Local Farming 

Fluctuating prices haven’t been making it easy for many family farmers in Maine.But then, when has the life of a farmer been easy? When faced with economic pressures, families on lots of farms across the state just keep pushing on. Like all dairy farmers, folks at the Thomas Farm in Garland are dealing with falling prices. We talked to them about how they’re making it work.”It’s steady! It’s non-stop…it’s a way of life. I had bad dreams one time, if the cows were all gone. It’s just something that you’re so used to,” says Mary Wilson. She’s a dairy farmer at Thomas Farms of Garland. “We’re milking about 400 cows. My parents started out with about six cows, 50 years ago, and those were cows that that had come from my grandfather’s farm,” she says.”You’re saying, if I just had 12 cows, I could put some money away,” says her father, Jim. “And, well, that didn’t seem to work. Maybe if I double it again I could put some money away. But that didn’t work either,” he says, laughing with his wife, Sandra.Now in their seventies, Jim and Sandra Thomas still work on the farm, along with Mary’s husband, Peter, and other family members and employees. They say they’re doing all right, making ends meet.”It’s hard when you’re trying to pinch the penny and you want your family to have something, and I think that’s the hardest thing we have to do- stretch that dollar,” Jim says.”I don’t think I know any other way, really. It’s nice when you drive by another farm and they’ve got brand-new choppers and tractors and all that,” Mary says. “My dad would never go out and buy a brand-new anything, if he could get by with something older.”Most of the buildings on the Thomas farm, the family built themselves. This is Jim’s tractor, 42 years old– but still running.”Even though he’s out in the weather and he’s cold, he doesn’t owe any money on it. So that’s the way he likes it,” Mary says. “It’s a pretty nice tractor. It does the same thing a brand new one would do,” Jim says.Getting along in tough times, and coping with falling dairy prices, is something the family says comes with the territory.”If you look at the third, fourth and fifth generation farm communities, if they’ve survived that long, they’ve been through a lot of challenges,” says Maine’s Agriculture Commissioner, Seth Bradstreet.”They’ve very innovative, they’re resilient and they do. They can hunker down with the best of them.”Bradstreet says there are still real challenges ahead for the dairy industry, but he’s optimistic.”We’ve had a program in place that’s been very supportive at a break-even level, at best, for the dairy industry. And we’re going to weather a little bit more of a storm here. And we hope that the federal price, the national price comes up enough in the interim to lessen the burden on these folks,” he says.Bradstreet says price supports have helped Maine dairy farmers get their bills paid, and cope better than dairy farmers in other New England states.”But, we’re in the midst of perhaps losing a vast number of farms in the dairy industry if the federal order doesn’t get corrected, at least to a break-even price,” he says.On the Thomas farm, they say until the price of milk goes back up, they’ll just keep going.”And so you just have to kind of think ahead. The price of milk always has its ups and downs. When it’s up, you have to plan ahead and when it’s down, you’ve got to hope that you have enough assets to get by,” Mary says. “And the the highs and lows are higher all the time now.”Coming up Tuesday night, we’ll look at how the face of many family farms is changing across the state, in ways you might not expect.