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Associated Press

HATFIELD, Mass. — Darryl Williams’ migraines aren’t bothering him today, but he has other headaches — like a $10,000 bill for corn seed just delivered by the mailman.

It’s another day in the life of a dairy farmer.

The bill will eat more than half of the $19,000 he’s expecting from an emergency state payout to dairy farmers, who suffered some $18 million in losses last year. His share of that loss was $50,000.

"It will take us two years to dig out of last year’s hole," said Williams, 47. "And once we get out, there will be another hole."

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The Northeast dairy industry has been declining for the past quarter century. Massachusetts had 829 dairy farms in 1980 compared to 179 today.

But 2006 was the worst year yet for farmers like Williams, who say the rising costs of fuel, feed and fertilizer have far outpaced milk prices.

The average price paid to farmers for a gallon of milk last year was $1.16, while the cost to produce it in Massachusetts was about $1.60. Although prices are climbing in grocery stores, farmers say the money isn’t coming back to them because shelf prices are set by retailers.

"Last year was a perfect storm for dairy farmers," Williams said. "The government’s milk prices crashed, every expense we had went up, and it just killed us. It killed everybody."

Things weren’t always so bleak on what’s now called the Luther Belden Farm. The land has been in Darryl Williams’ family since 1661, operating mostly as a vegetable and livestock farm until his grandfather, Luther Belden, grew it into a large-scale sheep farm in the 1950s.

Luther’s daughter, Mary, met Gordon Williams at a square dance and the two were married in 1959. After studying dairy farming at California Polytechnic State University in the early 1960s, Gordon was looking for land to start his own farm. Mary’s father passed his land on to him, and Gordon began milking 42 cows in 1964. He phased out the sheep and some tobacco crops, and eventually expanded.

"You used to be able to make a decent living on a dairy," Gordon Williams said. He’s 81 now, and Mary is 74, but they still help by tending to cows and planting the corn that feeds them.

"You’d always have a good year, then a not-so-good year, but now we’re so far behind it’s looking hard to catch up," Gordon said.

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Of Gordon and Mary’s four children, only Darryl wanted to continue the family business. But he didn’t commit to it until he realized his heart wasn’t in a teaching career.

"I just wanted to be on the farm," he said.

Williams now has about 200 cows.

He sells to Agri-Mark, a cooperative of Northeast dairy farmers that processes and markets the milk. Profits are divvied up among the farmers, but the money is hardly enough to make up for the minimum prices.

"Those national prices are far below what it costs to produce milk in the Northeast," Agri-Mark spokesman Doug DiMento said.

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