Moving forward… ‘We take care of their families and they take care of ours’

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, November 21, 2014

NEW LONDON, Wis. — November is a many-faced month for agriculture. It’s the month we recognize women in agriculture. It’s the month we bring the sewebTank7962ason’s harvest to a close. It’s the month we are reminded to be thankful for God’s blessings.

In September, I met a truly inspirational dairywoman who is quietly and methodically moving forward in the face of difficult odds. She and her two daughters exemplify a thankful heart as they care for their cows, which in turn care for them.

It was a downright cold, rainy central Wisconsin day as I was visiting farms ahead of the World Dairy Expo at the end of September. My lastwebTank8066 stop of the day was Milk-Flo Holsteins, New London, where Cathy Tank still does the 3 a.m. milking of her 150-cow dairy herd, and then works off the farm until supper time; so the appointed time to meet was toward evening. Her daughters were home from school and the hired man was busy pushing up feed for the cows.

What started as a typical family farm interview, soon turned into much more. By the time I left a few hours later, it was dark and one of the two ladies employed to milk the other two of the 3x milkings had arrived as Cathy’s daughters fed the chickens befowebTank8046re heading inside to do homework.

A former dairy queen of Wayne County, Wisconsin, Cathy Tank is a woman who not only works hard, she believes in working smart and using the right tool for a job.

She and her daughters Elizabeth, 15, and Rebecca, 11, love the dairy farm they are keeping going — and progressing — after losing husband and father Bob Tank to melanoma in 2009. It has been a journey, to say the least, and Cathy is quick to point out the way communities and extended family work together during harvest and in times of need.

“That’s what makes farm folk different,” she says. “A farmer can be having the worst day, ever, and would still stop and help pull another out of the ditch.”

“I am fortunate to have good help,” she adds. Working smart, means picking the jobs she can and can’t do. While she harvests her own haylage and works the ground to get it ready for planting, Cathy uses custom manure hauling and custom choppers for the corn silage harvest.

“They can do in a few hours what would take me weeks,” she says, adding that her brother helps her do most of the planting. That is something her father, Keith Knapp, helped her with over the past few years, but this spring she lost her Dad, too, in an accident.

Getting on the tractor is therapeutic, she says matter-of-factly. “It is refreshing work, and it reminds me to be thankful. I think about all of the things my Dad taught me how to do.”

While fieldwork is refreshing, what Cathy really loves is the cows. The dairy herd was her domain until six years ago. One year before Bob’s illness, they decided she would take a job off the farm. Today, she continues onward with both the job and the farm, and she’s set some pretty high goals for her cows with the focus on paying down debt. She would like to see her cows get over that 90 lbs/cow/day mark into 100-lb territory. “That’s a hard goal,” she says. But she’s already reached a few toughies.

She started 3x milking in February, and over the past two years, she made a focused effort to reduce somatic cell counts. Today, the herd averages 87 pounds/cow/day with 3.5 fat and 3.9 protein and SCC ranging 100 to 150,000.

The herd cleared $1 million in milk sales last year, which was a goal, reached, and Cathy says she has been able to reduce the farm’s debt by almost half. The milk from Milk-Flo goes to a cheese plant, and so the premiums for reducing SCC have really helped the bottom line.

While shifting the farm from pasture-based to more conventional in order to increase production and pay down debt, Cathy muses that maybe one day in the future, it webTank8077could return to more of a pasture-based system. She has already diversified a bit, adding pastured poultry and home-raised pork, beef and chicken. She and the girls sell their eggs at a local farmers’ market. The few steers on the farm are fed refusals from the milking herd and the chickens help keep some of the lawn areas mowed.

“We do what we can to not waste anything here. We are learning how to be more self-sufficient. You learn to be resourceful when you are on your own,” she says.

“We also try to do as much as we can without antibiotics,” explains Cathy, who grew up milking cows and has an Ag Education degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “We don’t sell the milk at the farmers’ market, but people who buy our eggs know we have cows, and we get those questions. We are trying to pay attention and be more preventive in how we manage the cows, so we don’t have as much need for treatments during lactation. This approach has helped us qualify for quality premiums and have a healthier herd.”

Cows are milked in a step-up parlor and housed in an open-front barn in freestalls. The farm includes 310 acres of forages for the 150-cow milking herd and young stock. Dry cows and older heifers are on pasture.

“I like color and variety,” says Cathy about the composition of the herd today, which is mainly Holstein but includes Brown Swiss crosses, Red & Whites, Linebacks,webTank8013 and Ayrshire crosses. She has hired a breeder but picks the bulls. The two biggest things she looks at are feet-and-legs and protein.

