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Harford County dairy farmers ‘hanging tough’ amid pandemic, price fluctuations

The American dairy industry has been battered for years by decline amid shifts in pricing, supply and the demand for milk and milk-based products, with the most recent gut punch coming from the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout.

Harford County’s dairy industry, which in prior generations was the largest local industry, has not been spared from the long-term national trends, with a precipitous decline in the number of farms over decades.

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But one farmer says he and his colleagues are “hanging tough” through the pandemic and other industry challenges.

“There’s still a demand — and a strong demand” for milk, Chris Dixon, 36, of Quietness Farm in White Hall, said Wednesday.

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The U.S. dairy industry was hurt earlier this year when much of the market for their product, such as schools and restaurants, had to close as many states — including Maryland — worked to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes the COVID-19 respiratory disease.

But more people are buying milk from supermarkets throughout the nation. Sales across the U.S. have increased by more than 7% since March, and sales overall are up by 2% compared to the same time last year, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing Nielsen data.

Those increases come after a 10-year decline in retail store sales, according to the Journal.

A number of dairy farmers in the U.S. had to cut their production earlier in the pandemic, with some dumping excess milk or selling off parts of their herds as some of the larger national cooperatives that buy their milk cut back the prices they could pay for the product.

That has not been the case with the cooperative to which Dixon sells, the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association. The cooperative, headquartered in Reston, Virginia, buys milk from 1,000 farmers in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast, according to its website.

Other dairy farmers in Harford County, such as Broom’s Bloom Dairy in Bel Air and Keyes Creamery in Aberdeen, also sell to the cooperative, according to its site.

“We’re just kind of hanging tough,” said Dixon, who has 100 milking cows and 125 younger cows being bred to be milking cows on his White Hall farm.

Fluctuating milk prices are a concern for local dairy farmers, however. Dixon recalled that prices per 100 pounds of milk were in the range of $18 at the start of 2020, then dropped to $12 to $13 in May, and are now projected to reach $20 in the next month.

“It dropped off like crazy and then spiked back up,” he said. “Who knows where it’s actually going to land for the rest of the year?”

State Sen. Jason Gallion, a Republican who represents northern Harford County and western Cecil County, noted milk prices have “been an issue way before the pandemic.”

“Milk prices have been depressed for a long time, and this is only making it worse,” he said Thursday.

Gallion, a resident of Level, is a full-time farmer who raises hay and beef cattle, and he started out as a dairy farmer.

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The Maryland General Assembly had to end its 2020 session early in late March as Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the closures of multiple government institutions and businesses to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Businesses have been reopening gradually over the past month. But many, such as restaurants, have been operating at partial capacity.

Gallion and his Senate office staff have dedicated their time over the past three months to helping businesses and individual constituents navigate the process of seeking unemployment compensation.

The county government, state and federal agencies have provided resources for business assistance, and Gallion provided links to a number of those sources. People can apply for Harford County’s share of federal CARES Act relief funds through the COVID-19 Business Owners Assistance Grant Program, as an example.

State assistance for agriculture as well as other resource-based businesses such as forestry and seafood also is available through the Maryland Agricultural and Resource-Based Industry Development Corporation, or MARBIDCO.

Some area farms have been able to keep busy because of their retail component, such as Broom’s Bloom and Keyes. Gallion said he recently visited Keyes and recalled that customers can make purchases through their pickup window — people must follow social distancing guidelines when waiting in line, he said.

Gallion also recalled a recent visit to a produce farm and saw workers wearing masks and gloves as they picked strawberries. He said local farmers are “really doing a good job of trying to live up to” coronavirus safety guidelines, “to do everything in a safe, responsible way, and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that.”

As for Dixon, he plans to remain in the dairy farming industry. He has expanded the size of his herd in recent years.

“I enjoy the cows and just enjoy what I do,” he said. “I don’t really want to go back to working for somebody else or having to drive to work.”

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