About Agmoos

I am a journalist writing primarily about agriculture for various newspapers over the past 30 years...and before that, I milked cows and tended calves and heifers. I am also a mother and grandmother with three grown children: A teacher, restaurateur and homemaker. Our two sons and one daughter all like to cook and they are food conscious... not paranoid. My "foodographic" blog is a place to find stories and photos of the people and places behind the food we eat and for occasional commentary on food / farm issues as well as the occasional food tip or recipe from our families to yours.

Cutting costs, connecting consumers, striving to keep joy in dairying: Dairywomen share insights, Part Three

AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s the last week of November, the month to celebrate women in dairy. A dozen women from multiple generations, states and farm sizes responded to the same five questions in this three-part series. Part One “Being Real” ran in the November 16 Farmshine, Part Two “Faith, friendships, fighting for each other’s survival” ran November 23 and this is Part Three, which ran in the November 30 Farmshine.

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Even our animals know that no matter where or who is your support group, the important thing is that you have one. They, too, are counting on us to tell our story, we all have one.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 30, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Communicating with dairywomen about the challenges and opportunities in dairy today continually circles back to the economics. On many large and small family dairy farms, there is some diversification, so the low prices right now for all commodities are trying. But these women also see opportunities for better pay prices in the future through communication with consumers, changes in dietary recommendations and reaching out into the world of specialty markets.

Answering questions while attending a Penn State cheesemaking course recently, Amy Brickner in south central Pennsylvania says she “feels strongly that the only way small farms are going to continue is through the processing and marketing of premium dairy products locally, which also ensures that people are invested personally in where their food comes from.”

She describes herself as a “slightly unconventional dairywoman.” She still acts as herd manager on her family’s 160-cow dairy while moving to her fiance’s 100-cow dairy farm in charge of herd management and records and looking to add a milking robot. Both farms are three and four generations in dairy farming, and like others, dairying is both a business and a heritage that brings a passion for cow care and quality milk to the table.

In south central Wisconsin, fourth generation dairy farmer Cindy Krull Begeman also cites the generational passion for dairy in families like hers. But, like others, she views the future with heavy doses of practicality.

“Low milk prices are making it very hard to want to pass the farm on to the kids,” says Cindy. “As a parent, we always want better for our kids. Even though we love our cows, it is pretty hard to want our kids to struggle like we are now.”

Pulling in a positive direction during difficult times is something Cindy is no stranger to. After the death of her husband eight years ago, she talked with her children about what to do with the farm and the cattle.

“This farm had been in Brian’s family for three generations. The kids were 17, 14 and 10 at the time and very involved in 4-H and FFA. They wanted to at least keep a few cows around to keep the cow family lines going after their father and I had worked so hard to breed them,” she recalls. They sold half the herd at that time and slowly started to rebuild with embryo transfers out of their favorite cow families. They milk 50 registered cows in a tie-stall barn and run 350 acres of crops along with some pasture.

While Cindy still owns and manages the farm, her daughters do the matings and are involved in the genetics and her son is working in the industry. Last year, she took a job as herd manager of a 300-cow robotic dairy in northeast Iowa where they bottle milk and make cheese and ice cream. Having remarried and relocated near Sioux Falls, her youngest daughter attending Iowa State and with her younger brother and his family helping with the cows and crops on the home farm in Wisconsin, the situation works, and her lifelong involvement in the dairy industry gives her both a broad and narrow view of the future.

Specifically, she says they have taken many practical steps in this down market — cutting back on everything extra that they can from the feed bill and the vet bill. They take extra jobs off the farm, sell extra equipment, clean out the closets and sell extra clothes to buy new.

Terri Hawbaker has also sharpened her pencil at Grazeway Dairy in central Michigan. Having worked full time on the farm as she and her late husband Rick purchased it from her parents in 2002, she also went through a transition when Rick passed away nearly three years ago. Her children will be the sixth generation on the farm and the third on the homestead. She and the children operate the farm, along with employees, and Terri’s parents manage the heifer ranch rented for youngstock and hay.

“This allows (my parents) some additional income in their retirement years, yet they can travel when they want,” says Terri, adding that her parents help when needed in hay making, parts running and food preparation.

“Each dairy will have its own unique challenges and different opportunities, depending on their goals and vision… and available markets,” she points out, noting their current ongoing challenge is “to be as efficient as possible with the resources available without taking all the joy out of dairy farming.”

Like Amy, Terri also observes that with markets being limited, “quality is a must in order not to lose the market you have. Opportunities for a dairy of our size include more out-of-the-box thinking, such as A2 genetics, suppliers for specialized products, agritourism, and educational and training opportunities for others.”

She also believes it’s important to do what is right for the individual farm, not necessarily what the recommendations are from others.

“Every farm went into this slump in a different financial situation, and that will determine, somewhat, their outcome,” she says as a matter of reality. While she has taken very specific actions in 2017, she says “it boils down to continuing to work on efficiency.”

She is quick to point out that what is efficient time-wise and what is efficient financially can be different. “At the end of the day, it’s money-in vs. money-out,” she says, and she weighs the money-in / money-out with the “comfort and convenience” before making a decision.

One example is her reduction of custom work costs by taking more of that on themselves. “For example, hauling the hay from our rented farm takes twice as long doing it ourselves, but remember, it’s money-in vs. money-out.”

Other advice she takes seriously is to challenge how things have always been done and rethinking things that don’t have a good “why.”

One area she is most open to is different ways to feed the cattle that may be more financially efficient. For her herd, it’s grazing, and simplifying the grazing system has been a key to it.

Terri is also set on “clearing the clutter.” She says it helps to simplify, to sell excess machinery, to clean up the scrap pile. “Clearing the clutter not only brings you down to the core of what you actually need, it creates a more clean and peaceful work environment.”

And when it came to replacing a full-time employee, she opted to split responsibilities and take more on for herself by rearranging her work day. “I don’t get paid by the hour, so I am driven to get the work done, yet gentle on equipment because repairs come out of my pocket, essentially.”

Along with that, she evaluates the skill of her employees working on equipment and believes in communicating not just the how, but also the why, when explaining the importance of being gentle on equipment. She explained to employees that a recent skid loader repair of $4777 leaves less “in the pot” for raises and bonuses.

For Jessica Slaymaker of northern Pennsylvania, the challenge is real after she and her husband built the freestall barn three years ago milking 150 cows. She works mainly on the cow side “a herdsman who knows how to run a skidsteer,” so to speak. Before marrying Dan, Jessica was herdwoman at her parent’s nearby 600-cow dairy.

