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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Milestone reached by Shenandoah Family Farms

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine March 21, 2014

HAGERSTOWN, Md. – “Every day we reach new milestones, and today is one of them,” said Tom Francis, production manager and VIP / media tour-guide Tuesday, March 18 at the dairy plant where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk and cream products are made.

The 142,000 square foot facility in Hagerstown, Maryland was idled by Unilever in 2012, then purchased in August 2013 by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. This purchase, and the separate formation of Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative, grew from seeds planted during a 2012 meeting of the five original board members at the Thomas House restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“We are excited to be here and look forward to moving forward,” said Randy Inman during Tuesday’s pre-tour press conference. Inman, a Harrisonburg, Virginia dairy producer, serves as vice president of Valley Pride LLC and Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative.BlogShenFamFarms104

Over the past 18 months, they have developed a media and social media presence as they prepared for the startup of milk and cream bottling operations at the renovated plant February 24. Soft-serve ice cream mix production began last week, and hard ice cream production will begin after new equipment arrives in April.

To this point, Shenandoah Family Farms has used social media to bring farm families, farm life, farm children — even farm calves, cows, cats and dogs — right to the computers and smart-phones of thousands of customers. Brilliant photography of life on the farm and scenes of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley bring a nostalgic feel to the marketing of natural dairy products prized for their quality, flavor and wholesomeness.

“Our web presence will grow in the next three weeks with the launch of a new website with store locators and profiles of our farmers and staff,” said Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman.

The plant is currently just scratching the surface of the demand and production capacity. The equipment has the capability of bottling 32 gallons of milk per minute, and the largest single-day of production they had since Feb. 24 was 6000 gallons. But Francis said this can be doubled with more shifts, workers and equipment as the demand grows.

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To-date, Shenandoah Family Farms milk goes to 170 retail and restaurant establishments along the Route 81 corridor from Shenandoah Family Farm Cooperative’s home base in Harrisonburg, Virginia, through the plant location in Hagerstown, Maryland, and north and west into West Virginia and the Waynesboro and Greencastle areas of Pennsylvania.

“We’re adding 5 to 10 new customers per day,” Churchman confirmed, explaining how end-consumers can fill out product request forms at shenandoahfamilyfarms.com and take them to the stores and restaurants they patronize. The product-request forms have also been the key in developing initial leads for the sales team.BlogShenFamFarms110

“The more requests that are submitted, the easier it is to get our product on the shelves,” aaid Inman. He noted they are close to getting their products into the local Walmarts.

“We are beginning to reach out to the Washington, D.C., area, and getting a lot of interest there,” said plant manager Fred Rodes, who has 25 years of experience working for three creameries after jumping the fence from dairy farming to dairy manufacturing in 1988 for health reasons. Rodes also said they would be open to doing private label work, but are focused right now on working directly with customers and through distributors to build their brand.

Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts and other local city and county officials were on-hand Tuesday showing their enthusiasm for the plant’s re-start. “We are happy to see the Virginia farmers bring jobs back to our region,” said Gysberts. One-third of the 44 full time and 4 part time employees worked at the Hagerstown plant under its previous owner, Unilever, which employeed 400 at its peak before idling the plant in 2012.

“The more the community supports Shenandoah Family Farms products, the more products we can make, and the more jobs we can create here,” said Inman. “It’s a snowball effect.”

He explained that Shenandoah Family Farms products come from a small group of farms. Right now that is 21 farms average 130 milk cows per farm.

“The close proximity of our dairy farmers to our market will give customers assurance of fresh dairy products,” added Inman. “We are focused on high quality milk production and the assurance of best management practices for environmental sustainability, heritage farming practices, humane animal care, involvement in our community and involving our customers in our decisions as we grow.”

Inman said the primary goal of this enterprise is to preserve small family farms for generations to come. “We saw this as a way to take some control of our product by building a relationship with our end-consumers and taking our milk from the farm to the consumer, and to see our farmers rewarded for their high quality production with a steady milk price.”

The investment runs deep here – beyond dollars. Inman explained that the farmers and staff “worked hands-on and side-by-side” to upgrade and renovate the facility over the past six months. USDA loan-guarantees helped the group of farmers get the financing to not only purchase but also upgrade the plant and build awareness for their brand.

