John Carter and his wife, Lucy, stand outside their farm stand at Middle Intervale Farm in Bethel with their daughter, Emma. John Carter has seen an increase in his business selling direct to consumers. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

BETHEL — For John Carter, a seventh-generation dairy farmer and owner of Middle Intervale Farm in Bethel, times are scary. Should he or anyone in his family get sick during the COVID-19 outbreak, there isn’t any wiggle room.

Either he produces and sells enough milk to cover the cost of buying grain, or he can’t feed his herd.

“If I don’t sell my milk, I can’t afford to buy feed for them. Feed and grain (prices) have gone up. Milk hasn’t,” said Carter.

According to Rick Kersbergen of the University of Maine Agricultural Extension, most Maine dairy farmers are in the same boat. Of the 220 dairy farms in the state, the majority are small operations with fewer than 120 cows, usually run by family members. While some farmers might be able to get away with fewer workers during the outbreak, most operations can’t. Cows still need to be milked twice a day by skilled laborers.

“You can’t just take someone who doesn’t have any dairy experience and tell them to milk a cow. … There’s a lot of experience involved,” said Kersbergen.

Although Kersbergen didn’t have an exact figure, he said dairy farmers tend to be older — a statistic that puts them in the high-risk group.

Carter agrees that good, trained help is hard to find. He recently had a local farmer come to his farm to be trained on a piece of equipment. The farmer was 80 years old.

“People don’t want to work this hard. I’m 52 years old and I’m a young farmer in the state. … Most farmers are 70 years old,” said Carter.

Last Wednesday, the Agricultural Extension based in Waldo County issued a statement saying it was creating a statewide network of volunteers trained and ready to help out on farms should farmers fall ill.

“We have 10 to 15 volunteers already. Thank goodness that no farmers have called in,” said Kersbergen.

Roger Smedberg feeds his cows at his farm in Oxford on Friday morning. Smedberg reports that business has been running about as usual, with the addition of maintaining social distance and extra sanitizing. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

For many dairy farmers, it’s business as usual — for now, at least. According to Lucille Hodsdon of Norway, her mother’s farm, R.E. Hemond Dairy Farm in Minot, is continuing to produce milk. They don’t have a physical storefront and sell mainly to Oakhurst, so the farm’s 10 milkers don’t interact much with the public, mitigating some risk.

“Basically, its business as usual. … Really nothing has changed other than being careful,” said Hodsdon.

Hodsdon’s elderly mother owns the farm, but has recently fallen ill. Hodsdon said she talked to her mother the other day and heard that the demand for milk has actually increased. “Someone mentioned to her that they were picking up milk more often, more demand for it currently,” said Hodsdon.

Others are seeing that too. Carter said his farm stand has been booming since the COVID-19 outbreak, as has his stand at the Portland Farmer’s Market.

“It’s a cleaner, safer place to get food. It’s open air, spread apart, and they have everything sanitized,” said Carter.

According to Extension Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maine Tori Jackson, many farmers who have never branched out into retail are doing so in response to increased consumer demand for fresh meat and produce in the absence of restaurants and a depletion of stock at the grocery store. Still, she urged people to be patient with farmers new to farm stands and retail, who might not have selling to the public completely figured out.

“It would be great if there were maybe a little more customer understanding, like going to the farm that’s never done this before and expecting that they’ll be able to process a credit card,” said Jackson. 

Though demand is high now, Jackson said farmers are struggling to predict what things are going to look like in the coming season if COVID-19 continues to spread.

“What they really want is a crystal ball, knowing what things are going to look like six weeks from now and six months from now … how much, what to plant. Without knowing what the future looks like, (they) are struggling to know who their customers are going to be and if they’re still going to be there,” said Jackson.

Amid the uncertainty, Jackson encouraged people to support their local farmers.

“This is a great time to get to know your local farmer … to get yourself a reliable food source for the season ahead,” she said.

Rodger Smedberg, owner of Smedberg’s Crystal Spring Farm in Oxford, said things haven’t changed much for him since the outbreak started.

“We’ve had a couple people who have requested and phoned in orders. … Mostly, we’ve had business as usual. We’re trying to do the keep-your-space kind of thing. We’re steady, but not overcrowded with people. We’re trying to keep things wiped down and cleaned up,” he said.

Smedberg said he has had a few employees who have chosen to quarantine themselves for personal reasons, though no one at the farm has been sick. For Smedberg, who’s gearing up his greenhouses for Mother’s Day in May, the animals still need to be fed and the greens still need to be watered.

“We’re considered essential. We have animals and plants we need to care for every day. We’re here doing that. … Sales have increased during shortages elsewhere,” he said.

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