After two years in a row of poor forage in parts of the Upper Midwest, Cathy is thankful for this year’s good hay crop and the “jumbo corn” crop yielding over 23 tons of corn silage per acre, much of which was still ‘ripening’ in the field as the calendar headed into October.

She has put some thought into positioning the farm for alternate plans should the need arise. A few years ago, she installed a scrape alley and simple manure storage for the parlor holding area. This and the open-faced barn make the property suited to substantial heifer-raising if milking cows would ever get to be too much.

Elizabeth and Rebecca are the fourth generation on the farm. Cathy explained that Bob’s family has farmed here 100 years as of 2008, which was the year before he died.

“I’m just a steward,” she said. “I’m pretty interested in staying in this industry. I can’t imagine the farm without the cows.”

While she focuses on the areas of the farm where her efforts are most productive, she still enjoys the 3 a.m. milking. “I like getting up when it’s calm and you can see the stars,” she says as she looks around at the herd, noting her oldest cow is 15 years old. “It’s a good feeling to have dams, grand-dams and daughters in the barn here. We take care of their families and they take care of ours.”webTank8005

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They prayed for direction… and found each other

By Sherry BuntingMeck-Hershey4576, Farmshine,     Oct. 31, 2014 – farmshine.net

 WOMELSDORF, Pa. — Some stories just have to be told, and this is one of them.

For Jeremy Meck and Kacie Hershey, engaged to be married November 7th, 2014, their chance meeting happened at a time of loss and uncertainty in the midst of one of the harshest winters southeast Pennsylvania has ever endured.

For Jeremy, it was a season of profound loss. Not only had he lost his brother to cancer in February, in Zach he had lost his best friend and business partner. Meck Brothers Dairy here in Berks County was the dream they had built up from scratch — a dream they had worked on together ever since grade school in Lancaster County when their late father Ronald, a poultry farmer, bought them a heifer calf for 4-H, igniting a passion for cattle that morphed from raising calves to milking cows, to buying and renovating their own dairy farm.

“It was a rough winter at the farm, with one thing after another, and it was hard to stay focused as Zach became more ill,” Jeremy related during a summer visit to the farm.

What he described was like a dark fog that threatened to settle-in around him. “I was praying for God’s guidance, for direction, for clarity… and I found myself praying for joy,” he recalls.

Goosebumps come with the next words from Kacie, as she confirmed her middle name is, you guessed it: Joy.

“God had a big part in us meeting,” she said about the chance meeting that was not so much by chance after all.

Kacie was facing her own need for clarity. She graduated with a teaching degree and was substituting here and there while working for her parents, Duane and Marilyn Hershey, at their Ar-Joy Farms near Cochranville, Chester County.

With Marilyn on the DMI board and Duane on the Land O’Lakes board, Kacie’s parents travel a lot. “I started picking up more responsibility at the farm and I needed to make some decisions,” she recalls. Seeking a teaching job, and feeling conflicted about the future, she, too, was praying for direction. What Kacie didn’t know was that her grandmother Anna Stoltzfus had started that week praying for God to bring someone into her granddaughter’s life.

Meanwhile, Kacie’s father, Duane, was one of several dairy farmers who kept intermittent contact with Jeremy during Zach’s illness and after his passing. Farmers in the community of Berks and Lebanon counties were especially helpful, reaching out in so many ways to mentor the brothers and to pitch in with fieldwork, and fundraisers, when the need arose.

From two neighboring counties in the same Land O’Lakes region, Duane and Zach had run against each other for the Land O’Lakes board seat a year earlier. The 3-way race had come down to a tie, and the differences could not have been more stark: Duane, a seasoned third generation dairyman whose father served as a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly versus Zach, the young, energetic, first-generation upstart dairyman always running full-tilt, wanting his generation to have a say.

The special tie-breaker election had occurred the previous January, with Duane winning the seat. The two continued their chiding camaraderie after the election, and Duane checked in from time to time to see how things were going on the farm after Zach’s cancer diagnosis the following September.

Newlywed to Suzanne Perdue, Zach’s illness came at a time when he was just settling into the future he thought lay before him. Being connected to a loss like this will test the strongest faith. Looking back on it, Jeremy says he learned a lot about commitment watching how Suzanne traveled that journey with Zach.

He recalls Zach’s advice to him: “Find a girl with quality values and a farming background, who understands what you are passionate about.”

But mostly, he recalls the example of how Suzanne was there for Zach every step of the way.

“I didn’t fully realize how bad it was until he passed away,” Jeremy reflects. “During his illness, I dug down deep and just kept focusing on doing everything around the farm, doing for two, wanting to keep it going for him, wanting to see our plans through, wanting to keep our dream alive, and hoping he could come back to the farm.”

With Zach gone, it was difficult for Jeremy to make that dream — their dream — his own.

The winter wore-on the way it does daily on a dairy farm. Sub-zero temperatures brought daily challenges from power outages and frozen pipes to difficulty starting equipment and the sheer effort of getting through the growing mountain of snow to tend cattle and feed calves and make a path for the milk truck to get up the hill.

Then the unexpected: The day-after-day snows and frigid temperatures took their toll at the Hershey family’s Ar-Joy Farms with the midnight collapse of the roof on their main barn housing over 500 milk cows. Thankfully, the milking employees were all at the parlor, not in the barn. Cattle were lost, but the majority of the herd survived.

The next 72 hours brought a whirlwind of moving cattle, cleaning up, and a community effort to come in with the builder to put up a new roof. A work day was organized by fellow farmers in that community and the word of it spread.

“I had so much happening here, I wasn’t going out or going anywhere,” Jeremy recalls. It was just two weeks after losing Zach when he heard from a neighbor about the Hersheys’ roof collapse. Duane had called to check in a few days before and so Jeremy returned the favor. He called to see if they needed help or equipment, but he never reached Duane by phone, so he headed to Cochranville figuring to lend a hand in the cleanup.

Had he reached Duane by phone, Duane would have emphatically told him to stay put, knowing Jeremy had enough on his plate at his own farm. But with no word from the wise to deter him Jeremy showed up and spent the day working on someone else’s problem instead of dwelling on his own.

“It felt good to be busy somewhere else,” he recalls. “Never did I imagine that day I’d meet the woman I’m going to marry.”

Jeremy and Kacie met as she brought water to her Dad and the crew. Kacie recalls thinking to herself: “Who is this guy, and why have I never seen him before?” Followed, of course, by making sure to procure another round of water for that crew.

Both were intrigued and struck up a friendship, after first looking each other up on Facebook (of course) and realizing they had friends in common. Jeremy’s best man is herd vet Nathan Kapp of Gap Vets, whose wife works with a friend of Kacie’s at Pioneer. A first date led to a second, and things took off from there.

“When I told my Dad we were dating, I just got this big smile and some comment about tractors,” Kacie laughs.

Spring came, and Kacie continued working at the home farm, then driving to Jeremy’s to help with whatever needed doing — from the cattle to the corn planting.

“What I fell in love with first is Jeremy’s faith,” Kacie recalls.

Windows of light open doors, through faith. Both Jeremy and Kacie were individually going through difficulties and seeking direction for their lives. They both had questions about their own futures, and God’s answer was an unexpected ‘chance’ meeting. “We would not have met any other way,” they agree.

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Fly away…

While most of my posts are more ag-related, here is something I wrote in January for a Writing the Land class with author and professor Dawn Wink. Her book “Meadowlark” made a lasting impression. Folks who know me, know I love birds. These photos, and the experiences attached to them, inspired this writing in the midst of the coldest winter in memory. I offer it today on National Wildlife Day.

So put yourself into this moment… and fly away!

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Dozens of plover playfully turned and twisted in the breeze as she looked toward the horizon of sea marsh teaming with life. A cacophony of birdsong drifted over the sound of the current caressing the shoreline as the sun kissed the glassy azure sky — staining it with a steamy haze.

She breathed deeply. The moist and salted air blanketed her in tranquility.

The sand — besmirched by scattered strands of blackened green and gold, cold and clammy against her skin — slid shimmering and sprightly between her toes as she plunged her feet into its silky solitude. Dawn’s glow seeped through her skin into her muscles as though to reach her very bones, wrestling away the stiff and weary chill that had settled there.

She saw the long-fallen army of weathered wood — mere skeletons of their former selves — scattered about the island’s one giant sentinel. As the brush of morning painted away the night, she saw the solitary tree rising above the crowd of scrubs below. Its full head of foliage offered a kingly perch to the bird who would land there, watchful of the morn.

The silence gave way to the whir of a thousand wings trumpeting the night gone. Taking flight as one, their presence echoed as they vanished to distant particles of windswept sand. She would take wing in the silence of their wake, if not for the flutter of ten thousand wings at her core. Every nerve within her said “fly away.”

She could hear nothing but the beat of her own heart — deafening it was to her in that moment as the sand covered her feet.

