CLINTON — Dairy farmer John Stoughton has increased milk production by 300,000 gallons a month this year.

“We’ve had to tighten our belts,” he said this week. “The only option for us is to produce more milk.”

Stoughton, who co-owns Misty Meadows Farm on Hill Road with his family, is reacting to a decrease in milk prices that began in 2015. And he’s not alone. From January to June, national milk production increased by 1.6 percent from the same time period last year.

More milk doesn’t mean dairy farmers are doing well. Farmers often increase production after government-set milk prices decrease just so they can break even.

Stoughton said Misty Meadows is one of five family-owned farms in Clinton, which calls itself the dairy capital of Maine. The town of less than 3,500 produces roughly 15 percent of Maine’s milk.

Clinton’s farmers are feeling the effects of the dropping milk prices despite state and federal aid programs.

The Maine Milk Commission uses Federal Milk Marketing Order 1 to set its monthly prices, according to Executive Director Tim Drake. The current price downswing started in early 2015, he said.

Late in 2014, the amount of milk products being exported outside the United States reached a high of 17 percent. About a month ago, that number had dropped to 14 percent. Part of that is because of decreased exports to China and Russia, as well as a milk quota system in the European Union that expired in April 2015, allowing the countries to increase production.

“That’s a huge swing,” Drake said. ‘That’s 3 percent more product nationally that has to go around.”

National demand is doing well though, Drake said. The demand for whole milk has increased, and butter and cheese remain popular.

“It could be far worse,” he said.

Still, many farmers see the milk price change over the last year and a half as a huge swing. In January 2015, the price was $21.83 per hundredweight. In June, it was $16.39.

Brian Wright, who owns The Wright Place Farm on Wright Road, said he’s been struggling since 2009. When the milk price increased, he “barely got caught up” before it went down again. His farm has 750 cows. “We’re going into the unknown,” he said. “All my decisions up until a few years ago were based on history.” Now, he can’t do that anymore, he said.

Dairy farmers are compensating in the small ways they can. Many compensate by producing more milk, which drives the price down even further.

“Some months we have to beef enough to pay the bills,” said Stoughton, whose farm has 1,400 acres and 1,200 animals. He said he also hasn’t replaced equipment that needs to be replaced or done expansions that he should be doing. While he said he’s sure prices will go up again, he does think that the cycle of ups and downs is getting sharper.

“It’s been very drastic drops compared to what we used to see,” he said.

Even the largest farm in Maine, which has 3,400 cows and is milking 1,700, is feeling the pressure from the price drop. Flood Brothers Farm on River Road hasn’t even gotten the cost of production out of its milk over the past year, said Jenni Tilton-Flood, a farm family member. She said it’s estimated that each cow stimulates the local economy by about $13,000.

“When things get tough for dairy farms, they actually get tough all over,” she said.

Tilton-Flood said they’ve seen the volatility of the milk price increase recently, and it’s been frustrating.

“It is a roller coaster ride,” she said. “It’s very hard to get your feet on solid ground.”

The state does have legislation aimed at helping dairy farms stay afloat when the milk price drops. The dairy stabilization act gives farmers a certain amount of money based on what dollar weight they’re getting for their milk and their farm’s size, said Maine Farm Bureau Executive Director Alicyn Smart.

The USDA also announced the largest payment rate for dairy farmers enrolled in the margin protection program for dairy on Thursday. The government is giving $11.2 million to those enrolled for May and June. The production margin is the difference between milk prices and average feed costs.

“Any help is going to be tremendous for these dairy farms,” Smart said, though it’s hard to say if this will help the issue, she said, because farmers could use the money to buy more cows, produce more milk and drive prices down further.

The milk commission was formed in 1936 to protect farmers from price wars. It sets milk prices based on what prices businesses can get for products derived from milk. It holds a public hearing, which farm and dairy advocacy groups usually attend, and takes into consideration what people are saying.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Drake said. “We can’t do everything that’s needed to keep everyone in business.”

Milk prices are an issue for many countries, Drake said. Only Canada seems to have few issues, he said, because it regulates the industry nationally, guaranteeing a price for farmers while at the same time setting a quota for how much milk they can produce.

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour