By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, August 3, 2018
CONESTOGA, Pa. — The number one problem needing solved for dairy is bringing back fluid milk demand. Good things are happening in the dairy industry, which makes now the critical time to seek ideas, think outside the box, and be open to seeing — and seizing — opportunities.
That’s what came through during a recent interview with Rob Barley in his office at Star Rock Farms. The Lancaster County farmer and dairy producer is having a busy summer as the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB).
He is also the first dairy farmer to be appointed by USDA to the at-large general public seat on the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board, which funds the Milk Processors Education Program (MilkPEP) for educating consumers and increasing fluid milk consumption.
“For way too long, producers have been struggling with profitability. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to help bring back a positive atmosphere, that gives farmers hope, to know we have a product people want, that makes their lives better, while providing a return for our hard work,” says Barley. “In the long term, there are issues to address and to quantify, but in the short term, we want to find ways to increase fluid milk consumption because that solves a lot of our problems.”
In the farm business partnership with his brother and cousin, as well as in leadership roles through the years, what Barley says he enjoys most is “the people in this industry. They are good and hard working. I’ve been part of the dairy industry all my life, and I want Pennsylvania to remain a strong dairy state.”
July brought a changing of the guard and a fresh spirit of optimism and forward-looking energy to the PMMB with the June Senate confirmation of both Barley and Dr. Carol Hardbarger, who join Jim Van Blarcom on the three-member board.
While Barley wasn’t actively seeking the appointment, he was often been called upon to give a dairy producer’s point of view at House and Senate hearings over the past 10 years during his previous involvement with the Dairy Policy Action Coalition (DPAC).
“There was a clamor for change, and people were encouraging me to consider a PMMB appointment,” he says. People were vocal about it. Fellow dairy farmers asked Rob to get involved, and the support of Senators Scott Martin and Ryan Aument of Lancaster County, as well as the Senate leadership, was instrumental.
Once it became clear there were two openings for board terms that had expired without re-appointment, Barley had discussions with Pa. Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding and was honored when the Governor appointed him in May.
Now, just a month after being confirmed by the Senate, Barley says he is getting a feel for the PMMB’s regulatory function. At the same time, he wants the board to exercise a leadership role in the collective efforts underway to strengthen Pennsylvania dairy.
That process of idea-gathering began with Secretary Redding’s letter to the previous board in April, followed by the previous chairman, Luke Brubaker, holding several open hearings for public comment.
Barley wants to keep that momentum going. In addition to spending a day or two each week in Harrisburg with staff, he has been reaching out in person and by phone to talk with people from all facets of the dairy industry. He wants to understand the landscape of what’s being done now, and take-in ideas from others about what can be done going forward.
“We have opportunities, and a board and staff that really want to work on this. We’ve had discussions about many things, including how to support and encourage our schools where milk is concerned. Jim is really engaged in this and Carol has some ideas on the consumer side,” says Barley of his fellow PMMB board members. “Carol is a retired educator, and she really has a passion to get information to the consumers, and that’s in her purview as the PMMB member representing consumer interests.”
During the July 2 hearing and sunshine meeting, the first for Barley as PMMB chair, the enthusiasm was apparent among board, staff, industry participants and onlookers as the reorganized board is challenging everyone to bring forward ideas.
“We want all ideas on the table, whether or not they’ve been looked at before,” says Barley. “At this point, we’re focusing on putting anything on the table that will increase demand or bring it back. We’ve challenged the staff to bring out ideas, and they are very engaged.”
The PMMB is also engaging the Pa. Department of Agriculture, Center for Dairy Excellence and the PA Preferred program.
“There’s a limit to what we can do from a regulatory side, because our job as a board is fairly narrow, but we can show vocal support and leadership, and if we see something we can do that can help, we can consider it, or make suggestions to the legislature,” Barley explains.
In fact, the Senate Ag Committee encouraged Barley and Hardbarger to do just that during their confirmation hearing. Senators said they wanted to keep dialog going and see ‘marketing’ put back into the meaning of the Milk Marketing Board.
Barley sees real opportunity in Pennsylvania. And while the multi-part Pennsylvania Dairy Study shows the Keystone state as a good bet for new processing, he realizes new plants are costly, and attracting a new processing plant will take time.
“We are competing with other states that may have more incentives or more sites, but we have the milk and the infrastructure and the quality and the people, and we can overcome some of those challenges by looking at new opportunities with existing plants,” he suggests.
Discussions are already happening with existing fluid milk plants in the industry around ideas for expansion associated with re-tooling and innovation.
“The normal market for fluid milk is not expanding, but maybe we can offer other ways for consumers to enjoy milk,” says Barley. Working with businesses already located in Pennsylvania, with a commitment here, could be a less expensive and faster course of action to get accomplished versus attracting a new plant or new business to the state.
That’s how Barley thinks. He thinks in terms of opportunities and how to capitalize on them, and in these new roles, he is using those skills to strengthen an industry he cares about and bring that to the farm level.
“I’m excited to finally see some good things happening in dairy,” he cites the recent University of Texas Health Science Center published July 11 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It shows the clear health benefits of enjoying full-fat dairy products and whole milk. Barley is also is encouraged by FDA’s recent move to look at what actually is milk.
“Consumption of most dairy products is good, but we are losing fluid demand. With some of the good things beginning to happen, we have this opportunity right now,” says Barley. “All we ever heard for decades is that eggs are bad for us, and now they’re recommending two eggs a day. I see this happening with science supporting dairy.”
Barley looks forward to his first MilkPEP board meeting in Boston in August. Of that separate and voluntary, unpaid promotion board seat, he says “I’m looking to bring the farmer perspective.”
Of the PMMB chairmanship, Barley acknowledges that, “There are hurdles in the current system, and we’re finding out what the board can do, where we fit as the state looks at dairy processing and economic development and in what ways we can encourage innovation to increase demand.”
In both appointments, Barley is focused on fluid milk demand. Pure and simple, he considers it job number one. His bottom line is that doing the right thing is something no one should be afraid of.
“That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain,” he says. “If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.”
As the board and staff engage with farmers, cooperatives, processors, retailers, and even consumers, Barley stresses that, “We want to hear as many ideas and meet with as many folks as possible. There’s more agreement in this industry than most people think.”
RobBarley photo caption
Rob Barley at Star Rock Farms, where he is in partnership with his brother Tom and cousin Abe in the diversified dairy, crop and livestock business. As the new chairman of the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB), and first dairy farmer recently appointed to an at-large seat on the National Fluid Milk Processors Promotion Board, he hopes to help make fluid milk demand job number one. “That’s really what I want to see — and what farmers want to see, and what everyone wants to see — is that fluid milk demand to increase. If everyone working on it can start bringing it back, that will help the profit margins the whole way through the chain. If we continue to have fluid milk demand being destroyed, nothing will save our industry.” Photo by Sherry Bunting
A story interview with the new PMMB consumer representative, Dr. Carol Hardbarger, appears in Friday’s Sept. 7 Farmshine, beginning on page 3. This one will also be posted at this blog in the future.