—S.Bunting (c) January 2014

The deeply rooted tree

Like the deeply rooted tree unleashing new blossoms of spring, Dad loved life. In his later years before the illness, he was an avid runner, taking in everything from 5k’s to marathons—even running 5 miles to work and home each day… He called running his “natural high.”

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When we were growing up, Dad was the worrier, so it was surprising the way he let go of his worry and accepted my work with large animals. First it was the Vet-Science project at my 4-H leader’s farm. Then it was the work caring for camp horses and keeping them fresh with regular riding through the winter. Then it was the day I came home to tell him I took a job feeding and milking cows on a local dairy farm.

Dad didn’t understand these things that interested me, but he trusted me to do them just the same. After all, he had fostered my love for the written word and all those books were my windows to different worlds.

As a child, I devoured books about horses, cattle, the open sky. I would spend hours—whole afternoons—reading in makeshift grass forts between the greenhouses on the neighboring farm to the background buzz of grasshoppers until the evening chirp of katydid and cricket signaled it was time to walk home.

As I grew into my high school years, Dad never could understand why I would want to work on a farm milking cows or why I took so much of the money I earned through that hard work to buy and board and feed and shoe a horse.

He worked as a job foreman in the printing industry for RR Donnelly, where he started at age 16. It was his hope that we would all go to college and become ‘something more’ as he would say it.

But to me, my Dad was the king of adventures. He was the purveyor of the written word. He ran the presses, then planned the work that went onto them. He brought home magazines and books. He drove us to the library often. He would take us to work sometimes in the evening where we could look through the press over-runs for pictures and posters and covers. Indelible were the smell of the ink and the crisp feel of freshly printed pages. I always looked for the animals. My brother was thrilled with the baseball programs. RR Donnelley printed for the New York Yankees and that, of course, was my Dad’s favorite team.

Dad wanted us to be independent thinkers, and yet, my level of independence flustered him at times.

“You should be saving for college not that horse,” he would say as I worked 2 jobs—milking morning and afternoon and then selling shoes at a nearby department store in the evenings. Every free moment was spent at the farm where I boarded my horse, so I was rarely home.

But there came a point in time when his ways won out because I worked so much I had no time for the horse. Little did I know that what I learned through those early choices would shape my future.

I began to write more. I had whole journals of landscape poetry. I took my camera with me everywhere.

Before I had my license, it was my Dad who drove me most places. He didn’t understand my choices, but he enabled and facilitated them just the same. He always asked to read what I had written. Often I showed him… but not always.

And so, my work on the farm and love of writing converged. I think back on how Dad had ideals of what he wanted me to pursue, but supported my choices and allowed me to grow the path of my choosing.

He was the full tree of knowledge. The gnarled branches reached out an invitation to climb, and when I was weary, a sheltering refuge.

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Years later, when my own children were small and I was between newspaper jobs, I worked as a temp in my father’s department at RR Donnelley. It was extra money we needed, and I could work my own hours—even nights—to save paying a sitter. I would see him from time to time in his work-a-day world, and I grew to know him differently. I felt a kind of sadness as digital technologies made parts of his work obsolete. But he was happy about the progress, excited to see change. He embraced it nonetheless.

Until the illness began—nearly imperceptible at first— like a late summer tree whose leaves begin to turn and before they can crumble and fall away, are blanketed by an unexpected autumn snow, falling before its time.

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Even after the brain illness claimed his ability to walk and talk, he was interested in the world around him and how we had grown to find our place in it. Dad always believed he would get better, but he didn’t.

In those last few years, I was back at the newspaper and we had added a new monthly livestock edition to the weekly market report. It was printed in color. How his face would beam when I’d bring him a copy. Dementia was setting in, but he fought with all he had to hold it back. I asked him to help with the mailing at that time, and from his wheel chair, Dad would help me apply the address labels—a rote activity that he accepted as a blessing—a feeling of worth in his final days. We worked quietly.

This father’s day I thought back to how different my life might be if my Dad had not let me go; and I remember how hard it was that day before Christmas when we made the tough choice to honor his wishes to stop the machines and let him go.

That day was sunless, until evening, when light broke through the feathering clouds to reveal cold, bare branches—awaiting new life.

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Gratitude

“For our country, for us all,” read the Marines billboard as I drove through the nation’s heartland this week. I turned the phrase over in my mind, thinking just what kind of courage, heart, and love of country it takes to serve iImagen our nation’s military.

A rush of thankfulness flooded over me as the tires of my Jeep Patriot (yes, I’ll admit, part of the reason I bought it was the name) ate the miles to the next destination, and farmland stretched endlessly on either side of the highway.

