Hardship is a way of life for dairy farmers in Maine. Up at the crack of dawn and working all day, they toil in the barns and the fields, hoping to make a small profit.
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Twin Brook Farm owner Adam Trundy, right, and farmhand Jonathan Stevens, left, watch Zack Crosby block the exit for a cow refusing to be corralled into a trailer to be hauled off by a broker Monday afternoon in Minot. Normally, the Telstar Regional High School student would be in school but he helps out at the farm where his mother works. Angie Smith, back middle, watches her son learn about hard work and gain valuable life lessons that cannot be learned at school. (Sun Journal)

“Dairy farms are used to struggling. They’re used to challenges,” Jami Badershall said.

Badershall is the communications manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board and the Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council, which promotes and provides education on the products produced by Maine’s 210 dairy farms.

Making the struggles and challenges even more arduous is the COVID-19 pandemic. Two major markets for many of the dairy products farmers rely on have largely dried up — schools and restaurants have either closed or reduced by a large number the amount of milk, cheese and butter that they purchase.

Hotels and food-service businesses have also closed due to the pandemic, creating a surplus of supplies.

“Who knows what next week will bring,” Henry Hardy of Hardy Farm in Farmington said. “It’s scary.”

Sandy River Farm, a small independent dairy farm with 35 cows in Farmington, has more milk than it knows what to do with, following the temporary closing of some of the small stores that sell its products.

“We’re dumping about 250 gallons each week,” said Erik Johnson, the farm’s manager.

While dumping appears to be more of a problem at the larger dairy farms across the country, few Maine farms have resorted to dumping, Badershall said. The only other one she is aware of is a farm in Charleston, nearly 30 miles north of Bangor.

Johnson said Sandy River Farm is multigenerational farm in operation since 1956 and has added a few new markets to ease some of the sting. He is also sending some of his excess milk to food pantries.

“We have a lot of local support that will help us get through this,” Johnson said.

At the other end of the spectrum is Brigeen Farm in Turner. In the same family for 10 generations since 1777, Brigeen milks its 500 cows three times a day.

So far, its buyer, Oakhurst, has not asked the farm to cut back on production , which could happen if prices stay down and markets stay closed due to coronavirus, said Betsy Bullard, one of the operators and spokesperson for the farm.

“Projections are that milk prices will be down by one-third,” Bullard said. “There are some federal programs set up to help farmers. But in the meantime, extreme belt-tightening.”

“It’s a struggle for all of us,” she added.

Adam Trundy’s 185-cow operation at Twin Brook Farm in Minot is also operating within a tight margin. His dairy farm benefits by selling its products to HP Hood, headquartered in Lynnfield, Massachusetts, and Cabot Cheese, headquartered in Vermont. If, over the next couple of months, he is asked to cut back on production, Trundy said he expects the drop-off to be small.

“Most everyone I’ve heard from seems pretty optimistic about things,” Trundy said. “I haven’t heard of anyone closing or shutting down.”

Hardy, who has 50 cows at his organic dairy farm in Farmington, says the market has changed, but he remains optimistic. Much of his milk gets shipped to New Hampshire to be made into Stonyfield Organic Yogurt and their other products.

“We’re doing just fine,”Hardy said. “They feel they are more diverse in their products.”

That view compares favorably with what Badershall is hearing. While wholesale milk prices are down, there are signs that some dairy sales have actually risen during the quarantine as consumers are buying more ice cream, butter and cheese, she said.

“This hasn’t been easy for anyone,” Badershall said. “We came off a year with low milk prices. This was supposed to have been a strong year.

“It’s hard to know how long this is going to last,” she added.

With the future uncertain, Maine must show its support.

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