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Can local dairies skim more cream from their efforts?

HADLEY — Some of the roughly 110 Jersey milking cows at Mapleline Farm were looking on Thursday as a few dozen representatives of Hampshire College, Whole Foods Market, Go Berry Frozen Yogurt and other businesses talked about the one local agricultural commodity that some see as nearly “invisible” — milk.

Dairy farms, like the Kokoski’s 150-acre operation here, make up only 3 percent of Pioneer Valley farm businesses, but milk sales account for 14 percent of all farm sales in the three-county area, according to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which sponsored Thursday’s event. And it represents 18 percent of farmland in the region.

A 2011 report by American Farmland Trust found that the combined economic output of the region’s dairy farms and its dairy product processing facilities is $611.8 million in output, 1,170 jobs and $68.5 million in employee compensation.

CISA Program Coordinator Claire Morenon pointed out that 41 percent of the state’s 147 remaining dairy farmers are in the Pioneer Valley.

“We have all these farmers doing all this work in Massachusetts, and there isn’t a clear way for consumers to interact with those farmers, because (mostly) they’re selling it into the (wholesale) pool,” Morenon said. “So when you’re making decisions about what cheese to buy, or what policy decisions to support, a lot of that (farm) work is not necessarily visible.”

CISA’s effort Thursday, with a tour of Mapleline’s bottling plant as well as its dairy barn and other operations, was to educate businesses that interact with the public and can pass along to the public their understanding of how the dairy industry works.

With federal milk-pricing policies still dictating the wholesale prices for dairy farmers other than producer-handlers like Mapleline, the biggest problem for dairy operations is to find ways to be innovative to continue to survive, Morenon said.

The best news that 12th generation Hadley farmer Darryl Williams — whose Luther Belden Farm has been operating since the 17th century — could offer was that last year, the state lost none of its dairy farms.

“Dairy farms are so very important to the agricultural economy,” said Philip Korman, CISA’s executive director. “Every time we lose a dairy farm, we’re losing a jewel that may never be recovered again, and that’s unfortunately been going on for decades. Sixty years ago, we had 20 times (the present number of dairy farms in the state),” with more than 150 farms in Franklin County alone. “The national policy is stacked against the work they do. The wholesale prices received are set at the federal level, and that nowhere recovers the cost to produce milk.”

Even though the federally set wholesale blend price — about $24 per dozen-gallon 100 pounds of milk — has improved dramatically for farmers, said Williams, the cost of producing that milk has also skyrocketed because of rising energy costs, grain prices and labor costs. Williams, a member of the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, estimated that the average cost to produce that milk is probably around $30, so that most farmers still lose money on every gallon of milk they produce.

With that in mind, he said, the farmers who have survived learned to cut corners and become innovative, taking advantage of state and federal programs to help them install photovoltaic solar panels, methane digesters and water-saving systems — and also to do their own marketing, like Our Family Farms, and their own bottling, like Mapleline.

Mapleline, which began 110 years ago, realized about 15 years ago, said Kokoski, “that to stay viable in the dairy industry, we needed to do something to control what the product was worth in the end, instead of just letting it go out the door.”

In 1995, it began having its milk bottled under its own name by Quality Milk in Ware, and a decade ago bought out the plant’s equipment and moved to Hadley, where Mapleline now produces eight products, including flavored milk, cream and half and half. The processing plant, operating at the rate of about 600 gallons an hour about 10 hours a day, according to Production Manager Paul Kokoski, even turns out coffee-, strawberry- and “orange cream”-flavored milk.

Those products, sold primarily within a 15-mile radius, as well as to Springfield and Boston customers, including to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Green Fields Market in Greenfield and even 175 to 200 residential customers on a milk route, help the farm keep about 50 percent more of its revenues, estimated Kokoski.

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269

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