By Kellie Goodman Shaffer
Agriculture is the number one industry in Pennsylvania, but the state’s dairy farmers are facing a crisis of historic proportions. Some farmers are finding their milk contracts being canceled, while others are struggling to pay bills, making many families face difficult decisions about the future of their farms.
“We’re scared,” said Berneta Gable of Snider Homestead Farms in New Enterprise. “This is the worst the dairy industry has been in my lifetime. Things have to turn around.”
Gable, the 2000 All-American Dairywoman of the Year, has managed the family farm for more than four decades, milking cows in a barn built in 1892; she’s a fifth-generation dairy farmer hoping to pass the operation on to her son, Aaron.
“And I feel bad for the young farmers,” she says. “Aaron has done a great job on our genetics; we have the best group of young heifers coming in and we wonder: are we ever going to see them grow into cows? I don’t have the answers.”
One thing she says would help would be putting whole-milk products back in schools.
“We’re losing a whole generation of milk drinkers to fat-free milk,” said Gable, “because the kids don’t drink it. My grandchildren ask why the milk from our refrigerator tastes so good compared to the school milk. The fat in milk does not make kids fat.”
Consumer education is important as well. Gable says many people buy products labeled soy or almond milk thinking they are buying a dairy product.
Lori Sollenberger of Hidden Hills Dairy in Everett is saddened by a culture that doesn’t recognize the importance of supporting local agriculture.
“We don’t really value our food to the point where we’re willing to pay the producer a living wage to make the food,” she says. “We want it to be cheap, even at the expense of those who are producing it, and that seems to be an ingrained culture phenomenon in this country, the expectation is that we shouldn’t pay for our food.”
Sollenberger grew up on a traditional dairy farm, which she and her brother, Leon expanded after graduating from college. Their Jersey herd was nationally recognized for high production and superior genetics. When her father retired and Leon left the partnership, Sollenberger shifted her focus to artisan cheeses, putting the same care and attention to excellence into developing fine cheese in their PDA licensed farm facility. Milking about a dozen cows, Lori, along with her daughter Morgan Knepp, process raw milk into hard aged cheese for wholesale markets primarily in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
“We ship to a few stores, mostly restaurants,” said Sollenberger. “We get a lot of public acclaim from our customers. It’s so different from the commodity cheese that you buy in the grocery store. Most of the artisan cheeses are much better.”
Hidden Hills Dairy offers a menu of unique cheeses which vary from season to season, some featuring characteristics of varieties of Gouda, feta, Havarti and others.
Sollenberger says there seems to be growing interest in home-cooked and slow foods, but only a small part of the population can afford or is willing to seek out the more expensive artisan products. To make them available to lower-income families will require a culture shift, or changes in government policies regarding subsidies and food programs.
Hidden Hills Dairy is a proud, multi-generational farm. Animals are raised on the original Sollenberger homestead, where Lori’s mother still lives. 24-year old Morgan hopes to continue the family’s dairy legacy, but it’s a scary time for family farms.
“It’s been a cash flow business,” said Sollenberger. “The frustrating thing is that it’s felt for about five years that we’re just on the edge of turning a corner, making a profit; it seems like one little thing would set off on a really good trajectory. I think there will be a dairy industry in the future. It’s not going to crumble and die away, but I do think there will be a number of people exiting the industry in the next few years.”
And that troubling realization will impact more than just farm families. The Center for Dairy Excellence estimates the dairy industry’s annual economic impact to Pennsylvania at $6 Billion, with an average 70-cow dairy farm contributing nearly $1 million to the local economy.
Dairy farmers spend 85% of their milk income within their local community, and the dairy industry accounts for 60,000 jobs in the Commonwealth, approximately one job for every 9 cows.
Those statistics reveal a dairy industry in Pennsylvania that is more vital than potatoes to the state of Idaho and more important than oranges to the state of Florida.
Beyond the economic impact, farms are a key element of the fabric of our culture. Farmers and foresters are stewards of millions of acres of land in Pennsylvania. Agriculture has contributed to our region’s heritage, our work ethic, and our values.
Now factors from trade policies to regulatory and permitting issues, modernization costs to succession planning, and even consumer habits are threatening the future of dairy production. While some of these dynamics will be debated among state and federal legislators, local dairy farmers hope to raise awareness here at home.
“I don’t ever want to see it happen, but I think they’re trying to do to us what’s happened to pigs and chickens,” said Berneta Gable. They can regulate a few bigger farms easier than lots of smaller ones, but I don’t think they realize what they’re doing to the local infrastructure, because I’m sure all the local feed stores, supply stores are all seeing the effects of this, and it just disheartens me to hear people have to sell their cows because they can’t do it anymore. A year from now, if it’s still like this, it’s going to be a conversation we’ll have to have. Our forefathers worked hard for this farm and I don’t want a dream that started in 1892 to die when I’m on the watch.”
“I want people to know that we have something that’s unique here in Pennsylvania,” said Sollenberger. “We have many, many small-scale farms that are really supporting the community. The support industries need the farmers, and the land needs the farmers. I think it’s important to buy things made and produced in the region, and support a network of people that make their food and impact our economy. We have beautiful, beautiful places in Pennsylvania, and farmers that truly care about their animals and their land, and producing good food. I just want people to support us in return by buying our products.”
“All farmers work hard,” added Gable. “We talk about this at the end of the day. We’re not the highest paid people in the world, but you can go to bed at night knowing you’ve worked hard and provided good food for people. You want to be a productive person in society.”