is not sustainable.

Several weeks ago the General Assembly approved a grant program for dairy farms struggling to cover their production costs and Rell signed the bill last week. According to state documents, the grant program will be created by a $10 increase in the current $30 filing fee for local land records.

The projected revenue will create a $20 million fund, $10 million this year and $10 million in 2010-11, giving 40 percent of that money to the state Department of Agriculture for emergency grants to dairy farms.

“This issue is about saving an important part of Connecticut’s economy and cultural heritage,” Rell said in a press release. “We have lost far too many dairy farms in recent years to high production costs and development pressure.”

The federal government controls the price of milk, but uses data such the cost of cheese in Chicago as determining factors in setting the value. Page said those comparisons and ties to other mid-west indexes have little to do with the price of milk in New England.

Dairy farmers across the state including the Pages are thankful for the recent legislation, but worry that until the budget passes no relief will materialize and that even with the grant program no amount of help can change the current trend. The Pages stated their ability to get Hartford to listen to concerns is hampered by the incredible hours they have to work and the fact that farmers just don’t seem to add up to a significant enough constituency for politicians to support.

“It’s hard it sounds like gloom and doom and I don’t want it to. But times are tough,” Bob Page said. “Farmers are only one percent of America, but make the food for the other 99 percent. We just don’t have a heck of a lot of clout. I have to thank the farmers in this state who did the work hard to pass this bill. I am optimistic about this bill, but in the end we just don’t have the votes to make politicians notice us. If it wasn’t for a few people who took this Hartford, it never would’ve happened.”

The Pages have tried to diversify into hay, straw, vegetables, topsoil, and cow manure, but even with a new business plan, the cost of running the farm is becoming more prohibitive.

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