To Survive Volatile Market, Some Maine Dairy Farmers Think Small

Apr 25, 2017

Traditional Maine dairies continue to be churned by low milk prices, rising costs and shifting global markets. Some have given up on the industry and sold the farm. But others are taking a new approach that has its own new set of risks and rewards.

The cows are the stars of Balfour Farm in Pittsfield. On a warm spring day recently, they are quietly munching hay in a pasture.

“They are very colorful. We have Normandes, Jerseys and Holsteins. Most are Normande-Jersey crosses or Normande-Holstein crosses,” says Heather Donohue, who runs the farm with her husband, Doug.

Donohue says these cows produce milk that’s high in fat and protein, just right for making cheese and other select products.

“Right now we’re making a lot of yogurt to fill wholesale orders and for farmers markets, buttermilk, cultured cream, soft cheeses, feta — we make a lot of feta,” she says.

The Donahues used to milk 50 cows at their farm in New York. But when they moved to Maine six years ago to be closer to family, they decided to do things differently.

Doug Donahue says low and variable milk prices have really given dairy farmers just two options.

“Milk a lot more cows, or do something different with your milk,” he says.

They chose the latter. They now milk just a dozen cows, and they sell their products directly to consumers, and to a few wholesale accounts.

“If you do something different, you do make more money,” Donahue says. “It’s definitely a lot more work, and there’s a ton more costs that go into it than when the truck just backs up and hauls your milk away.”

Heather Donahue says the financial equation is not as simple as it might appear. Their processed dairy products do fetch far higher prices than bulk sales of milk.

Cows at Balfour Farm in Pittsfield.
Credit Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

“But at the same time,” she says, “you, as the person processing, you’re bearing all of the costs of marketing and transportation of the milk, which normally would be paid by a processor.”

There are also the capital expenses of building and outfitting a cheese room.

But despite the tradeoffs, the Donahues much prefer this smaller dairy model. And they are not alone.

“Probably the past ten years, it’s really seen a pretty sharp uptick,” says Linda Stahlnecker, the director of Maine’s dairy program for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “It comes with that whole desire of consumers to buy products that are closer to home and knowing where your food comes from. And, of course, the demand has definitely been there.”

Stahlnecker says a decade ago there were just over a dozen Maine farmers selling raw milk — that has now grown to 72. Maine cheese makers have nearly tripled in the past 9 years to more than 90. And the explosive growth continues — she says she is processing many more licenses to sell dairy products.

“Every year we see more. Right now I have 23 pending. And we have more than that that haven’t even made it into the database to be called pending. So, it’s kind of fun. And it’s really neat to see all of the products they make,” she says.

Many of these newly licensed dairies are smaller than the Donahue farm, Stahlnecker says, and some are milking only one or two cows.

A goat on Balfour Farm in Pittsfield.
Credit Murray Carpenter / Maine Public

On the Donahues’ farm, Doug does the milking and Heather makes the cheese. It’s a lot of work. But one of their innovations actually means less work — they’ve begun milking their cows once a day instead of the traditional two milkings or three daily milkings on some large automated dairies.

“You do lose some milk production, so you have less milk coming in because you are only milking once a day, but you don’t lose half, you lose about 25 percent, but you save a lot of labor, too,” Doug Donahue says.

Now, when the Donahues return from a farmers market on summer evenings, they don’t have to rush out to the barn for the evening milking. Instead, they sometimes pull out lawn chairs and watch the cows graze through the pasture.

Other aspects of the farm are integrated into the focus on dairy products.

“We have ten milking goats, and we have 80 or so barred rock laying hens and one rooster. We also have a couple of sows that are breeding age, and a boar. And then we have a couple of young sows that will be bred probably by the end of the month. A lot of our pig production is based on the fact that we make whey in the creamery. And so the pigs and the chickens eat any waste products and things that don’t come out right. I had some yogurt that didn’t set right the other day, and so they were glad to help me by eating that,” Heather Donahue says.

It’s a busy place, but there’s always another project in the works to diversify the farm’s business model. The Donahues are now renovating the old farmhouse to serve as a farm store, bed-and-breakfast and farm-to-table restaurant, with plenty of fresh milk, cheese and eggs.