I whispered ‘thank you.’

On Monday, May 26, our nation commemorates Memorial Day, which began when the grave decorating custom became more prevalent during and after the Civil War to honor soldiers who died — both Union and Confederate. Since then, the final Monday in May has become a special time to honor all of the men and women who have died in military service, paying the ultimate price for our freedom and our country.

ImageAs I have been traveling quite a bit this month for various projects in my ag writing and photography business, I am struck by the diverse beauty of both the land and the people in our United States of America.

In the long rural stretches of the prairies from the Midwest through the Great Plains — where you can drive for almost an hour or more and not see another vehicle — you get a feel for the bigness of this land and its call of freedom.

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In contrast to the East — where the patchwork of small farms live at the fringes of suburbia with subdivisions sometimes sprinkled between them — agriculture, both land and livestock, is pervasive in the land where the farm report comes on the radio several times a day and consumes the hours of 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the local cable channel as I write this.

American soldiers come from all walks of life and all regions of the country, but one thing we often overlook is the high percentage coming from farms and ranches and rural living.

In our hometown in eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, my favorite part of our sons’ involvement in the Boy Scouts as they were growing up was the Memorial Day procession honoring the fallen in the cemeteries east of New Holland. It was a long morning that started very early, and often stretched until noon, but such a good reminder of why we celebrate this day that has come to also represent the beginning of summer.

As I drove past that billboard this week — on a highway near Lubbock, Texas — I also whispered a ‘thank you’ for the fathers and the mothers, the families and the communities, who have raised, and then lost, those men and women who have paid the ultimate price so that we all may be free.

** President Reagan said it best here: 

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Busy defines the life of a farm mom

My second blog post for Mother’s Day 2014 is the reprint of a feature story in the May 9, 2014 Farmshine. It is inspired by my very busy friend on their farm in northwestern Indiana. LuAnn is not alone as a busy mom and grandmom, and what I love about her is she is always ready to show people around and to talk about dairy farming to visitors — or on camera — at a moment’s notice. She stresses how their place is not fancy, and in her humility, declares that she is not perfect and can “drop the ball…” I get that. We all drop the ball, but what’s important is that we keep on rolling. 

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, May 9, 2014

HANNA, Ind. — Mothers — and grandmothers — all have those days when they wonder how they will ever get everything done. The long span of hours from pre-sunrise to long after sunset are filled all too easily on a dairy farm. Those hours can simply fly by when your ‘office’ keeps changing from the house to the barn to the feed store to the industry meeting you are trying to get to and back again.

When I feel stressed by all the “to-do’s” on my list, all I have to think of is LuAnn Troxel – a dairywoman, calf feeder, farm and veterinary book keeper, immediate past president of the Indiana Dairy Producers (IDP) and the organization’s current business manager, IDP newsletter editor, at-the-ready communicator, and — most importantly — mother and grandmother.

Anyone who has met LuAnn Troxel instantly feels at home. A more welcoming friend is hard to find. LuAnn is an easy going and knowledgeable dairy “agvocate.” It’s not that she doesn’t get worked up over the dairy farm myths circulating on social media – it’s that she doesn’t let them get to her. She is happy and confident in her responses, and breaks the topic down to its most basic element with consumers.

Those in the farming community wouldn’t believe she wasn’t raised on a dairy farm. But that is the case. What is second nature to her today was learned when she married Dr. Tom. Not only do Tom and LuAnn Troxel operate (now with their son Rudy) a 150-cow dairy farm in northwestern Indiana, they also tag-team Dr. Tom’s solo practice: South County Veterinary.

On the morning of an IDP event, I marvel at the day she puts in before her other day begins. Morning coffee, breakfast casserole in the skillet, phone ringing as folks call for Dr. Tom or to order supplies…. In between preparing breakfast and answering the phone, the animal health supply truck rolls in, and she takes a quick break to meet the new rep who will be bringing things by.

It’s end of month and she has invoice work percolating on her computer, as well as running through the inventory to put together customer supply orders and to give the animal health rep an idea of what they need today and by the next time he stops by.

By 7 a.m., she’s walking two full mugs of coffee out to the barn and it’s time to pick up the waste milk at the parlor to start feeding the calves in hutches that line the side drive in view of the large country kitchen.

A phone call interrupts her flow. She jots down a note, and with phone still balanced in the crook of her neck, heads off to the sand pile to find Dr. Tom bedding stalls. They confer. She hands him the phone and the note. Waits a few moments, then phone in hand heads back to calf-row.

