AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s Women in Dairy month and the season of harvest and Thanksgiving, so I reached out to more than a dozen women across two generations and several states for their insights and wisdom. Each woman received the same five questions, and the feedback was both informative and inspirational. Here is part one.
By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 16, 2018
BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — When asked what challenges and opportunities women see in dairying today, many of those interviewed pointed out the low milk prices and the difficulty in managing costs and juggling payments through the months when milk prices don’t stretch. But even more so, they identified consumer communication as a primary challenge.
“Conveying milk and dairy products as superior (because dairy is), conveying the economic struggle… and meeting consumer demand and desires with economic realities,” writes Katie Sattazahn of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania describing the main challenges she sees for dairy.
Katie is part of Zahncroft Farms LLC with 250 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows in a conventional freestall and parlor facility. She manages the calves and does the farm financials and is part of the third generation of the farm owned and operated in partnership with her husband and brother-in-law.
She also shares snippets of life on the dairy — the basics with the hows and the whys — with her friends on her personal facebook page.
Other women, too, expressed their desire to have the general public understand more fully what dairy producers face and to know the clear nutritional benefits of dairy over other choices in the food and beverage marketplace.
An interesting observation by many dairywomen is that there seems to be a large gap of understanding between farmers who are struggling and the industry representatives who receive a paycheck, regardless.
This was touched upon by Jessica Peters of Meadville, Pennsylvania also. She farms in partnership with her brother and father as the fifth generation, milking 275 Jerseys through the parlor at Spruce Row Farm.
She does a column in Hoards, in which she touched on this topic.
Jessica also does the farm’s facebook page with over 5800 followers, and her “See Jess Farm” style has drawn consumers and other farmers into the discussions of all things dairy, including a lot of myth-busting. She has become known for her social media expressions, including videos where she is clear to be herself and to be real and to be entertaining.
Recently, she spoke to a group of industry representatives and warned them that her presentation would be unlike anything they’d ever seen.
“I talked about what I do online and why I do it,” says Jessica. “I touched on what they can do for us. I told them to understand life sucks for us right now, that it is difficult for us to answer the phone because you want money, and we don’t have any, and you are our friends, and it is awkward,” she explains in her very honest and direct manner.
She also produced a little video “Dear struggling farmer,” several months ago that has continued to fill her phone and inbox with others reaching out to talk or to thank her for putting into words what they are feeling and could not express.
After speaking to bankers and industry reps, Jessica says she couldn’t believe how many came up to her and said they did not realize how hard it is right now. The difficulties go beyond dollars and sense and what Peters describes is the reality of what people feel and how it affects relationships and every part of their lives and businesses.
“My dad always says we don’t want to be complainers, and I am not a Debbie-downer, but not speaking about what we feel is part of what got us here,” she says.
For Katie, the challenge of meeting consumer desires for small to mid-sized family-run farms in an environment where processors and agribusinesses are leaning toward wanting larger farms, is an example of the challenging gap in understanding.
“How do we give consumers what they want — quickly — so they don’t find another product to consume?” Katie asks. “We have a superior product that we don’t need to alter… We just need to educate consumers to understand that dairy packs a huge nutritional package per dollar of cost. As a younger farmer, I recognize everyone needs to eat … so the opportunity in 20-plus years is definitely there for our generation.”
Renee Troutman farms with her husband, milking 100 Holsteins in Berks County, Pennsylvania. She milks, raises calves, does the heat detection and bookkeeping.
Seeing the challenge of rapid consolidation of the dairy industry, Renee points out the impact of diminished market options, which was not the case when they started farming.
“The dairy gave us a great quality of life for our first decade in, and it was our plan and desire to continue that way. But things are changing in the industry and the feeling of becoming obsolete because of our size and structure is tangible. The last several years of low milk prices has all but eroded that first decade of progress,” says Renee.
She and others talk about looking ahead at ways to diversify and ways to get closer to consumers who seem to want that relationship with food producers.
In a broader way of relating to others, Jessica put some of the farming realities in the form of submitted photos into a recent “This is Farming” video for National Farmer’s Day in October, organized to an uplifting and inspiring song.
“I am very millennial. It has to be fun or emotional to catch my attention, and that’s what I try to do with my videos, catch their attention and just be myself,” she says.
The “This is Farming” video is something she had in her head for awhile after watching The Greatest Showman. She loves music and theater. It was Jessica Peters — along with Katie Dotterer-Pyle of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, Maryland — who started the “dairy dance off” earlier this year where farmers, farm women, farm kids across the country caught on with little stress-relieving videos of themselves or others on the farm dancing karioke-style while doing chores.
For “This is Farming,” Jessica had the vague idea in her mind, but then decided to post a request for photos at the Dairy Girl Network facebook group. On-farm photos started pouring in from across the country. Within a half hour, she had 300 photos. It took 6 hours to edit the video together, and she posted it later that day on Facebook and YouTube. (Here’s a link to it again: This is Farming)
“I never expected such a good response,” Jessica says. “It is one of those videos that speaks to the heart for those in and out of the industry.”
She notes further that “everyone is feeling this concern right now.”
Jessica and others say they see the emotion in conversations and posts in networking groups and in the unspoken word.
“People need a place to go to connect,” she says.
“I guess one of the most important things I want people to know is that they are not personally failing,” says Jessica. “It’s almost like agriculture as a whole is falling hard right now, and that we need to talk to each other and realize that even though it feels personal, it’s not.”
She too is concerned about the public perception of agriculture, but takes it a step farther. She wants it to be real.
“People don’t seem to consider farmers as people. I just don’t think they realize we are people, the same as everyone else. We have done that by setting ourselves apart from the average consumer,” Jessica observes.
That’s changing through social media and dairywomen who give glimpses of life on the farm within the context of every day life their non-farm peers can relate to.
“Building relationships is important as a first step with the goal of getting others to trust you enough to come to you when they have that question,” says Jessica.