“I don’t think anyone thought this downturn would last so long,” says Jessica. “It is making us try to think smarter and be more efficient, but it is mentally, physically and emotionally draining.”

But she sees the opportunities for the future, “When things finally do turn around, I think we have a lot of potential here. We have good genetics and can hopefully market extra replacements. We also breed the lower 25% of the herd to beef bulls and that boost in income is helping too.”

In Mississippi, Tanya Rushing sees the challenges in market access after plant closures. She partnered with her father in the 80-cow dairy until she bought him out in 2017. She’s the third generation to dairy there, and her husband works off the farm but helps with mechanical work and wherever else he can while their son now works part time on the farm with the intention of carrying the farm into a fourth generation once he’s out of school.

As sole owner and operator now, Tanya has two employees to help with milking and other labor. She, too, relies on good grass management and hay.

“To me, the challenges and opportunities facing the dairy industry go hand-in-hand,” says Tanya. “The difficulties are forcing many farmers to close their barn doors, and I hate to see it happen. But I also feel that a change in economic policies, as well as new dietary recommendations concerning butter and whole milk will improve on-farm pay prices in the future.”

She cites the need for positive agricultural and animal advocacy, which “forces farmers to stepout of their tractors and tell their farm stories to the public,” says Tanya. “Consumers want and need to know the voices behind where their food comes from. Advocacy is an integral part of the future of dairy, and we all must strive to educate people every chance we get.”

For Tricia Adams in northern Pennsylvania, it’s easy to identify the challenges in dairy right now, and she spends a lot of her time working on the solution side. “You feel helpless and disappointed to see milk sold as a core staple while watching so many other products like soy and margarine replace your product to where now we have to defend our product and can’t seem to backpeddle fast enough,” she says.

Tricia and her three brothers own and operate Hoffman Farms as the transition is in process from her parents Dale and Carol Hoffman who moved from Snyder to Potter County with 35 cows in the 1970s. Today, they are milking 800. In addition to her many roles feeding calves, managing employees and working in the office, Tricia helps educate consumers through the farm’s Facebook page and giving school and community tours for many years.

The questions come into the page and even to her personal facebook page. “Even my friends start questioning things that dairy farmers do that they don’t understand. I explain what we do and try to be upbeat.”

She also has worked on ideas to get better milk in the schools because when the school tours come to the farm, the kids always say “Oh, it’s the GOOD milk.” They always serve whole white and whole chocolate milk on their tours to put dairy’s best and most nutritious foot forward, and she finds that she has to order it ahead of time from the grocer to make sure there’s enough whole milk for her events.

“There has got to be better access to our products,” says Tricia. “I go to a restaurant or on college visits with my kids and look for the milk. I go to the store and find whole milk few and far between, but plenty of 1% milk. Our teachers in the schools want to change the milk also, but run into the red-tape.”

At Hoffman Farms, the second and third generations are starting to look deeper at what they can do to become more self-sufficient. They, too, are using beef bulls on some of the herd and recently began marketing custom beef, locally.

“As farmers, I think we have to take charge of our livelihoods again and come back full-circle to marketing our products,” Tricia observes, explaining their recent diversification into selling beef. “We have consumers. They want to buy from us as farmers. So we are thinking a lot about how to build even more relationships with consumers.”

The scariest part of the future, says Tricia, is “not knowing when to make the critical decision to stay in or exit. We’re in this so far. It’s our life and our livelihood, our family homestead. The time to retire out has come and gone, so we’re at a point where we will keep going. Our backs are against the wall, and that is forcing us to look at other ideas.”

She relates something her father always says. “Everybody has to eat, meaning farmers will always have a job, but sometimes it seems not to be the case. If we can’t have our products where they need to be and are losing future milk drinkers because the milk at school isn’t filling and yummy anymore, it makes things more difficult to shape that secure dairy future.”

Having middle-schoolers read The Omnivore’s Dilemma as part of the New York curriculum is another hurdle, but it also gave Tricia’s daughters the opportunity to speak up and invite the class to the farm to see how modern dairies really do take care of their cows.

In every aspect of life, Tricia sees opportunities to tell dairy’s good story, and she embraces that challenge. “It’s essential because the consumer is bombarded with so much misinformation and we have to be active in turning it around.”

Cindy sees this too. “One of the best things as a woman dairy farmer is that we get to tell our story to everyone, every chance we get. Whether it’s coffee hour at church, or some other opportunity, we can take milk and ask if anyone needs it, then bring up how important milk is and how bad things are for farmers across the county,” she relates. “We have to tell our story. We all have one.”

She also finds real value in networking with others. “We all need to learn, to get out and talk with other farmers,” she emphasizes, “because we are all in this together, and we all understand each other. We are not alone!”

Socializing with like-minded individuals is also important to Tanya. “It helps me to feel not so alone with the day-to-day challenges, to blow off steam with ladies who ‘get it,’ and discuss the fine lines between being a farmer, a business owner, a mom, wife and daughter.”

For Jessica, Dairy Girl Network has been “a Godsend. It is a lifeline to women who know what you are going through and deal with day-to-day,” she says. “Being involved so heavily in the daily activities on the farm can make a person feel isolated; however, with Facebook and the Dairy Girl Network page, I can go there while eating lunch, or milking a slow side of cows, and interact with women from all over the U.S. To me, that’s amazing. Everyone is there to answer questions, offer guidance, or just to listen and comfort. It’s an amazing group of women that I am proud to be a part of.”

Tricia also gets on the DGN page. “I love it because there is nothing negative on there,” she says. “We may complain, but it’s not a negative pointing of fingers.” She also wants to start a group of women meeting in her area because “we have other things in common too. It’s good to find the fun things, to share pictures of our kids on the farm, or a new ice cream recipe or collaborate on what kids can take to school for snacks or even inspiration for designing farm logos. It helps to be connected.”

For Amy, being part of the Dairy Moms facebook group has been one of her best support teams. “It is 100% the most positive group of women, and no matter what kind of day you are having, or what struggle or triumph any one in the group is having, we are all supportive and understanding, and ready with positive comments and help,” she notes.

Terri follows different networking groups through social media, as well, and she focuses on groups that cater to the grazing systems. “I view farming as a business, and just like other industries, there are males and females and the percentages vary,” she says, noting that the important thing for her has been having “a few very close friends that have gone through all the trials and celebrations with me… and a few mentors that I call upon.

“No matter where or who is in your support group, what matters is that you have one.”