The facility’s milk silos, large conveyors, pasteurizer, existing ice cream equipment, coolers, and in-wall freezers were all part of the plant purchase. The owners purchased a separator, homogenizer, bottling equipment and new ice cream manufacturing equipment as well as upgrading computers, software and the ability to track milk from farm-to-store. They also upgraded the coolers and chillers and adding other conveyor capabilities throughout the plant.

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“We’ve had some delays with equipment arriving and the challenges you would expect with a project like this, but we’re ready. The word is getting out about our products, and the support from the local communities has been quite encouraging,” Inman said, adding that he’s impressed with how his fellow farmers and the plant staff have worked together.

“I’m amazed by the super commitment of the farmers, and their families, to get this up and going, and by our staff as we’ve worked together,” he said.

To be bottling the Shenandoah Family Farms milk and on the verge of beginning ice cream production was described as “overwhelming” by board member and producer Dennis Trissel. “In any business like this, you always hope to put in place what’s necessary to get the product marketed,” he said. “Our farmers know how to make high quality milk and our plant managers know how to make quality products…”

Now the ball rolls into the consumer domain through product purchases and requests where they shop.

“Our store customers need to see that we are capable of being here five years and forward,” said Rodes. “We have good staff and a lot of experience. I grew up on a dairy farm and I enjoy the challenges of running a creamery. I’m willing to work hard for these guys (the farmers) because I know they care about putting out a quality product. Now the rubber meets the road in sales.”BlogShenFamFarms067

For the sales force Lyndon Jonson and Rich Muldoon, that’s a challenge they are meeting daily – “hitting the road and knocking on doors.”

“The most rewarding thing for me is getting a new account, that’s my high-point,” said Johnson, a former truck driver who is part of the Shenandoah Family Farms sales force.

When hard ice cream production begins next month, the plant will roll out vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and begin adding flavors with 11 flavors planned at this time. They will concentrate on volume packages for grocers and soft-serve mixes for restaurants before adding a line of other types of ice cream products.

“For the most part, our awareness building is getting farmers face-to-face with the end consumers,” Churchman explained how ‘engagement marketing’ is being utilized. “We will utilize all avenues such as radio, television and print advertising, but we are also sponsoring many local events and will have our farmers and staff there. They are important members of their communities and we want them right there with our customers so the customers can be part of how we grow our company.”

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The 21 family farm members of Shenandoah Family Farms are all located within a 10-mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia. Currently three farms’ milk is going to the plant. Once all 21 farms’ milk is being utilized by the plant, another 12 producers are on-board to be added.

Churchman said they are using “test-market-moms” as an advisory group of moms and families to advise, test, and decide what to put out. “They can use their social media circles to gain additional feedback for us,” she said.

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Ice cream lead Charles Evans is glad to be back to work at the plant under the new ownership. Asked what makes the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream products stand-out in the marketplace, Evans said “the recipe. It was developed by the farmers and Fred Rodes our plant manager. It’s higher in butterfat content, making it rich and thick. Everyone who tasted our soft-serve today enjoyed it and we’re getting very positive feedback from customers.”

Rodes also stressed that the Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream (both soft-serve and hard) is 100% natural and contains no additives. “That’s kind of rare these days,” he said.

Inman said Shenandoah Family Farms is working with other cooperatives on milk supply balancing and they are working with other processing cooperatives and suppliers to combine additional products for their distribution contracts — including cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt, as well as the full line of Turkey Hill teas.

