Lightning struck the cupola at Sandy River Farms 23 years ago this month, igniting the dairy barn roof and destroying the barn and the house next door.
Bussie York remembers hustling 35 young cows outside as sparks rained down on their heads.
“We were trying to keep the heifers away because all they wanted to do was go back in the barn,” said York, 80.
The devastating loss could have easily meant the end of the farm. But 300-plus local people made sure it wasn’t.
That fall they turned out for a barn-raising and got the job done in two weekends. Instead of packing it in, Sandy River Farms went on.
York still chokes up talking about it.
“We thought about giving up plenty of times,” he said. “So many people from the town came down. We just – one of those things, you couldn’t face all of those reactions. Lawyers – they didn’t know how to drive a nail, but they knew how to do law work – they said, ‘Anytime you need a lawyer …’ ”
In February this year, without anyone noticing, lightning struck again.
This time it was in the form of a letter from York’s longtime commercial milk buyer. It didn’t need his milk anymore. After months of calling other buyers, no one else needs it, either.
That slow burn might consume the farm once and for all.
After farming all of his life, York has until Aug. 31 to radically increase direct-to-customer sales of milk, cream, yogurt, butter and frozen custard and find other new outlets for his milk or the cows are gone.
“We’re facing probably the worst dilemma that we ever have faced,” York said. “After losing the barn, that was rebuildable. When you lose your market, that’s essential to survival.”
After three years of relative industry stability – a handful of dairy farms opening each year, a handful closing – Maine has lost 10 dairy farms since December. Another six to seven with the same buyer as York also received word they’ve suddenly been dropped, said Tim Drake, executive director of the Maine Milk Commission.
That’s something he’s heard of happening in other states, but a first for Maine.
“They all have to make a choice like that and they’re all attacking it differently based on situations at the farm and demographics: How old they are, whether they have kids coming along to take over and what the general morale is,” Drake said.
York’s daughter, Trudy Johnson, is sad, nervous, a little resigned. Her husband, Erik, the farm’s longtime general manager, says you’ll always find his cup half full.
“I’m more the optimistic one,” he said. “Reality is probably more her, but I’m just not a quitter, I guess, so we’ll try until we can’t.”
Bussie York grew up in a farming family on the other side of town and determined his career path in the third grade.
“A lot of kids want to be firemen, they want to be doctors, they want to be lawyers,” he said. “My goal, I was going to be a farmer. Come hell or high water, I was going to be a farmer.”
His father, Linwood “LJ” York, bought what’s now Sandy River Farms in 1952, when York was a freshman in high school, attracted by all the sweet corn they could grow.
“We had five sweet corn factories right here in this little town; that was a big deal,” York said. “This was all rock-free land. That’s why we wanted to move to a location that’s easier to plant and to harvest.”
Ten years later, York and his wife, Brenda, began buying neighbors’ properties as they opened up for sale. Over the decades, that happened quite a bit.
“There were 19 farms that now we’ve acquired the land for,” York said. “We were young and foolish. My father was pretty conservative; he didn’t think too much of that. Anyway, we did it.”
ARRIVAL OF A CONGLOMERATE
Sixty years ago, they farmed 250 acres. Now they farm 600, and the property is 1,400 acres in all. Starting next year, a chunk will become home to one of NextEra Energy’s large solar farm projects. He’s leased 700 acres to the company.
At 80, he’s no longer milking, but York is hardly retired.
“I just got done planting 300 acres, that was my job,” he said one morning last week. “I’m busy every day, seven days a week.”
The farm milks about half of its 200 cows, a mix of milking Shorthorns and Holsteins that produce about 3,000 gallons a week. Seven years ago, the farm opened a market across the street on Route 2 that uses about 1 percent of that milk, selling pasteurized and unpasteurized gallons and food such as butter, yogurt and frozen custard, said Trudy Johnson.
Cynthia Stancioff of Chesterville, a regular there three to four times a month, said while checking out this week that she’d like to see more people spend at least $20 a week on local food.
“They make the best yogurt that I’ve had in forever,” Stancioff said. “It’s got the right balance of textures.”
The store sells raw milk for $5 a gallon and processed milk for $4.30 a gallon for whole, 2 percent, 1.5 percent and skim. For whole milk, that’s 57 cents higher than the retail minimum, the lowest price you could find in stores, set by the Maine Milk Commission in July.
It also sells chocolate and strawberry milk and old-fashioned frozen custard in flavors such as ginger, grapenut, lemon and butter pecan, all of which they make themselves.
Sandy River Farms has had the same bulk milk buyer for 18 years, a company that was bought in the past few years by a foreign conglomerate. York doesn’t want to name it publicly. For one, he wants the company to keep buying his milk through the end of August, he said, and two, he’s heard rumors that it will sue farmers who disparage them.
Being dropped after 18 years came as a shock.
“We had a big producers’ meeting in November and they told us, ‘Don’t worry at all, your contracts are going to be replaced, you’re going to be fine, no problem,’ ” York said. “In February, they said, ‘You’re no longer one of our producers.’ ”
The conglomerate had a new policy: Farms couldn’t sell their milk to anyone else, and Sandy River Farms has its farm store.