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Faith, focus, friendships, fighting for each other’s survival: Dairywomen share insights, Part Two

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A dozen women from multiple generations, states and farm sizes respond to the same questions. Part one ran last week, here is part two.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 23, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — When asked what challenges and opportunities women see for dairy farming today into the future, “sustainability” comes to the forefront, but not in the way we often see this term used.

“The biggest challenge is, of course, sustainability… Can we survive!?” writes Joy Widerman, the youngest partner-owner of the second generation of the Hess family operating JoBo Holsteins, a 1075-cow dairy that grew to include multiple families and generations after her parents John and Bonnie relocated from Lancaster County to Adams County, Pennsylvania in the 1970s.

Joy is herdswoman and takes care of reproduction and genetic decisions, so she is continually looking ahead at the registered Holstein and Brown Swiss herd’s future.

“We are doing everything in our power to be profitable, but with so many unknowns in the dairy industry, it’s hard. From milk prices to feed prices, to weather — farming is one of riskiest jobs to have,” Joy relates.

She wonders how dairy farms will “make room for future generations to join.”

Profitability is the key to achieving that, and experts suggest diversification.

“But with the market as scary as it is,” writes Joy. “How do we do that? These are questions my family faces everyday… What’s next?”

Alicia Haag of Mohrsville, Pennsylvania also talks about the uncertainty. “We don’t know what tomorrow brings,” she says. “So we clamp down hard on our faith and try to feel the blessings of having this opportunity to grow up in America and be blessed with what we have at the moment.”

Alicia finds it difficult to see all the herd dispersals happening, and she tries “not to dwell on the bad” and to remain thankful to have children with a keen interest in the farm that has been in her husband’s family for seven generations.

She and her husband Mike milk 76 registered Holsteins in a tiestall barn. She takes care of the night milking with her daughter and occasional help from a neighbor. She is responsible for calf care and feeding, and helps anywhere else she is needed. She has also been working off the farm as a construction-zone flagger for a local contractor since 1999.

In the last year or two, Alicia has increased her off-farm hours, working two or three days a week, every week, to help bring income back to the farm. She often flags beside other local dairywoman on job sites all over.

“It’s hard for moms to find a job off the farm that provides good enough pay to make income after paying the help that replaces you at home,” Alicia notes. “There aren’t many jobs that also give the flexibility I need to be able to successfully be a mom and farm wife.”

She hopes other employers will consider flexibility the next time they consider employing a farm wife.

“If we want to help the farming industry remain here, having off-farm jobs that offer a little flexibility could be a key,” Alicia suggests. “Employers should know that when they hire a farmer’s wife, they are getting someone who is going to come in and give 100%.”

This year has been particularly stressful on farm families, she observes: “We are tired between the economic stress and the weather. It’s hard to get yourself out of the funk. Trying to get crops off when you know the income isn’t there with milk prices, so you’re trying to do the crops right to get by with the income you have.”

The Haags, like others, had extra expenses with replanting and not being able to get forages off the fields timely this season. In times of stress, she cites the special importance of family, friends and networking with others as a way to rejuvenate optimism — whether it’s getting together with friends, a hug from someone who understands, or the ideas and support gleaned in a network of other farm women.

While there isn’t much time for it, Alicia loves sitting on her front porch and talking with her kids. “Most of the corn is off, and the cover crops are just starting to peek through,” she describes the November scene as a metaphor. “This is life — looking out, everything looks dead, but I know that in this field there are seeds planted, and it will soon be green again.”

For Karen Hawbaker of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, living in faith surrounded with people who share her values have been keys to getting through the toughest of times.

“We can’t do life alone,” she says, noting the good in getting away, mentally and physically, even if just for a few hours. She believes dairy farmers need this, and sometimes the ‘one more thing to do’ can be replaced with ‘it can be done tomorrow.’

Karen started dairy farming with her late husband Rodney in the 1980s. Eight years ago, she lost him in a farming accident. Today, she operates the 200-cow dairy on her own with a team of employees and trusted advisors.

“If God helps get us through something, that’s another confirmation that we are where we are meant to be. We can’t do any of this without faith. It changes the whole outlook,” Karen explains, reflecting on how she felt the prayers of others in her loss. “I look around and see that I would hate to try to do this by myself. When we set ourselves apart, it causes divisions. We have enough divisions out there.”

Carol Williams of Madison, Georgia also observes how bringing people together — within and beyond the farm gate — provides what is her true definition of opportunity: “A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.”

She has been farming 42 of the 43 years she and Everett have been married. She has milked, fed calves, raised replacements, planted, chopped, hauled and spread crops for silage, fed cows, hauled cows, pulled calves, built fences, finished concrete, changed tires, done minor mechanic work all while raising four kids and being a homemaker.

Dairywomen balance a lot of competing priorities!

Today, their two sons take care of day-to-day management of the 1700-cow WDairy, and their two daughters help in the office and with dairy promotion and youth events.

“Being part of networks helps people to understand that they are not alone. Women on farms can be isolated, and with today’s economic atmosphere, they can be discouraged,” Carol observes, explaining how seeing other women go through the same things, getting tips on how to do things, and hearing encouraging words helps.

“When I was young, all the other wives were teachers, and I had no one to relate to. I would have benefitted greatly from a friendly network,” she recalls.

Without exception, dairywomen see the importance of reaching out beyond the farm gate as the percentage of the population in farming continues to diminish.

“All farmers have the same challenges of weather, low prices, high input costs, and labor shortages,” Carol notes, citing one of the biggest challenges as the amount of misinformation that is publicized daily about agriculture.

“Most people have no idea what is really involved in producing the food and fiber that they use daily. They believe that dairy farmers abuse their animals, that farmers purposely pollute streams and rivers, that we have 9-to-5 jobs with weekends off, that we are getting wealthy, that meat and dairy products are unhealthy, and that nuts can give milk,” she relates. “Even worse, they have been so brainwashed that you cannot hold a reasonable conversation to try and educate them about reality.”

These are the shared frustrations of many dairywomen engaging daily on the front lines of communication with consumers, their non-farm peers, at community events, while grocery shopping, by giving tours and on social media.

“Tours at the dairy are a great opportunity to show people just how much our animals mean to us, how their comfort and well-being are our number one priority and how complicated, technologically-advanced and exhausting dairy farming is,” writes Carol.

She tells about the Commercial Dairy Heifer Show Program in Georgia and the opportunity it gives FFA and 4-H youth — 95% of them not from farms. “Dairy farmers loan calves to the kids to raise, train and show. At the end of the show season the heifers are returned to the dairy farmer, and they can get another one for the next season.