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Micah Showalter, 2, is tasting Shenandoah Family Farms soft serve ice cream with brother Adrian, 8, and sisters Emily, 9, and Erica, 6. Micah and his puppy are the stars of the Shenandoah Family Farms Whole Chocolate Milk label, shown here in poster size (left) on the wall above him, and all four children with a newborn calf at the Showalter family’s Sun Dial Farm-2 are subjects of the Whole Milk label, shown here in poster-size above them (right). The Showalters are among the 21 farmers in a 10 mile radius of Harrisonburg, Virginia, who purchased and renovated the former Unilever ice cream plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. They started bottling Shenandoah Family Farms Brand fluid milk and cream products at the plant on February 24. They began making vanilla soft serve ice cream mix this week and will soon be doing chocolate. Hard ice cream production begins in April with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry and will expand to 11 flavors over the next several months. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Shenandoah Family Farms milk and chocolate milk were served with homemade cookies at the tour of the creamery Tuesday. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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After Unilever idled the 142,000 square foot Hagerstown, Md. plant in the fall of 2012, it was purchased last August by Valley Pride LLC, a dairy business owned by 21 dairy farmers from the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia. In addition to updating the ice cream manufacturing equipment, they have invested in milk bottling, which started February 24. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Owen Trissel is “over-the-moon” with excitement as he suits-up for the plant tour with his parents Cory and Charity. Owen, 9, and his brother Ian, 4, are the stars of the 2% milk label. One of the features of the Shenandoah Family Farms brand is to engage consumers in farm life through brilliant photography and larger labels. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Production manager Tom Francis served as tour-guide Tuesday. He said hard ice cream production begins in April. The Shenandoah Family Farms brand offers chocolate milk is offered in whole milk variety, and ice cream is a higher butterfat, simple recipe made with 100% natural ingredients. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Dairy producers Dennis Trissel (right) and Randy Inman are two of the original five who met in 2012 at the Thomas House restaurant, Harrisonburg, Va., forming Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative and planting the idea-seed for taking their milk straight from farms to consumers. They are pictured with Shenandoah Family Farms marketing director Jennifer Churchman who says “engagement marketing” is the hallmark of their campaign and plant manager Fred Rodes (left), who grew up on a dairy farm, then spent the past 25 years on the other side of the fence in the creamery world. He loves working with people, building teams, tackling challenges and tinkering with ice cream recipes. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Shenandoah Family Farms Cooperative vice president Randy Inman welcomed media and Hagerstown, Md. officials to the grand re-opening tour of the plant purchased by the investment of 21 members of the Valley Pride LLC, where Shenandoah Family Farms Brand milk is bottled and made into ice cream. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Hagerstown Mayor Dave Gysberts and Council member Don Munson were among the 35 suiting-up for Tuesday’s tour of the Shenandoah Family Farms dairy manufacturing facility. They are all smiles as 44 jobs have returned to the site of the former Unilever ice cream plant that once employed 400 people. Now owned and renovated by 21 dairy producers from northern Virginia, the plant began bottling milk last month, started making soft-serve ice cream mix this week and will be ramping up hard ice cream production as early as mid-April. Photo courtesy of the City of Hagerstown.

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The 142,000 square-foot plant has been updated to make Shenandoah Family Farms ice cream and fluid milk and cream products. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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“Want to see where your milk goes?” That was all the encouragement these children needed to check out the conveyor taking crates of bottled Shenandoah Family Farms milk to the cooler where it was being loaded for delivery to 170 retail and restaurant customers — with 5 to 10 new customers being added daily.

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A year of awareness-building through Facebook and other media brought daily photos of farm children, farm life, and farm calves, cows, dogs and cats right to the computers and mobile phones of thousands of consumers. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Charles Evans is the ice cream lead for Shenandoah Family Farms. He served the soft-style ice cream to local officials and media Tuesday. (I must say it was tasty!) Photo by Sherry Bunting

Collapsed barn roof reveals get’r done spirit, profound gratitude

Duane and Marilyn Hershey (front right) can't say enough about how their team of employees pulled together to free cows, restore order and keep 600 cows fed and milked in the hours after the roof collapsed Feb. 14 on about three-quarters of the main freestall barn at Ar-Joy Farms, Cochranville, Pa . They are pictured here with adaptable bovines eating TMR calmly under the open sky behind them three days later on Feb. 17

Duane and Marilyn Hershey (front right) can’t say enough about how their team of employees pulled together to free cows, restore order and keep 600 cows fed and milked in the hours after the roof collapsed Feb. 14 on about three-quarters of the main freestall barn at Ar-Joy Farms, Cochranville, Pa . They are pictured here with adaptable bovines eating TMR calmly under the open sky behind them three days later on Feb. 17

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Feb. 21 and 28, 2014

COCHRANVILLE, Pa., Feb. 17, 2014 – “The first thing we did was pray. Then we hugged. Then we got to work,” Duane Hershey recalls about the first moments in the wee hours Friday morning, Feb. 14 after he and his wife Marilyn were awakened by milking employees to learn the roof had collapsed on the freestall barn at their 600-cow Ar-Joy Farms, in Chester County, Pennsylvania.

