by Terry Hussey
In 1960 there were 18 dairy farms in Washington County; today there are just two. In 1980 there were over 7000 dairy cows in the County; in 1987, there were just 254, and today there are just about 150. Once there were 17 dairies that bottled in Washington County, and still more that handled milk but didn't bottle. Today there are just four in the whole state. These were some of the startling changes that Donna Smith of Cherryfield told members and guests of the Milbridge Historical Society at their February 11 meeting at the museum.
Smith and her family farm on what is called Twin Brook Farm in Cherryfield. It has about 365 acres and has been a working farm for about 100 years. Byron Preston was the first farmer to use this land. The Smiths have about 80 milking Holsteins and about 30 young stock. Milking the herd takes almost two hours each time, and it's done at least twice each day. "A cow can produce 100-140 pounds of milk after she calves. After that, the quantity and quality dwindles to nothing until after she calves again," said Smith.
Donna told of the time her husband purchased a herd of cows from a farm in Bangor. "The farm was on outer Hammond Street in Bangor, near the old Marden's. They were city cows. When we got them to the farm, we couldn't get them to go outside. They probably had never been outside. We'd push them out the door, and turn around and they'd be back in the barn. They would walk through barbed wire to get back into the barn."
Donna said her husband Wayne began farming as a youngster when his grandfather bought him his first heifer. Later, as a young boy, he had his own herd of six cows whom he milked, selling the milk to Schoppe's Dairy in Machias. "I met him when I visited my grandparents at the farm next door," said Smith.
Smith said that the biggest change in dairy farming, the thing that drove many farmers out of business, happened about 30 years ago, when state regulations said that farmers couldn't pour their milk into cans. It all had to go into stainless steel tanks. "Farmers used to put their milk in cans, throw the cans in the back of the truck, and take them in to the dairy. They would take turns with their neighbors to do the trucking. All of a sudden they couldn't do that anymore. Everything they had to do cost a lot more after that."
Smith said that when Schoppe's Dairy sold out to Grants, the Smiths were faced with getting their milk 60 miles to Bangor every other day. Grants would pick up at all the farms for a fixed price, dividing the cost equally by the number of farms that participated. "When there were 18 farms, that wasn't too bad, but when they got down to just two farms, the price was prohibitive," she said.
The next arrangement they were able make was to ship the milk to Bangor where it was pumped off to a bigger tank and taken to Waterville. Here it was pumped off again and taken to Boston by truck for West Lynn Creamery. "In just a very short time, the trucking cost more than doubled," said Smith,
Another big problem for farmers today, continued, Smith, is getting and keeping good help. "So many other low paying jobs are more attractive. Cows have to be milked two or three times a day, and they don't take weekends or holidays off," she said. "Machinery is expensive. Last year, when the mower broke down it cost $4,000. But that's less than the $18,000-$20,000 a new one would cost."
"A smaller farmer has to be able to everything," she said. "Farmer, vet, herdsman, businessman, manager, accountant, and mechanic." The Smith family divides the chores, each having a special area of expertise. "But all my kids have a college education," she said. "just in case."
Farming today is lot more sanitary and a lot less work," said Smith. Milking machines move the milk through a stainless steel pipe, right into the tank, instead of all the extra steps and containers it used to pass through. Utters are dipped in disinfectant before each milking. The chances for infection are reduced significantly.
Even making hay is far easier than it used to be. "We used to cut the hay, rake it, turn it, and rake it again. If it rained, we had to start the drying process all over again. Then is was baled, stacked in the truck, and carried up to the barn. Now we just cut it and bale it in big rounds we call marshmallows, and cover it with plastic wrap. When we need it, we just unravel it like carpet."
"If anyone asks me about going into farming, the first thing I'd tell them is to have their head examined," said Smith. "Then I'd tell them to get a good education, so they have something to fall back on, if it doesn't work out. Get a good background in business, because you're going to need it as a farmer. If you don't run your farm like a business, it isn't going to last long."
"Find a good location. It helps to be near markets and other farmers. If something breaks, you can go borrow one from another farm. If you're all alone, you can't do that."
"Farming isn't an occupation, it's a way of life," said Smith. "It isn't what you do, it's who are you."