“Not only are we teaching these youth about animal care and responsibility, we are educating them about dairy farming. By being exposed to this, many are choosing careers in agriculture,” Carol explains how it leads to more sharing opportunities to the family and friends of these young people.

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Joy Widerman agrees that public understanding is huge in the sustainability — the survival — of family dairy farms. As a mother of three, her quest for balance keeps her focused.

“I know that if I spend too much time worrying about the future of JoBo, then I start to forget what’s truly important — my kids and my family,” she writes, noting that the third generation shows interest in the farm. Some work on the farm after school or after clocking out of their jobs. “Our farm is the backbone of our family. I try not to sugar-coat it. My kids know how hard it is to survive… and that we need to work hard at being profitable.

“I do everything I can to educate the public, so they know what farmers are facing,” she explains. Joy gives tours at the farm, speaks at local meetings of civic organizations and stays in touch through the farm’s Facebook page.

She believes farmers need to stay connected to each other and to consumers.

“Any opportunity we have to talk to others about what we are facing, we should do it,” Joy suggests. “We all need to realize we aren’t in it alone. It’s key that we all lean on each other… to talk and let our voices be heard. We need to fight for each other’s survival.”

Look for more dairywomen wisdom as this Farmshine series continues next week.

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‘It’s getting real, and we’re not alone’

Unsure of future, Nissley family’s faith, community fill gap as dairy chapter closes with sale of 400 cows

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 16, 2018

Nissley0051.jpgMOUNT JOY, Pa. — Another rainy day. Another family selling their dairy herd. Sale day unfolded November 9, 2018 for the Nissley family here in Lancaster County — not unlike hundreds of other families this year, a trend not expected to end any time soon.

After 25 years of building from nothing to 850 dairy animals — and with the next generation involved in the dairy — the Nissleys wrestled with and made their tough decisions, saying there’s no looking back, although the timetable was not as they planned because the milk price fell again, and some options for transitioning into poultry came off the table.

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The Cattle Exchange put up the tent, and the community came out in-force to support the Nissley family and their sale Friday. Throughout the weekend, they heard from people who bought their cows, telling them they’ll take good care of them. While many went to new dairy homes, a third of the cows at dispersals like this one have been going straight to beef, despite culling a good 10% of the herd in the weeks before the sale.

They began culling hard the past few weeks and on Friday, Nov. 9 offered 330 remaining milk cows and over 80 springing heifers. The Cattle Exchange put up the tent, and the community came out at 10 a.m. to support the family and — as Mike Nissley put it — “watch a life’s work sell for peanuts.”

Breeding age heifers are being offered for sale privately and the young calves, for now, are still being raised on another farm as they would sell for very little in these trying times.

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As we talk outside the sale tent in the cold November rain, the cell phones in the pockets of Mike, Nancy (left) and Audrey are sounding off with outpourings of support. Know that the smiles through brushed back tears are because of the loving care of others, the family’s faith in a loving God, and the knowledge that they took great care of their cows.

Mike and his wife Nancy aren’t sure what the future looks like, but they are surely feeling the prayers, calls and texts of their friends, family, and community getting them through it.

Both Mike and his daughter Audrey Breneman have loved working with the cows, saying the sale felt like a funeral — “the death of a dream” — standing in the light rain outside the sale tent while the auctioneer chanted prices dipping into the $500s and $600s, even struggling shy of $1000 on a cow making 90 pounds of milk with a 54,000 SCC.

Later, a smile crossed his face, hearing the auctioneer stretch for $1700. “That one’s good to hear,” he says, as they headed back into the tent to watch springing and bred heifers sell.

While Daniel Brandt announced their number-one heifers, bids of $1600 and $1700 could be heard on some.

Nissley2011“It was a privilege to make the announcements on those 425 head, and I was impressed with the turnout of buyers, friends and neighbors as the tent was packed,” said Brandt after the sale. “The cows were in great condition and you could tell management was excellent.”

Mike gave Audrey the credit.

Before the rattle of cattle gates and the pitch of the auctioneer began, Audrey addressed the crowd with words that make the current dairy situation real for all who were there to hear them:

“We would like to welcome you to the Riverview Farms herd dispersal and thank you each for coming. Today feels a bit like attending my own funeral where we bury a piece of me, a piece of my family, and a piece of history, where we say goodbye to a lifestyle, to a way of life, to a lot of good times and many hardships as well. But I stand before you today proud to present to you a herd of cows that will do well no matter where they go.

 “This isn’t the end for these ladies, nor is it the end for us. I’ve had the privilege of managing the herd for the last 15 years and though we may not have done everything perfectly, we’ve done a pretty darn good job of developing and managing a set of cows that can be an asset to your herd. Everything being sold here today is up to date on vaccines. Any cows called pregnant has been rechecked in the last 10 days, Feet have been regularly maintained and udder health was always top priority. We culled hard over the last few weeks and have only the cream puffs left as the auctioneer Dave Rama says.

 “Though it feels like the end, it’s only the beginning of the next chapter, and we’re excited to see where God leads us next. Our milk inspector said once: it’s not a right to milk cows, it’s a privilege, and that’s exactly what this herd of cows was, a privilege.”

Her sister Ashlie’s husband Ryan Cobb offered a poignant prayer. The youngest grandchildren not in school, watched until lunchtime as the selling went through the afternoon, and the cattle were loaded onto trucks in the deepening rain at dusk.

As the sale progressed, a solemn reflection could be seen in the eyes of neighbors and peers. To see a local family sell a sizeable herd leaves everyone wondering ‘who’s next’ if prices don’t soon recover.

Nissley-Edits-21.jpg“It’s getting real,” says Mike. “Everyone is focused on survival, but we can see others are shook, not just for us, but because they are living it too.”

He has spent the last two years fighting to protect everything, including his family, “but now I surrender,” he says. “It feels like failure.”

There’s where he’s wrong. There are no failures here, except that the system is failing our farmers — and has been for quite some time — leaving good farmers, good dairymen and women, to believe it is they who have failed, when, in fact, they have almost without exception succeeded in every aspect of what they do.

Nancy is quick to point out that without Mike’s efforts and the family’s faith, “we wouldn’t have gotten this far, but now it’s time to see where God leads us next.”

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The dairy chapter closed last Friday for the Nissley family in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, but they are looking forward to where God leads them next. Mike and Nancy Nissley are flanked by daughter and herdswoman Audrey (left) and son-in-law and feed manager Matt Breneman and son Mason and daughter Ashlie (right) and son-in-law Ryan Cobb.