His first thought was that it was a small section, but as he walked up the hill from the house to the barn – wife Marilyn a few steps behind him – a more devastating picture emerged in the dimly lit night sky, and all he could think was that he was facing a lot of dead cows.
All told, the Hersheys say they are thankful and fortunate no employees were in the barn at the time, and the majority of their cows got through the event fairly well.

“Nothing you train for prepares you for the reality of that moment,” said Marilyn Hershey, who has participated in crisis management workshops through DMI. “The truth is, when I came to the top of the hill and saw the rubble, I lost it,” she recalled during a Farmshine visit to Ar-Joy Farms Monday. “Duane reassured me that we would get through this, but that first moment of seeing the devastation and hearing our cows in trouble was horrific to me.”

One of Marilyn’s first calls was to Dean Weaver at Farmer Boy Ag. “We prayed for wisdom to know what the next step is, and we prayed for safety,” she said. “I called Dean at 3 a.m. and he answered. He got my brains started and pulled me out of the shell-shock. He told us to call our insurance company, and three hours later Farmer Boy Ag had their first crew here.”

One of Duane’s first calls was to friend and fellow dairyman Walt Moore at Walmoore Holsteins near West Gove, Chester County and to neighboring friends and farmers Andy Laffey and Tim Barlow.

“Everyone brought gates and chain saws,” said Duane. “We figured we had 50 to 100 cows trapped. We didn’t know what we were facing until we were able to move the tin.”

In order to free the trapped cows, they first had to move the free cows so they could start clearing debris to get to the cows that were still trapped in the original main barn. Moore organized the process of sorting and moving cows.

By 8 a.m., there were four construction crews on-site. Two crews were sent earlier by Dean Weaver at Farmer Boy Ag, the Hershey’s builder. Then Chris Stoltzfus got a call at White Horse Construction from a friend who explained the situation. He also sent two crews over to help. Burkhart Excavating, a local contractor, also came out to help.

“The generosity of people Friday just blew us away,” said Marilyn. “The four crews worked side by side all day, and people just started showing up. They knew what to bring. It was an overwhelming blessing to us.”

It took four to six hours of meticulous work to clear enough debris to free the nearly 100 trapped cows. “It was amazing how calm they were,” said Marilyn.

Walt Moore also observed this, recalling the cows “cacooned” under-tin, chewing their cuds as crews and volunteers methodically worked their way through the debris to free them.

The Hersheys give a lot of credit to herdsman Rigo Mondragon and the team of Ar-Joy employees for figuring out how to keep milking and tending cows, rotating them through the portion of the freestall barn that was still intact so that all the cows would get an opportunity to eat and drink.

“Walt is the one who really organized the work of freeing the cows,” the Hersheys related. “He knew what to do and could do it more objectively – without the emotional attachment we had to what was happening.” Walt’s wife Ellen called Dr. Kristula from New Bolton Center, and helped the vet check cows.

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“This has been one of the toughest years I can remember, a winter that just won’t let up,” said Moore. “I was taken back more than once to see the community effort at Ar-Joy on Friday, to see how the farming community and their church family cares about each other.”

By Monday morning, agent Sue Beshore of Morrissey Insurance, the insurance carrier for Ar-Joy Farms, said she had heard from close to 10 customers with agricultural roof collapses, but that Ar-Joy was the first to involve so many livestock.

“This is a time for hugs,” she said to Marilyn before explaining the coverages the Hersheys had for the freestall barn their employees work in part of the time and their cows live in all of the time.

“We had 12 to 18 inches of snow the day before the roof collapsed, then some rain that iced over that evening before we got another 8 inches of snow that night,” Duane recalls, adding that there was already a snow pack on the roof from earlier precipitation and frigid temps.

Penn State ag engineer Dan McFarland notes that roof systems “are truly an engineered system. What the design of the roof allows for is the buildup of snow cover as measured by ground cover maps. In Southeast and South Central Pennsylvania, that might be 30 to 35 pounds. A light snow is 5 to 20 lbs per square foot. A snow pack is 30 to 40 pounds, a snow pack with ice can be 40 to 50 pounds, so now we are getting very close to what a lot of roofs are designed for.”