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Back inside after the calves are fed, breakfast is served, and a list of “morning calls” is prepared for Tom. A peck on the cheek and quick farewell and she’s loading the van with name tags and registration materials for an IDP meeting that starts at 9 a.m. an hour from home.

Not an atypical day really for someone who is in leadership positions for Indiana Dairy Producers, sits on a Purdue University task force, and several other industry groups while still making time for leadership in the local Master Gardeners club.

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It’s not that LuAnn is the only dairywoman or mother / grandmother with a full schedule – day-in and day-out. It’s that she so well represents what so many dairywomen juggle. They have their own work on the farm. They support their husbands, including a quick hop in the tractor or running to town for a part at a moment’s notice. They mother their children, and when the time comes, take joy in the grandchildren — especially watching them take on responsibilities and passion for the dairy farm or a career path that could take them away from it.

From the off-farm world, hearing a dairywoman like LuAnn is a breath of fresh air cutting its path through the stale and lingering smog. There are so many “fear-mongers” creating anxiety for young mothers shopping for food for their families. They breed a distrust of a perfectly safe and wholesome and affordable food supply — pushing families to fear anything that doesn’t say “no-this” or “without-that”.

Listening to LuAnn do the spots for DairyGood.org, there is a certain ease of which she speaks. It instills confidence that dairy farms are DairyGood places where DairyGood products come from. It helps young mothers forget their fears and shop with confidence.

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Why does she do it? “I always knew Tom and his family because we grew up going to the same church, and back then I didn’t have a true appreciation for the work and the lifestyle of dairy farming,” she says. “After having lived this with Tom for all of these years, and raising four sons here, I just know that if people can see how hard we work and how much love we have for what we do and our passion for the cows… maybe they will keep that trust in us that we are producing for other families the food that we feed our own families.”

She and Tom are grateful to work on their family’s dairy farm in northwestern Indiana to provide food for people every day. “We have always felt that opening our farm’s doors to the public is the best way to educate people on what it takes to produce milk,” she says. “We love that visitors see the care and respect we have for our cows and the environment.”

Dairy farmers have a real story to tell, and we’ll see a lot of that next month when June brings National Dairy Month. But for today, I wanted to remind us all that it’s the moms and grandmoms on the farm who have the power to make the true dairy story real for other mothers shopping for food for their families — one thought, photo, idea, conversation, smile at a time.

Happy Mother’s Day to Dairywomen everywhere! Be encouraged by every little thing you do to shine your light in the world.

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LuAnn Troxel is an encouragement to others as she goes about her busy day. It’s sundown and she’s got the waste milk from the parlor to feed the calves in hutches. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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As if the farm and her husband’s veterinary practice weren’t enough, LuAnn Troxel makes time for her passion — flower gardens. She proclaims: “We aren’t fancy.” And yet the layers of perennials and annuals around the property soften the edges and add color to the freestall areas. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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A phone call interrupts her flow. She jots down a note, and with phone still balanced in the crook of her neck, LuAnn heads off to the sand pile to find Dr. Tom bedding stalls. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Feeding the calves morning and evening bookend the busy days on the farm and in the industry. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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“There’s nothing like a dairy farm to raise a family,” says LuAnn with a smile. She is pictured here with one of her and Tom’s grandchildren. Photo by Sherry Bunting

‘Unstoppable Mom’ shared faith, family, farming with millions of TV viewers

Mother’s Day is around the corner and I have 3 posts in store for you. Here is the first — an oldie but goodie and one of the most requested reprints of one of my stories in Farmshine, which ran as last year’s Mother’s Dairy feature.

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine May 10, 2013

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COCHRANVILLE, Pa. – When Kelly King Stoltzfus wrote a letter about her mom to ABC’s “Live! with Kelly and Michael show,” she didn’t tell her mom about it because she didn’t expect her letter to get picked for the semi-finals and finals of Live’s “Search for the Unstoppable Mom” contest. After all, the show received over 20,000 letters written by children about moms nationwide!

But Mary Lou King not only made it to the final-four — which meant the show’s producers and video crew visited for two days to chronicle her life on the farm — she was ultimately voted “The Unstoppable Mom” by “Live” viewers across the country during the first week of March.

“This should really be the ‘unstoppable family’ award,” a humble Mary Lou said during a Farmshine visit to the family’s 150-cow dairy farm here in Chester County, Pennsylvania last Friday.

Along with a trophy, Neal and Mary Lou King received $100,000 for winning the contest. “We paid our taxes, gave our tithes, and the rest went to the kids,” she said.