“Never have we felt the love and support like we have now from our community,” Audrey relates.

Nancy tells of a group of 20 who met at the farm for a meal the night before: “They prayed with us and rallied around us and supported us.”

Mike feels especially blessed. “We’ve had people just come over and sit in our kitchen with us,” he says. “People say ‘we’re here for you.’ People I never met are reaching out to tell me ‘you’re not alone, you’ll get through it, and there’s life after cows.’”

His bigger concern is that, “The public doesn’t fathom what the real struggles are out here. They have no idea where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it, the hours of work, of being tied to it 24/7/365. As farmers, we don’t have the resources or the time to correct all the misinformation when everyone believes what they see on social media.

“They go in a store and see milk still sold at $4.75/gal. The ice cream mix we buy for our ice cream machine costs the same as it did in 2014, when farm milk prices were much higher. DFA and Land O’Lakes report big annual profits. Where does the money go? Where did our basis go? It used to be $3.00 and now it’s barely 50 cents. There’s not one area to fix if the system is broken,” Mike says further.

“When you really look at this,” he says, “it’s amazing how little farms get for the service they provide, but if the public doesn’t know or understand that service, then they won’t expect the farmers to receive more and will actually make it harder for the farms to do with less.”

Nissley-Edits-25.jpgThe Riverview herd had good production and exceptional milk quality. Making around 25,000 pounds with SCC averaging below 80,000, Mike is “so proud of the great job Audrey has done. Without that quality, and what was left of the bonus, we would have had no basis at all,” he says, explaining that Audrey’s strict protocols and commitment to cow care, frequent bedding, and other cow comfort management — as well as a great team of employees — paid off in performance.

But at the same time, with all the extra hauling costs and marketing fees being deducted from the milk check, the quality bonus would add, but the subtractions would erode it.

He notes further that a milk surplus doesn’t seem to make sense when the bottom third — or more — of every herd that sells out is going straight to beef.

The Nissleys are emerging from the deepening uncertainty that all dairy farm families are living right now in a country where we have Federal Orders for milk marketing, and yet we are seeing an expedited disorderly death of dreams at kitchen tables where difficult decisions are being made.

Nissley2097Trying to stay afloat — and jockeying things around to make them work — “has been horrible,” said Nancy. She does the books for the farm and has a catering business.

Financial and accounting consultants advised holding off the sale for the bit of recovery that was expected by now. But it never materialized, and in fact, prices went backward.

“The question for us became ‘how much longer do we keep losing money hoping that things will get better?” Audrey suggests. “We had to start figuring our timeline.”

She has been the full-time herd manager here for 15 years since graduating from Delaware Valley University with a dairy science degree. Husband Matt has been the full-time feed and equipment maintenance manager.

Nissley2062

Cows have been part of Audrey Breneman’s life as long as she can remember. “They are part of who I am,” she says. Graduating from Del Val with a dairy science degree in 2003 and working full-time for 15 years as herdswoman at then 400-cow dairy farm started from scratch by her parents Mike and Nancy Nissley, have given her options as she moves forward after the sale of the family’s dairy herd.

She loved the cows. Their care was her passion, and the herd record and condition reflected this. But even the strongest dairy passion has limits when tested in a four-to-five-year-fire of downcycled prices.

“It’s too much work to be doing this for nothing,” she says.

With two young children of her own, Audrey could not envision doing the physical work, the long hours, with no sign of a future return that would allow her and her husband to invest in facilities, equipment and labor. How many years into the future could they keep up this pace, continually improving the herd and their milk quality, but feeling as though they are backpeddling financially?

These are the tough questions that the next generation is asking even as their parents wonder how to retain something for retirement, especially for those like Mike and Nancy who are still a way off from that.

We hear the experts say that the dairy exits are those who are older and deemed this to be “time,” or that the farms selling cows are doing so because their facilities have not been updated, or because they don’t have a next generation interested.

These oversimplified answers seek to appease. The truth is that in many cases — like this one — there is a next generation with a passion and skills for dairy farming.

The problem is the math. It doesn’t add up.

How are next generation dairy skills and passions to take hold when the market has become a flat-line non-volatile price? There are no peaks to go with the valleys because the valley has now become the price that corresponds directly with the lowest cost of production touted by industry sources and policymakers when talking about the nation’s largest consolidation herds in the west — and how they are dropping the bar on breakevens.

How are the next generation’s dairy passions to take hold when mailbox milk checks fall short of even Class III levels in much of the Northeast where farms sit within an afternoon’s drive of the major population centers

In Audrey’s 15 years as herd manager, there have been other downcycles, but they were cycles that included an upside to replenish bank accounts and hope. The prolonged length of the current downcycle brings serious doubt in the minds of young dairy producers about a sustainable future, but are the industry’s influencers, power centers and policymakers paying attention?

wNissley-Edits-39

Cows congregate in the two freestall barns and in the meadow by the road as a holding area during the Nissley family’s sale of the dairy herd Friday while the milking team milks for the last time in the nearby parlor.

Like many of her peers transitioning into family dairy businesses, the past four years have been draining. Much depends upon how far into a transition a next generation is, what resources they have through other diversified income streams in order to have the capital to invest in modernizing dairy facilities and equipment.

Without those capital investments, these challenging dairy markets combine with frustrating daily tasks when there is insufficient return to reinvest and finding and securing sufficient good labor also becomes an issue.

Nissley-Edits-28.jpg

As difficult as it is for the Nissley family, they are also concerned for their family of employees. The herd’s production and excellent milk quality are very much a team effort, they say, and the team of milkers pictured with Audrey (l-r) Manuel, Willie and Anselmo were busy Friday with the last milking at Riverview as cows came through the parlor all day ahead of their sale and transport.

The Nissleys are quick to point out that as hard as this has been for their family, it is also hard on their family of employees. They, too, are hurting.

“This is what I wanted to do all my life. It was our dream when we were married. I had a love for it and Nancy had a love for it,” says Mike, whose dairy dream was ignited by visits to his grandfather’s farm. Nancy grew up on a farm too, but the cows were sold in the 1970s.

The couple worked on dairy farms in the early years and saved their money. In 1994 they started dairying on their own farm with 60 cows. In September 2007, they moved to the Mount Joy location and began renovating the facilities for their growing herd.

