Katie Dotterer-Pyle grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania. Her husband, David Pyle, grew up on his family’s dairy farm in Vermont.
Lifelong dairy farmers, the couple opened their own operation 10 years ago, renting facilities before they purchased their farm in Union Bridge in 2013.
“We had one good year,” Dotterer-Pyle, 33, told the Times. “One good year as farm owners.”
That year was 2013. Milk prices hit record levels at, on average, $25 per 100 pounds of milk, Dotterer-Pyle said. Her dairy in Union Bridge milks about 370 cows twice a day at their Union Bridge operation and ships out about 42,000 pounds every other day, she explained.
It’s been a struggle ever since, with milk prices plummeting, before steadying today at less than half of what they were in 2013.
“Family farms are selling left and right, and I’m talking seventh-, eighth-generation family farms that just can’t hold on anymore,” Dotterer-Pyle said. “And we might be the next one, I just don’t know.”
Carroll County statistics support Dotterer-Pyle’s account.
In the 1950s there were more than 700 dairy farms in the county. Today there are approximately 30, said Dave Brauning, president of the Carroll County Farm Bureau. “The cost of producing 100 pounds of milk exceeds what the dairy farmer is receiving for their product. So many of them can’t afford to stay in business because they’re losing money in producing milk.”
Brauning chaired a Long Term Advisory Council committee established to research the trajectory of the county’s agriculture industry based on its past. The council was formed as a purely advisory body designed to provide forward thinking and context on the 10-, 15- or 20-plus-year timescale to aid the Board of County Commissioners in the decisions they make today on a one- to five-year basis.
The council has 15 core members: eight citizens representing the geography and essential elements of Carroll County, such as planning and zoning, banking and real estate, along with representatives of seven “clusters” of agencies and organizations — agriculture, business, education, technology, recreation and arts, health and public safety. The advisory body presented its findings to the commissioners at Carroll Community College on Nov. 27.
The ag cluster’s findings suggest agriculture will still be prevalent — an important piece of the county’s rural fabric.
There will be more mini and mega farms, with medium-sized operations likely continuing to fizzle out.
Corn, soybean and other small grains will reign supreme, with dairy and beef cattle farms dwindling in Maryland and most of the Eastern Seaboard — the economies of scale periling in comparison to those of the Midwest’s vast landscape.
“To the person driving through Carroll County over the next 20 years, I don’t think that they will particularly notice, other than maybe the lack of dairy cattle that you might see,” said Bryan R. Butler Sr., agriculture agent with the University of Maryland Extension, Carroll County.
But that’s not to say the county’s agriculture industry won’t change.
“You’ll have fewer people involved in the agricultural industry for their livelihoods,” Butler told the Times. “Again, I think there will always be people here in this part of the state, in Carroll County, that will own farms and will have some horses or a few cattle, or do some market garden. But more on a part-time scale. I think there will be fewer people making a living from agriculture.”
Consolidation will likely be prevalent.
“In general it’s becoming harder and harder for the small farm to be viable,” said Colin O’Meara, a 38-year-old grain farmer. “Everything is geared toward the big farms, whether it’s machinery — you look at the price of new machinery and you’ve gotta cover a lot of ground to be able to justify buying this stuff. Everything is really geared toward volume.”
That probably means that as older farmers leave the industry, bigger operations will gobble up the land.
O’Meara said he never began farming with the intention of working thousands of acres, but that might be harder considering current trends. He said he believes there will be a place for farmers that have a niche — be it beef or making hay — to make their businesses profitable with fewer acres.
The agriculture cluster came back with some vague recommendations. Education, technology and infrastructure will be key to farming down the road, the committee found. They’re already crucial to the industry, but time could magnify their importance.
They recommend “that a curriculum be established in the schools, for agriculture education that’s available to all of the students in high school, such as the vocational occupations that are presented in the [vocational] tech center,” Brauning explained.
Education should reach beyond the youth interested in agriculture because the broader public needs to know about their food, the committee determined. “We want every member of the public to have a general knowledge of where their food comes from, how it’s processed, where it’s grown and how wholesome it is,” Brauning said.
Gary Dell, a 49-year-old, fourth-generation Carroll farmer, said he thinks the education factor is important to dispel misnomers surrounding agriculture.
“We, as the agriculture business, have got to educate the consumer to the real facts of what we do,” Dell said. “And not allow them to be influenced by untrue statements about what we do. That probably hurts us as bad as anything.”
Dotterer-Pyle regularly speaks to groups about dairy farming. She also employs her company, Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, social media to inform her audience about what goes on at their Union Bridge farm.
“I really think if people knew the actual truth about, not only the nutrition of dairy, but also what goes on behind the scenes on a farm,” she said. “Why do we do the certain things that we do.”
Of course, education represents only part of the framework for the agriculture industry. Technology and infrastructure go hand in hand.
Manufacturers are making farm equipment bigger, more complex and more computerized, like cars.
Combines now feature yield monitors that “tell you what your yield is, what your moisture is, how many acres,” O’Meara explained. “And then it has a card you can take out and print out your yield maps and it tells you each field, each farm … once you’re all done, you sit down and use that data to decide what you want to do next year.”
“There’s the GPS … [that] guide us through the fields and tell us how much seed we’re putting down, track our movements,” Dell said. “[They] can guide the tractor through the field as we’re planting in a far more precise way than you can when you’ve spent eight or nine hours in the tractor behind a steering wheel staring at a marked line in the field.”
With increasingly computerized machinery comes the need to access the internet — infrastructure.
“The first thing you do when something breaks is plug it into the computer,” Butler said. Like a car, a combine can be connected to a diagnostic tool, which will pick up an error code and advise what part of the giant machine needs repair or replacing.
The internet is available at many farms in Carroll, but there remain pockets where options are limited and connection is dodgy. That’s why the agriculture cluster highlighted the web as an infrastructure priority.
Internet allows for further education, like webinars on new farm technology. “You can go onto any of these companies and they have the help right there to guide you through any questions,” Dell said.
On the dairy side there are Fitbit equivalents for cattle.
“We’re able to know that a cow is sick before she gets really really sick,” Dotterer-Pyle said. “Maybe [get] the vet to come out and look at her before she takes a turn for the worse.”
Dell said Carroll farms’ internet accessibility is a strength. It could be a key in keeping them competitive.
None of the recommendations — technology, education and infrastructure — may be enough to reverse or slow trends in the dairy industry.
The dairy industry and the broader agriculture industry in Carroll face similar challenges when it comes to their economies of scale. Businesses like Dell’s that do dairy and grain are slowly abandoning dairy.
“I think it’s already in the process of shifting more and more every year towards the grain,” Dell said. “My wife loves cows, enjoys what she does every day. As long as you can make a profit, that’s OK. But when you can’t make a profit annually from that business, it’s probably not going to survive.”
Maryland just doesn’t have the acreage.
“It’s the economy of scale. Once someone has figured out how to milk 1,000 cows on one farm, the next [farmer] figures out how to milk 2,000, the next five, then 10 and that’s what we’re seeing now,” Dell said. “It’s no different with grain farming. What supported five people 20 years ago is not gonna support five people now.
“And that’s the continuation of the way it’ll be in the future.”