Kelly, 22 and the oldest of the four children, is married to Kyle Stoltzfus and works as a nurse at Tel Hai in Honeybrook. Colton is out of school and works full-time on the farm. He does all the feeding for the King family’s dairy cows and youngstock, helps with milking, and crops 300 acres with his father. Kristy graduates from Octorara High School next month and starts nursing school in the fall. And Kandy, 14, was born with a mental handicap, having the brain development of a three month old child.

“We decided early-on that she would be raised here like a regular child,” Mary Lou explains.

“I think something stood out to those television producers when they read Kelly’s letter,” she adds. “They were curious about the farm when they came to do the filming and literally everything they saw here was something they had never seen before… right down to enjoying a cold glass of raw milk from the bulk tank. They swished it in their glass like they were savoring a fine wine. And they loved the peacefulness here and the wide open spaces.”

The television producers and film crew were also surprised at how much science is involved in dairy farming. Mary Lou recalls explaining what she was doing with the breeding wheel and in the pen checking tail paint. Their eyes would glaze over. “They never knew there were so many different jobs to do on a farm.”

Many portions of the letter stood out as being unique to the New York City television producers. The words “My mom has been milking the cows at 4:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. every day with my dad ever since they were married back in 1988,” certainly got their attention.

That, and Kelly’s description of her mother’s daily commitment to 14-year-old Kandy, who alternately dozed, then smiled a sweet and contented smile during our interview Friday at the kitchen table.

“I’m just a farm mom,” said Mary Lou, who came to represent farm moms everywhere during “Live” voting in early March. But she also struck chords with parents of children with special needs and with members of the nursing profession.

Pretty much everyone who viewed the video of life at the King farm was moved by the passion Mary Lou exudes for taking care of the cows and her family.

While Neal loves most the tractors and the fields, Mary Lou enjoys the animals. She manages the reproduction, including the breeding wheel, picking bulls, and buying semen. While son Colton now does all the breeding, Mary Lou checks cows for heat daily, and she does the herd check and ultrasounds with the veterinarian.

She doesn’t view milking as a chore. “It’s relaxing to me,” says Mary Lou. “It’s where I do my thinking.”

It’s also where she has done her listening as the children grew up. “Neal and I both appreciate our upbringing of being raised on dairy farms,” she explains. “If I’m not out there milking, I feel like I’m missing out. I’ll ask Neal what the kids talked about.”

Mary Lou’s sisters all married farmers and her brother has the home farm in Lampeter. “I look at my mom who milked until she was 50 years old. That’s my inspiration,” she said. “I saw her example and the example of Neal’s mom who passed away over a year ago, and I say to myself: ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”

And do it, she does. After milking at 4 a.m., she cooks breakfast for the family and gets Kandy ready for the day. She’ll do herd work, book work, house work, and get dinner started before milking again at 4 p.m.  Then it’s back to the house, dinner on the table, Kandy’s needs to tend to, and leftover book work to take care of. She may get to bed by midnight and be back up at 4 a.m.

Asked what she hopes to have taught her children through she and Neal’s example on the farm? “Faith,” she said without pausing. “and the value of hard work. But what I really see them learning is to put Jesus (faith) first, family second and the farm third. I really don’t think we could farm without faith.”

“My mom and Neal’s mom both set great examples. I loved seeing their support of their husbands in working together on the farm, and at the same time I believe women can bring incomes to the family also,” she explains. “I hope I have been able to instill that love for family and for knowing that our daughter Kandy is important – just the way she is.”

Mary Lou sees the faith in farming as two-fold. On the one hand, the blessings of raising a family on the farm give opportunities to learn an abiding love for God’s creation. On the other hand, the challenges of farm life require faith as well to see things through.

“Neal and I really hope we’ve instilled in our children the values of farming, the hard work and work ethic,” she says. “We never wanted them to feel tied down, so they played sports, did 4-H and FFA, and had choices.”

In fact, the family names their registered Holsteins for what’s going on in their lives at the time. Being soccer and field hockey enthusiasts, they have cows in the herd named PIAA and Griffin. They also have cows named for other schools their school’s team has beaten or rivaled in playoffs. They have cows named for a favorite movie, actor, actress, or singer — including Pickler (as in country singer Kelly Pickler) and Pitt (as in actor Brad Pitt).

And last week, Mary Lou informed the “Live” producers that two calves were named after the Live hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. The heifer calf, Ripa, is out of the herd cow Rushmore; and the bull calf Strahan, is out of the herd cow Storm. “We’ll keep him as long as he performs,” Mary Lou said with a smile.