Cows have been part of Audrey’s life as long as she can remember. “They are part of who I am,” she says, adding that she is glad to have her dairy science degree, along with the dairy work ethic and experience. “Here we are selling the cows, and I have opportunities to consider that I may not otherwise have. That degree is a piece of paper no one can take away from me.”

As the Nissleys closed this chapter Friday, they turn to what’s next. Nancy says she looks forward to being able to do things together they couldn’t do before while being tied to the dairy farm. As to what they will do on the farm, she says “God has not steered us wrong yet. Yes, it’s scary, but we also have faith that He is in this.”

Nissley2016

Mike and Nancy Nissley aren’t sure what the future looks like, but they say they are feeling the prayers, calls, texts and support of friends, family and community. That’s what is getting them through these days.

Mike has also gained new perspective. He observes that for any dairy family that has a future generation with a long-term goal, it makes sense to stay in and try to ride this out. “But if you have any question about that long-term goal, have the tough conversations about your options.

“It’s easy to lose perspective. For the last two years, I lost my perspective because I was so focused on survival. That’s what I take away from this, the importance of getting perspective. We are first generation farmers. We started with no cows 25 years ago and have 850 animals today. It’s hard to see it all dismantled and be worth nothing. But we’re not second-guessing our decision.”

Talking and praying with friends and acquaintances, Mike believes that, “We go through things, and we can’t let it drag us down but use it for God’s glory.”

Under the milky white November sky spilling rain like tears, he says that while the sale “feels like the death of a dream, I know I’ve been blessed to have shared this dream with my wife and to work alongside our daughter and to see the great things she was able to do with this herd, for as long as we could. I’m thankful for that.”

The sale started at 10 a.m. Over 400 cattle were loaded in the deepening rain at dusk as the dairy chapter closed at Riverview Farm, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, and two generations of the Nissley family said there’s no looking back, only forward to where God leads them next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being real: Dairywomen share insights, Part One

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.

Look for more dairywomen wisdom as this series continues with Part 2 in the Nov. 23, 2018 edition of Farmshine and posted here online at Agmoos.

What will become of, us?

sunsetbarn.jpgGovernment’s cozy relationship with dairy lobby is problem no. 1

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, October 19, 2018

These are tough times. The strain of a fourth year of flat-lined milk prices is wearing thin on dairy farmers and those who serve them.

And the folks inside the Beltway don’t get it.

Wait, maybe they do.

The Farm Bill has yet to be passed, the mid-term elections are over… and the question continues to be asked: What can be done about the fact that family dairy farms are dropping like flies?

This question has been asked and answered for the better part of three years and the whole decade before that… and still we find ourselves repeating the same words falling on the same deaf ears, pleasant nods, and ‘sincere’ handshakes.

Where does Washington go for the answers? The dairy lobby. In fact, members of Congress will say that nothing gets done without getting National Milk Producers Federation on board.

What’s the deal for the future? A better ‘welfare’ program for small farms to window-dress the rapid and deliberate consolidation that is running rough-shod over their markets and using the Federal Order and other regulated pricing mechanisms to do it.

For years, a decade or more, grassroots dairy farmers have told their legislators to please work on repairing the damage government has already done to dairy farming.

They’ve pleaded with those inside the Beltway to heed the truth on the decades of flawed dietary guidelines and to right the wrongs in our nation’s school lunch program and other institutional feeding programs that are forced to follow these flawed guidelines.

But alas, instead of real change, we get more of the same, while the dairy lobby cheers and applauds over a tiny change allowing schools to serve 1% lowfat flavored milk instead of the prior Obama-era mandate of fat-free.

Meanwhile, nothing changes for regular milk in schools. It’s been fat-free and 1% for a decade now, and we have lost a generation of milk drinkers and stand to lose even more, and all the while our school kids fight increased obesity and diabetes rates, and we wonder, why?

Heck, you can’t even sell whole milk as a fundraiser during school hours, and you can’t give it away to schoolchildren during school hours due to these dietary rules that –according to those who have done a decade of scientific investigation of the research –show are actually not healthy rules for our children in the first place.

Plus, we have the FDA, having looked the other way for more than 10 years, now talking about milk’s standard of identity within a greater framework of “modernizing” standards of identity to “accomplish nutritional goals” — goals that are guided by flawed government dietary guidelines.

Instead of acknowledging the past wrong and immediately setting it right, the FDA adds comment period after comment period to try to read the minds of consumers. They want to know if consumers understand what they are buying when they buy fake milk.

The short answer? survey after survey shows that an overwhelming majority of consumers are, in fact, confused about the nutritional differences between real milk and the imposters — some consumers even believe there is milk in the not-milk ‘milk’.

Meanwhile, more time passes. Farmers are asked to wait. Be patient, while more damage is done by counterfeit claims that steal market share from dairy milk’s rightful place.

And then there’s the regulated milk pricing. What are the odds that any member of Congress will heed the past 10 years of requests for a national hearing now that California has enthusiastically joined the Federal Orders? That was the death nell of more of the same.

“It’s a free market,” say the legislators, regulators and market pundits.

“It’s a global market,” they add further.

No folks. It is a regulated market, and believe me when I tell you, the USDA and the major national footprint cooperatives operate this regulated market in lockstep.

Processors can’t access the administrative hearing process, unless they are cooperative-owned processors.

Farmers can’t access the administrative hearing process, except through their cooperatives.

Ditto on the above when it comes to voting. Bloc voting on behalf of farmers by their cooperative leadership seals every deal.

At a meeting a few months ago in the Southeast with USDA administrators that was intended to talk about multiple component pricing, farmers brought forward their grievances about bloc voting and their concerns about how milk is qualified on their Orders to share in their pool dollars.

What was USDA’s official response? The same response we hear over and over from legislators. “You vote for your co-op boards and they vote for Federal Orders.”

The Federal Orders were implemented in the 1930’s to keep milk available to consumers, to keep producers from being run-over. Today, these Orders are used to move milk from expanding consolidation areas to regions that have small and mid-sized family and multi-generational dairy farms located near consumer populations and competitive markets.

This is not a size thing. This is not small vs. big thing. This is structural change thing that is happening in the dairy industry at an increasingly rapid rate while the lifeblood is sucked right out of our culture of dairy farming.

troxel-sale-2The storm is brewing. Since the beginning of this year, the financial experts have told us that one-third of producers are selling out or contemplating an exit from dairy, that another one-third are not sure where they even stand, and that another one-third are moving forward with plans for expansion within consolidating industry structures.

