FARMINGTON — In a single day last month, Bussie York’s wife, Brenda, was rushed to the hospital with a stroke, Sandy River Farms sold off 60 dairy cows and half a dozen Secret Service agents fanned out over his property for a visit by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Perdue stood in York’s farm market, prayed for Brenda and wanted to hear how hard farming had gotten.
It has gotten hard, but they are not ready to give up.
“If any realistic person would look at it, you’d walk away,” Erik Johnson, York’s son-in-law and the farm’s longtime general manager, said Monday.
York, whose father bought the land that would become Sandy River in 1952, learned in February that he’d be losing his commercial milk buyer of 18 years in August.
Roughly eight Maine farms got that same letter, the first time for the state that a host of farms had been dropped at once, according to Tim Drake at the Maine Milk Commission.
It was a blow to an industry in a slow decline. In September, there were 228 dairy farms in Maine. Maine has lost five farms since May, 18 since this time last year.
“The whole milk business is kind of a failed system, dictated by big companies, and a lot of them are foreign companies,” York, 80, said.
“You’re strictly a number now and they could really care less if you drop that number off, it’s no longer any personal relationship with a company.”
Horizon picked up milk for the last time on Sept. 2. Then, for the first time in 60 years, trucks stopped coming.
Milk, though, did not stop flowing, and the farm market across the street on Route 2 could not move enough.
They resorted to filling up manure spreaders with milk and spreading it on the fields.
It was an easy decision from there to lose some of the herd of 200, 110 of them milkers.
“We wanted to get them out of here as fast as we could because we were flooding the tanks and paying people to milk too many cows to dump it on the fields,” said Trudy Johnson, York’s daughter.
Favorite cows were moved to a back pasture while the buyer, a Maine farmer, toured the barn.
“When your mother has a stroke and this is all happening, you are kind of in shell shock,” she said.
“(Her daughter) Erika and I looked at each other halfway down the barn and said we thought we’d be bawling our eyes out, but this is a new chapter in our life, we grasped it, and we have moved on.”
The new buyer also sells milk to Horizon.
“It’s a little kind of backstabbing,” Trudy said, wincing. “They’ll take our milk at somebody else’s farm but not ours.”
They’ve sold six more cows to another farmer, taken a few to auction and sold a few to beef.
The reduction brought Sandy River Farms down to 29 milking heads and down from about 3,000 gallons of milk a week this summer to 1,000 now, which they hope to move through the farm stand and private accounts.
In addition to a dozen local stores carrying their brand of milk, cream, butter, yogurt and frozen custard, they’ve signed new accounts with a nursing home, bakery and a restaurant.
They’ve pitched six other nursing homes and, Erika said, “We even went to the jail.”
The farm is still talking to Hannaford, Erik Johnson said, and that company has “bent over backwards,” but there are a lot of details to making that work, like additional insurance.
“In the winter months, we have more time to go after that avenue,” he said. In the short-term, “we have to focus on the higher-end money.”
Sales initially quadrupled at the farm market after the Yorks and Johnsons went public with the farm’s challenges last summer. That’s dipped slightly.
They hope to keep sales up at the market, capitalize on the value-added products, add more accounts and get marketing help. They’re also hoping whomever wins the Blaine House next month, they continue to support the state’s dairy subsidy program that helps cover the short-term price gap between losing money and breaking even.
Gov. Paul LePage has been very supportive, they said.
“If the tier program goes away, the dairy industry in the state goes,” York said.
His wife, Brenda, 78, is recovering from her stroke, he said. As for the farm, “I lean more toward being a pessimist now.” The global picture — more milk, fewer milk drinkers — is not good.
“You’ve got 26 percent of your sales now have changed to either nut milk or soy milk or things like that,” Erik said. “We need to get people to come back to milk, the positive aspects.
“My cup is still half full. It always stays about that. I think this operation is in a better position only because it has the ability to process and develop different things.”
Trudy and Erik Johnson, along with Bussie York, Trudy’s father, stand last summer in one of the barns at Sandy River Farms in Farmington. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal file photo)
After abruptly losing its commercial milk contract, Sandy River Farms in Farmington reduced the size of its milking herd from 110 to 29 cows in September. They’re hoping a buy-local push and more private accounts can sustain the farm. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)
A farmhand leads cows in for milking last summer at Sandy River Farms in Farmington. (Sun Journal file photo)