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She had emailed a photo of the two calves side-by-side in the calf barn and they made the show last Wednesday as the real Ripa and Strahan read Mary Lou’s email and held up pictures of the calf, giving “Live” audiences yet another exposure to life on a family dairy farm.

As spring unfurls throughout the Chester County countryside, Neal and Colton were getting their equipment ready last week for first cutting alfalfa just around the corner. They have a high producing herd, making 95 pounds/cow/day, which they attribute to their focus on harvesting high quality forages and working with their independent Agri-Basics nutritionist Robert Davis.

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“I like milking full udders,” says Mary Lou as Neal explained they feed a total mixed ration and that the ration forages are about 50/50 corn silage and alfalfa haylage. They also bale hay and grow their own soybeans for toasting.

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In addition to their parents’ example, Kristy says their involvement in 4-H and showing cows at the Solanco fair “made you really love the cow because when you own them, you really learn to care for them.” Sister Kelly enjoyed showing for the clipping and grooming “and making the cows really look good.”

Everyone here has a job to do. Kristy is still in school, but he helps with the afternoon milking as the designated “prepper.”

“What’s nice about living and working on a family farm is that the whole family is involved,” says Mary Lou.

“Everyone cares,” her children finish the sentence, adding that they haven’t lost a calf in three years since building the calf barn. “If any of us hears a calf cough or notices something, we’re right here to notice and we do something about it.”

Faith is also a big part of the equation in the family’s relationship and care of youngest daughter Kandy. “God has a reason for her here, a purpose. I don’t question that,” Mary Lou relates. “I know ABC had to remove some of Kelly’s references to faith and to Jesus in her original letter, but I think they could still see that what holds our family together… is faith.”

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Neal and Mary Lou King with their children Kandy, 14; Kristy, 18; Kelly, 22 with husband Kyle Stoltzfus; and Colton, 20. Winning the 2013 Unstoppable Mom award from ABC’s morning show — “Live with Kelly and Michael” — left Mary Lou wanting to thank everyone from the producers of the show to the viewers who voted for her in March. But what has meant more than the grand prize is that her daughter appreciated her upbringing enough to write a letter about it. Mothers’ Day is Sunday, May 12 and this week of May 6 — 11 was National Nursing Professionals Week. Mary Lou was inspired by her own mother Evelyn Rohrer and her late mother-in-law Jeanette King to want to milk cows with her children as they grew. Milking time is family “together time.” It’s where farm moms and dads stay in touch with what’s going on in their children’s lives. Her example in the barn and as a trained nurse with daughter Kandy also inspired daughters Kelly and Kristy to go to nursing school like their mom. Photos by Sherry Bunting

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ABC television personality Kelly Ripa reads a thank you email the “Live” show received from Mary Lou King on Wednesday, May 1 — pointing out the photo Mary Lou sent along of the little heifer calf the King family named “Ripa” and the bull calf (right) named for Ripa’s co-host and hall-of-fame football player Michael Strahan.

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Mary Lou reports the television producers of ABC’s “Live” enjoyed farm life for two days, right down to the flavor of the raw milk from the bulk tank. She sent an email of thanks last week and included a photo of the King farm’s new calves: “Ripa” and “Strahan.”

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Mary Lou introduces the heifer calf “Ripa” (left) out of Rushmore and bull calf “Strahan” out of Storm. The family tends to name their registered Holsteins after the people, places and events of their lives. The calves were born soon after Mary Lou was voted The Unstoppable Mom by viewers of “Live” co-hosted by actress Kelly Ripa and hall-of-fame football player Michael Strahan.

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The back porch view of dry cows grazing at the King family dairy farm. The farm, founded by Neal’s grandparents Valentine and Naomi King, and then operated by Neal’s parents Merle and Jeanette, has been in the King family for three generations. Son Colton is the fourth generation now working full-time on the farm.

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Neal King took a quick break from fieldwork last Friday for a quick photo with Mary Lou. They’ve been milking cows together at the third-generation dairy farm in Chester County since 1988, and moved to the farm in 1995.

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Everyone cares about the youngstock at the King family dairy farm near Cochranville, and feeding is Colton’s job. He feeds all the calves, heifers, and cows on the farm.

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Mary Lou loves the cow-side of the dairy farm. She picks the bulls and manages herd health and repro. Son Colton does the actual breeding.

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The Kings milk 120 cows, and base their rolling herd average on 150 cows, including dry cows. They watch the bulk tank production, which averages 95 pounds/cow/day.