The thought occurs to me: When the other two-thirds of producers are gone, what will become of that one-third that is still moving forward expanding, undeterred? What will become of the fabric from which their progress emerged? What will become of the next generation with hands-on experience, passion and love of dairy? Who will be raised on a dairy farm in the future? What contributions will be lost when dairy becomes only a business and no longer a business that is also a lifestyle? Who will be the support businesses? How will our communities change? Will all of our dairies in the future be academically run? What will become of our cow sense, our deep roots, our sense of community?

What will become of, us?

GL 4736For years we have heard “there’s a place for every size dairy in this industry.” That phrase is how we get small and mid-sized farms to advocate with consumers about modern farming so they will accept a more consolidated dairy farming picture.

Now that we are reaching this point, will we hear the large consolidating integrators say the same in reverse? Will they slow down, push pause, and realize there IS a place for the diversity of farms that make this industry the shining star it is and could be?

While at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin in October, the strain of now a fourth year of low prices was evident. Attendance “felt” lower even if the official numbers don’t totally reflect it.

Show entries were down. Traffic among trade show exhibitors was interesting and steady, but ‘off’ and ‘different.’

Dairy farmers are struggling. Large, small, and in between, these times are tough, and clear answers are elusive.

Dairy farmers remain paralyzed by three things:

1) the inability to have an effect on their circumstances or seat at the decision table;

2) lack of understanding of an incredibly complex regulated market; and

3) the innate desire to trust the establishment that handles their milk because they are too busy milking, managing and caring for cows, not to mention the land, to handle the milk marketing themselves.

Just think about this for a moment. In the past four years, National Milk Producers Federation has created and implemented the F.A.R.M. program where someone can come in and put you on a list for a subjective heifer bedding evaluation, where more is being not asked, but demanded, while at the same time, the pay price from which to do more is declining.

The milk checkoff programs continue to focus on partnerships. All kinds of efforts emerge to give away milk and dairy, and meanwhile supermarket wars by large integrating retailers push milk further into a commodity corner from which all imposters can brand their ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ marketing claims.

What we learned at some of the seminars at World Dairy Expo is that nothing will change in the milk pricing system, that it’s a free market, a global market, and that the best Congress can do is improve the margin protection program and other insurance options so farmers have the tools to deal with it.

I’m here to tell you that as long as this remains true, no farmer should be ashamed to use these tools even if it means receiving taxpayer dollars because it is the government’s actions and inaction over a decade or more that have created the problems in milk pricing and marketing today, and furthermore, the government shows no sign of wanting to let go of its stranglehold on dietary guidelines, how it enforces dairy’s standard of identity in fraudulent labeling, nor how it conspires with the dairy lobby — made up of the nation’s largest cooperatives — to regulate pricing in a way that further consolidates the dairy industry.

And by the way, all of the rhetoric on trade and NAFTA and Canada’s supply management system and Class 7 pricing has been nothing more than a smokescreen.

wGDC18-Day1-56Trade is important, but again, we have reached a point where 2018 is seeing the demise of dairy farms at rapid rates while exports continue to set new records. As of Oct. 5, 2018, U.S. dairy exports for the first 8 months of the year (Jan-Aug) accounted for a record-setting 16.6% of milk production on a solids basis. That’s the largest ever percentage of the largest ever milk production total – more of the more – in the history of the U.S. dairy industry’s recordkeeping.

In fact, traders will be the first to tell you that “more exports” don’t translate into “better farm milk prices” because the export markets are largely commodity clearing markets and they are fueling expansion of commodity processing in areas of the U.S. where it is easiest to export to Asia and Mexico. A global supply-chain is in the works.

The exports, in fact, are diluting the Federal Order pricing at the same rapid rate as declines in consumer fluid milk consumption, putting severe pressure on eastern markets in particular.

Meanwhile, the eastern milk markets are extremely tight on milk. This information is sourced to cooperative managers and the independent USDA Dairy Market News. Plants are seeking milk and not receiving it. Trucker shortages are complicating the problem. State regulated pricing mechanisms, such as in Pennsylvania, still interfere, making milk cheaper to bring in than to use what is here. In some Federal Orders to the south, this is also the case because of how their pools are administrated.

We are seeing the vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Producers who want to operate 50 cow, 100 cow, 300 cow, 500 cow, 1000 cow, 1500 cow dairy farms in the eastern U.S. within a day’s drive of the largest population are in jeopardy. They have lost their location advantage but continue to deal with the disadvantages. As milk tightens they are not seeing their premiums return, instead some farmers report getting docked by their co-ops for not making enough milk, or they are socked with incredible hauling rates because their milk was hauled out while other milk was hauled in.

What can Congress do? Hold that national hearing on milk pricing. Give farmers a seat at the table apart from the company-store. Learn what is happening. See government’s role in it.

Dear Congress, if you really want to know what to do, look in the mirror.

Before it’s too late, please right the fundamental wrongs government has done to our dairy consumers and dairy farmers as it controls what fat level of milk kids are permitted to drink at school, how milk is priced, how milk is marketed and how milk is allowed to be advertised and promoted with farmers’ own money – while at the same time still turning a blind eye and deaf ear to loss-leading supermarket wars that operate off the backs of farmers and the processing industry’s pillaging of milk’s market share with nondairy imposters.

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New PMMB consumer rep sees dairy crisis from outside-in

Dr. Carol Hardbarger is digging in and looking at all angles of PA dairy crisis.

Hardbarger9825 (1).jpgBy Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, Sept. 7, 2018

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Solving problems, bridging gaps, making connections, bringing different interests together – these are skills Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D. has been using throughout her career in education. Today, she brings a unique combination of skills and background to the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board (PMMB). She was appointed by Gov. Tom Wolf in May and confirmed by the Senate in June.

“It is a tremendous honor for this to come at the end of my career, to be asked by Governor Wolf, to meet with Senators during confirmation, and to have this opportunity to do something for the state and the dairy industry I love,” Hardbarger said in a recent interview with Farmshine at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg.

She reflects on that call from the Governor’s office, telling her she had been nominated and asking if she would serve. She promptly began looking at the information on what the PMMB does.

“There is a crisis in the dairy industry,” says Dr. Hardbarger. “Oftentimes, when there is a problem, there is a solution that can be obvious to someone looking at the problem from the outside, to go back to what the objectives are of an organization or project at hand, looking at what has been done and why it hasn’t worked.”

She talks about the smaller steps that may be missed in trying to get to an end goal.

“That’s how my brain is wired,” the intense, but easy-to-talk-to Hardbarger says with a smile. She is a big-picture thinker with an obvious knack for process details.