According to McFarland, a roof snow pack will absorb rain, and when that turns to ice, it doesn’t move and take longer to melt. In the short term, people like to get heavy loads off .

But McFarland urged extreme caution. “Be hesitant about going up without safety harnesses and tie-off ropes,” he said. “Metal roofs are slippery, so try to remove it, if you can, with a snow rake from the ground.”

Some ag building roofs are quite wide, which makes snow load removal more difficult. “If you are going to remove it, remove it evenly,” he advised. “One thing to avoid is uneven snow loads. Trusses are designed to carry the load to the load bearing points on the sides, so don’t prop them up in the middle because that can actually weaken the design.”

Good ventilation also helps. Condensation can deteriorate roof systems. Experts suggest evaluating truss systems for bowing and to contact professionals to evaluate or assist.

Drifting of roof snow pack, warming temperatures, additional rainfall getting absorbed, and blocked roof drainage systems all contribute to uneven or excessive snow loads. Strained roofs surviving the weight from this week’s rain bear watching in additional storms later this season. Cold air is expected to return next week, bringing additional snow in some areas.

One week after the roof collapsed, rebuilding is underway at Ar-Joy Farms Thursday, Feb. 20. Farmer Boy Ag carpenters put up wood bracing after 69 trusses were set for the steel roof construction.

One week after the roof collapsed, rebuilding is underway at Ar-Joy Farms Thursday, Feb. 20. Farmer Boy Ag carpenters put up wood bracing after 69 trusses were set for the steel roof construction.

Loss gives way to profound gratitude

COCHRANVILLE, Pa. — Feb. 20, 2014 — The cattle losses at Ar-Joy Farms here in Chester County, Pennsylvania have grown to two dozen in the wake of the February 14 roof collapse over the main 275-feet of freestall barn, which left only the newer 92-foot section of roof standing. But Duane and Marilyn Hershey have not had to handle any of this alone.

By the following Saturday (Feb. 22), 69 new trusses were set and the 600 cows had a new roof — thanks to the efficiency of friends, neighbors, insurance adjusters, structural engineers, and the crews at Farmer Boy Ag.

The farming and church communities reached out to the Hersheys immediately that Valentine’s Day morning, and also had a work day one week later to prepare the site for crews to set new the trusses and raise the new roof in the three-day window of warm weather before the frigid cold and precipitation returned to Southeast Pennsylvania this week.

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Friend and business partner in Moocho Milk hauling, Walt Moore of nearby Walmoore Holsteins, West Grove, was the first to arrive on the scene in the wee hours of that Friday morning.

“They were overwhelmed,” said Walt of his friends. He felt like it took him and his wife Ellen forever to load the service truck with whatever they could think of needing and to traverse the snow-covered and icy roads to Ar-Joy Farms.

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Walt and Ellen Moore got the 2 a.m. phone call Friday morning, Feb. 14 from Duane and Marilyn Hershey that 275 feet of their main freestall barn roof had collapsed upon the 320 stalls and cows below.

“The biggest thing we could do was to bring what we thought would be needed and to help organize the next steps. We have similar operations,” Walt explained. Ar-Joy milks 600 cows while Walmoore milks 850. “When we got there, it was emotional to see, but I was able to be less emotionally-attached in that moment about what to do next.”

For example, Walt immediately saw that the lights were on so he wanted to first secure the electrical situation before proceeding with freeing cows and cleaning up debris.

Marilyn says that a farmer’s impulse in a time like this is to call another farmer. Who else would understand the situation, to know what was needed, and be able to bring clarity of thought?

“Walt was a big help to me,” Duane added. “I was able to bounce ideas off him, and he could be objective and see things I couldn’t see in that moment.

“You are kind of in shock and you lose the concept of time. It’s hard to explain the magnitude of it,” Duane recalled those first moments when the roof collapsed sometime around 1:30 a.m. His first impulse to run in and try freeing some cows was barely forming in his mind when another surge of collapsing roof brought the whole thing down.

What followed was an overwhelming silence, except for the occasional sound of metal scraping metal and cows lowing in distress. The milkers had stopped milking, and they all stood frozen with Duane and Marilyn for a few moments, mulling their options in the pre-dawn darkness.

