August 19, 2019

Struggles of farmer, consumer

It wasn’t so long ago that one of my kids might offer to come along with me to do my grocery shopping on Saturday morning.

The offers, while appreciated, were surely based more on the hopes of tossing a few of their favorite items into my grocery cart and perhaps procuring an overpriced morning beverage through the drive-through than any real desire to help me with this dastardly chore.

But lately not even my best bribery attempts can persuade my crew to tag along with me on Saturday mornings, because my grocery shopping trips have grown to marathon proportions.

I once was a fairly careless food shopper, basing my buying decisions more on everyone’s favorite brand of cereal or bread or cut of meat than cost comparison, and I did my shopping at the most conveniently located store.

No more.

Today I’m armed with sales fliers and detailed pricing lists, and my shopping typically involves stops at three stores and takes all morning.

This week we all seem to be benefiting from a milk-pricing war which appears to be raging between the area’s two major grocery chains.

The Maine Milk Commission sets a minimum price at which retailers can sell milk. This week that price was $3.63 a gallon for whole milk and $3.42 a gallon for skim. A quick check on Friday morning determined that Hannaford, Shaw’s and Sam’s Club all were selling gallons of store-brand milk at those prices.

With 360 family-owned dairy farms struggling to remain operational in Maine, it seems wrong to complain about the cost of a gallon of milk.

The headline on the front page of this paper on Friday read, “Costs killing Maine farmers.”

The truth is that even when the cost of a gallon of milk was nearing $5 at stores in recent weeks, Maine farmers were still getting only about $1.10 from each gallon, according to Maine Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet. Most of the prices consumers see in the grocery store are due to transportation costs and the increased energy that processors require, he said.

One survey conducted a year ago of Maine consumers strongly indicated that Mainers would not mind paying more for milk if the extra cost would benefit Maine farmers. It doesn’t, and in large part that’s because government-controlled pricing regulations are geared more for the enormous milk producers and processors in other parts of the country, such as California.

I tried to read and understand those pricing regulations so that I perhaps could explain them to you. I gave up.

It was Earth Day this week and the national media paid a lot of attention to everything “green” and encouraged consumers to buy and eat local organic food.

Too bad the national media outlets didn’t pick up a quote taken from Sharon Kiley Mack’s story on the front page Friday.

Joan Gibson, who operates a dairy farm in Levant with her husband, Brian Call, spoke of the family’s struggle to keep their farm going.

“I stand in a vestibule. On one side is a huge, growing demand for local organic goods, swelled by millions of consumers, yearning and beckoning for affordable good food. On the other side is a gaunt, weary farmer, surrounded by decaying buildings, run-down land, another long day of drudgery and the only hope of compensation the sale of his heritage: his land, as he bites his arm off to feed himself. This is the reality of dairy farming in Maine. It’s brutal.”

That’s exactly the message that needs to be heard and understood not only by state and federal officials, but by consumers as well.

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