“We actually told them, ‘If that’s what you want, we can stop all our sales,’ ” York said. “But they didn’t give us that option. It was just, ‘You’re done.’ ”
250 FARMS DOWN AND COUNTING
Nationally, there’s too much milk, and trade war talk at the national level isn’t helping, said Drake at the Maine Milk Commission.
“None of the co-ops are taking on any new milk,” he said, not surprised that York hasn’t found a new buyer. “Consumption has been down, and production has been up; that’s not a good formula for high prices and creating demand for it.”
Estimated fluid milk sales are down just over 1 percent compared with this time last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Meanwhile, nationally, the number of cows and gallons milked per cow has steadily risen over the past four years. That has led to prices so low that the Maine Milk Commission has paid $16.2 million in subsidies to dairy farmers in the past 12 months to try to bridge the short-term gap between losing money and breaking even.
“The price forecast had been trending upwards, but right now everything’s up in the air with the trade wars that have been going on,” Drake said.
The U.S. exported 18 percent of its milk last year, an economist from the large dairy cooperative Agri-Mark said in a news release this week. Mexico, China and Canada were among the top five buyers. In comments over the past several weeks, President Trump has ratcheted up threats of a trade war with China.
Drake sees the loss of dairy farms in Maine continuing. In May, there were 233.
In 2010, the state had 310. In 2000, 483.
“A lot of farms are aging out and there’s no one to take them over,” he said. “They have no options. If you’re faced with low prices, what better time to go out, stem the hemorrhaging, so to speak.”
When York started in the business, the farm sent all of its milk to Titcomb Hill Dairy in Farmington. When that closed, it went a little farther away. And farther. His bulk milk is now trucked several thousand miles away for processing.
“You lose that personal contact when that happens, like anything else,” he said. “The further away you get, the less interest they have in your personal growth.”
Instead of competing on supermarket shelves with the farm down the street, “We’re competing now with milk coming 3,000 miles,” York said. “They’re shipping milk in from California into our markets now at a few dollars a hundred (weight) cheaper. It’s milk coming out of these big, huge megafarms.”
This spring, more than 100 mid-Atlantic dairy farmers who sold to Dean Foods, one of Walmart’s suppliers, suddenly lost their contracts after Walmart opened its own processing plant to supply milk to 600 Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs. (Dean was not York’s buyer.)
York sees a day when Walmart will not only have its own processing, but its own cows.
“That’s the trend,” he said.
DEADLINE FOR BIG DECISION
So, at Sandy River Farms, what do to?
Erik Johnson recently traveled to Ohio to buy a Walmart refrigeration truck. It could deliver milk and frozen custard to customers around town, which could be a partial solution; even with a truck and a farm store, it would be a supreme challenge moving 3,200 gallons of milk a week.
Sandy River Farms products are stocked locally in Tranten’s grocery and the Better Living Center. Johnson is talking to a chain with a large Maine presence, a store to which they already sell vegetables, about carrying the Yorks’ milk.
Trisha Mosher, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, heard a number of businesses say they’d like to stock Sandy River Farms’ products to help them out after the Yorks and Johnsons ran an open letter to the community in a local newspaper outlining its plight.
“They hate to see a local farmer getting pushed out,” she said. “It’s just unfair.”
Mosher’s grandparents live next door to the Yorks.
“They’ve been very much part of the community all of my life, as far as I can remember,” she said.
In addition to securing more retail outlets, the herd could be downsized, Erik Johnson said, but it’s a delicate balance. Enough revenue has to come in to cover expenses, including $52,000 in property taxes and $24,000 for insurance. Get too small and it couldn’t sustain itself. He figures around 2,500 gallons a week is probably that sustainable number.
The farm also spends money around town on fuel, supplies, feed and building materials, Trudy Johnson said. If they go, that goes, too.
That open letter in the newspaper has gone viral with shares on Facebook, she said, and people are now stopping in frequently to ask, “What can we do to help?”
“Spread the word, get your friends and buy,” she said. “Support local.”
The family has a firm Aug. 31 deadline to decide the farm’s future. That’s the date that the cows’ organic certification runs out, Erik Johnson said. Without it, the cows, worth less, would likely have more value at slaughter.
“That would be option D,” Johnson said.
WORRIES FOR EVERY MAINE FARM
Interested out-of-state buyers have been calling since that fateful letter arrived in February.
“They’re going to come the 31st and if we haven’t grown it enough by then,” those farmers want their cows, Trudy Johnson said. “They are allowed to get bigger. (The conglomerate is) shutting us down and they can get bigger. We’re trying to do whatever we can to make people aware and grow, and that’s all we can do.”
Their daughters, 11 and 23, have both shown an early interest in farming.
York is clear that this is not just his dilemma, and not just about his farm. He worries for every farm in Maine.
“In all my 60-odd years, I’ve never been faced with the fact that we didn’t have some alternative,” he said. “There’s always been something else that we could do with the land. We’ve raised sugar beets, we’ve raised turnips, we’ve raised dried beans, plus our sweet corn and other small vegetables. We’ve always had another option, but now the options have shrunk to the point where it’s been just dairy, and now the dairy option is shrinking.”