When Walt Moore, Andy Laffey and Tim Barlow arrived with gates for sorting cows, the race was on. As reported last week, four construction crews from two companies, along with scores of neighbors helped the Hersheys and their team of employees sort, milk and feed cows; clean up wreckage; and restore a semblance of order to the farm.

They had one group of cows that had found their own way through the fallen roof wreckage and were corralled in the middle of the barn with no path out. “We cut a tunnel through the fallen roof for those 200-plus cows to walk through,” Duane recalled. “Everyone kept saying they can’t believe how calm the cows are, but that’s because we had so many farmers come help us. They knew how to handle dairy cows.”

Four to six hours later, cows were freed, some were put down, others were tended by Dr. Kristula of New Bolton, a group of 100 were transported to Walmoore for temporary housing, and the milking had resumed. “We had enough barn cleaned up for the cows to eat and drink,” Duane said. “They couldn’t all lay down, but at least they could eat and drink.”

Employees cycled them through feeding areas in the upper part of the barn that was still standing and the lower bank barn where the Hersheys normally keep transition cows.

Two of the Hersheys four children who live somewhat locally and got to the farm as fast as they could -- given the condition of the roads in the early morning hours following the barn roof collapse on Feb. 14. "The first thing we did was give hugs," said daughter Kacie, who lives in Lancaster County and had been text-messaging her mother Marilyn some reassuring Bible verses. Their son Kelby lives in Maryland. He just returned from his Army tour of duty in Afghanistan two weeks ago. He said it would have been much more difficult to hear of this and be a continent away. He was glad he could be home to help. Stephen lives in New York and Robert attends college in Montana.

Two of the Hersheys four children who live somewhat locally and got to the farm as fast as they could — given the condition of the roads in the early morning hours following the barn roof collapse on Feb. 14. “The first thing we did was give hugs,” said daughter Kacie, who lives in Lancaster County and had been text-messaging her mother Marilyn some reassuring Bible verses. Their son Kelby lives in Maryland. He just returned from his Army tour of duty in Afghanistan two weeks ago. He said it would have been much more difficult to hear of this and be a continent away. He was glad he could be home to help. Stephen lives in New York and Robert attends college in Montana.

Daughter Kacie and son Kelby were able to get to the farm that morning. Kacie had been text-messaging her mother comforting Bible verses. Kelby was ready to dig in and help. He lives in Maryland and had just returned from his Army tour of duty in Afghanistan two weeks earlier. Son Stephen lives in New York and Robert attends college in Montana.

“The first thing we did was hug our parents,” said Kacie, whose text messages had provided the inspiration Marilyn needed to kick down the wall she had hit emotionally.

The Hersheys can’t say enough about their team of employees and how they worked together to keep the cows milked and fed during the ordeal. “It’s unbelievable how back-to-normal they seem,” said Marilyn. “Yes, our production is off, but the cow behaviors are back to normal.”

As for the rebuilding, the Hersheys are thankful how that came together. “Sue Beshore (Morrissey Insurance) always told us to keep that replacement value in our policy even though we were tempted sometimes to drop it,” Marilyn recalls. “We are so glad to have that.”

The Hersheys were also glad the adjuster gave them the freedom and flexibility to immediately tend their cattle and clean up so the roof replacement could be done immediately before the next round of frigid cold and snow in the forecast.

Cows were amazingly calm at Ar-Joy Farms as their new roof went up one week after the old one collapsed under the weight of extraordinary snow and ice pack. Owner Duane Hershey (red shirt) stepped out of his comfort zone to help the building crews who were pushed to get as much done as possible Thursday before the rain and wind on Friday.

Cows were amazingly calm at Ar-Joy Farms as their new roof went up one week after the old one collapsed under the weight of extraordinary snow and ice pack. Owner Duane Hershey (red shirt) stepped out of his comfort zone to help the building crews who were pushed to get as much done as possible Thursday before the rain and wind on Friday.

The bottom line in this story is how important it is for people to “hold each other up when facing a disaster,” said Duane. “To have friends and neighbors like that, just to see them there, it’s something I can’t explain. A lot of them left their own farms on a snowy morning to come here and help us. What can I say that really expresses our gratitude?”

The couple also received calls from dairy farmers in New York who had been through roof collapses. They gave advice and suggestions.

“You learn how important friendships are,” added Marilyn. “This is a tight farming community. I can’t tell you how thankful we are.”

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