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Mass. dairy farmers dwindle in price drop

(Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press: LEYDEN, Mass. -- Everyone told Warren Facey he was making a horrible mistake when he bought the Bree-Z-Knoll Farm 30 years ago. Milk prices had plummeted, and just thinking about taking on the burdens of a dairy farm was ridiculous, Facey's friends told him.

``Everybody thought I was nuts,'' Facey said.

Now, his 26-year-old son suspects people think the same about him.

With milk prices paid to farmers among their lowest in 20 years, Randy Facey is taking over his father's 70 milking cows, aging equipment and nagging debt.

``When you hit the end of the month and find yourself 10 percent short of what you need for bills, those are depressing days,'' Randy Facey said. ``There are improvements you need to do, and you need to get another loan. But on beautiful summer days, you get this really nice feeling. You're in charge of what's going on. You're in charge of your destiny.''

Most other young men and women who grew up on small dairy farms are turning their backs on the family business and choosing their destinies elsewhere, leaving behind a lifestyle of hard work that hardly pays.

When Warren Facey bought the 270-acre Bree-Z-Knoll Farm, there were more than 1,200 dairy farms in Massachusetts. Today, there are 249.

People who grew up around here remember dairy farms on just about every country road snaking through this northern stretch of Franklin County. Most of those farms are gone -- returned to open pastures or reshaped into housing developments.

At 60 years old, Warren Facey is proud to have stayed in business this long. But now he wants to sleep a little later than 4 a.m. and think less about making ends meet at the end of a 90-hour work week. His son has the energy to take on the farm's future, something Randy's brother and sister didn't want to commit to.

Warren Facey is lucky to have his business extend into another generation. The number of small, family-run dairy farms with 100 cows or less are shrinking nationwide.

``There's a national movement toward much larger operations, especially in the Western states,'' said Keith Collins, an economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ``It used to be that a dairy farm with 400 to 500 cows was typical. Now, we're seeing operations with 4,000 to 5,000.''

But consumer demand has not kept up with the increased supply, and that has meant lower milk prices paid to farmers.

To stave off losses on Northeastern dairy farms, Congress five years ago created a compact that guaranteed the region's farmers a minimum price for their milk to protect them when prices dropped. The price was about $17 per 100 pounds of milk, or just under 12 gallons.

But farmers in the Midwest and West said the Northeast Dairy Compact was unfair, and Wisconsin lawmakers blocked an extension.

Since the compact expired last year, milk prices have dipped as low as $11 per 100 pounds. Prices now hover around $13, putting farmers in instant debt since it costs about $16 to produce 100 pounds of milk.

``We wake up, have breakfast and go lose money everyday,'' said Kevin Clark, 36, who runs a dairy farm in Hawley with his father, Darwin Clark.

Unlike Randy Facey, Kevin Clark says he won't take over the family farm when his father retires. As a carpenter, he says he can make about $1,100 in six days installing a bathroom in someone's house. In the same amount of time, he says he makes only $350 from the farm, not even enough to cover the cost of grain.

``I have to use my Social Security check to help buy grain for my cows,'' Darwin Clark said. ``I don't know how much longer I can hang on.''

``I can guarantee you within five years, there won't be a milk truck coming in this area ever again,'' Kevin Clark said. ``Every week, you hear about people selling their cows. They can't take it.''

State officials say most young dairy farmers share Clark's attitude.

``There's a generation shift happening on many farms, and most of the next generation are getting jobs elsewhere,'' said Douglas Gillespie, commissioner of the state's Department of Food and Agriculture. ``It's great that the ones who are staying have the enthusiasm. I just hope they've taken a good look at their business plans.''

At the Bree-Z-Knoll Farm, milk production is supplemented by making and selling about 400 gallons of maple syrup each year and by Randy Facey's side business selling farm machinery and feed.

``If I situate myself to ride the roller coaster, I think I'll do pretty well,'' he said. ``I see myself being here for the long haul.''

See the story at http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Dairy-Decline.html

On the Net: http://www.state.ma.us/dfa