In every job before retirement, she was brought in to help solve a problem and was able to deal successfully with those situations.

The dairy industry issues go well beyond the regulatory aspects of the PMMB. As the board’s consumer representative, Hardbarger seeks a broader role in marketing and advocacy that is refreshing.

She has rolled up her sleeves to dig in, confessing that she loves an intellectual challenge.

Her intention to spend one day a week at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg, quickly became two days a week and has now evolved into a full-time 40- to 50-hour work week.

Hardbarger serves on the board with dairy producers Jim Van Blarcom of Bradford County and Rob Barley (chair) of Lancaster County. They are also putting more time in their roles.

“That’s okay,” she says. “In order to accomplish what the Governor and Senators have communicated, that level of time and organization is necessary.”

She spends her time combing through records, meeting with government and industry entities, opening lines of communication, and being helpful to staff, which has been reduced in recent years by unfilled retirements.

Hardbarger sees external communication and a visible, accessible board on “advocacy things” as vital for developing the relationships that lead to solving problems.

She started the PMMB facebook page and twitter feed (@PAMilkBoard), as well as an email newsletter to legislators and industry that will eventually broaden to consumers. She also helped organize upcoming listening sessions. There is no need to pre-register or pre-submit comments, and the board urges those who can’t attend to send comments electronically to ra-pmmb@pa.gov.

The first listening session was held Sept. 26 from 6 to 9 p.m. in western Pennsylvania. The second will be Oct. 16 at Troy Fairgrounds in northern Pennsylvania, and another is being planned for southeastern Pennsylvania, potentially in Lebanon in November.

In the office with staff through the week, Hardbarger says Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is lucky to have these individuals, who are “highly capable and dedicated in jobs that are not easy.”

On the road forward, she sees a starting point is identifying where there is agreement.

“We have to start with what we all agree are issues to address. Otherwise, we are just putting on band-aids,” says Hardbarger, explaining that such a “holistic approach” is a way for deep-rooted past, present and future issues to be addressed for the long-term.

“I have some concern as I listen to the various constituency groups in the dairy industry — the farmers, the dealers, the retailers, the consumers — that when they speak, for the most part, I hear a lot of individual agenda,” she relates. “I believe strongly that we must be able to look at the agendas of all the groups and somehow integrate them to come up with solutions and prioritize them.”

When Hardbarger talks about “systemic solutions,” as she did in her Senate confirmation hearing, she means the longstanding parts of the system that are “built into how the industry operates.”

She gives the example that some are talking about “temporarily suspending” the minimum milk price, which would require changes in the law.

“We told the Senate that we want to look at some legislative items and see what makes sense for 2018 and 2019,” says Hardbarger.

Another example is some want the over-order premium to end.

“They believe it is not working the way it needs to,” she says. “We are not hearing many suggestions to raise the over-order premium. It will be interesting to see what comments and ideas we get at the upcoming listening sessions.”

The challenge is, according to Hardbarger, “how do we blend a holistic approach to a problem and how it developed systemically over the years with legislation and regulation that was implemented in a time very much different from today.”

She says the board is taking a neutral approach as they look at impacts.

“There are some misconceptions about what the board can and cannot do… so I hope the newsletter and outreach will develop good lines of communication with the legislature while correcting misconceptions and give us the ability to come back to the Assembly with information they need,” Hardbarger relates. “We obviously have the two laws we are responsible for with the associated regulations. But as our name implies, we are ‘marketing.’”

Through facebook and twitter, Hardbarger posts things she sees every day of interest to dairy. The newsletter will eventually include a calendar, an information piece from the chairman, questions and answers by staff, and the school nutrition aspect will be discussed.

Asked why the PMMB’s facebook and twitter profile picture is the PA Preferred logo, Hardbarger responded simply: “We want to promote Pennsylvania dairy products.”

She gave the example of a recent step — sending information to retailers and processors on how special milk promotions can legally be done, and suggesting such promotions be linked to PA Preferred milk.

Hardbarger says she wants PMMB’s communications to be an information clearinghouse between the industry and the legislature and ultimately the consumer.

In developing her role as consumer representative, she is already pursuing relationships with consumer groups and civic organizations to provide information about the nutritional benefits of consuming dairy products and what the industry means to Pennsylvania and its communities.

For example, Hardbarger has already reached out to school nutrition officials with ideas about how milk and dairy are nutritionally assessed within the USDA meal profile for school breakfast, lunch and after school programs.

“If milk and dairy products were separated from the nutritional analysis… we may see schools offer more milk and dairy in the morning and after school programs without having to fit into a total nutrition analysis,” she suggests, adding that this idea is being provided to Representative G.T. Thompson, who sits on the Congressional workforce and education committee as well as to U.S. Senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.

“We are also communicating with USDA on this issue of getting whole milk (unflavored) in the schools along with now flavored 1% milk,” she said.

PMMB also sent official comments to the FDA docket to enforce and uphold milk’s standard of identity, and sent emails encouraging others to do so.

Hardbarger understands the nutritional tightrope schools walk to serve foods and milk that students enjoy and will consume. She is aware of the steady drumbeat of scientific studies showing dairy as a complete protein and complete source of vitamins and minerals children today are lacking, as well as the positive dietary revelations about whole milk and full fat dairy, especially for children.

She remembers her youth and spending much time on her grandparents’ dairy farm in northern Maryland, of making and consuming everything from homemade cottage cheese, butter and farmers cheese to whipped cream pies.

And she reminisces about doing just about every chore on that diversified farm, pointing out a decades-old framed photo of her son as a child milking one of four Jersey cows the family kept at that time.

While her career has been in education and technology, she is quick to point out that she has been around farmers and agriculture all of her life.

“There is a passion people have for this life, this business. And the dairy industry is vital to the economy of our state and a big part of what defines us, of who we are,” the proud mother and grandmother two-generations removed from dairy farming explains.

Since her first day on the PMMB in early July, Hardbarger has encountered “no real surprises” but a fuller understanding of issues that have swirled for years.

What surprises her is “the differences of opinion among constituent groups and their differing opinions about what needs to be done,” and seeing how far the industry is from dealing with differences over coffee and a handshake.

“Now we have groups with lawyers and CPAs and very strong individual agendas,” Hardbarger observes. “That has surprised me. I wasn’t aware of how fractured it is. This is an observation, not a criticism, because each constituency has a business interest to protect.”

From staff development to planning a staff retreat, to emailing staff for their ideas, Hardbarger says the momentum is “forward,” even though it’s “frustrating” to learn that state bureaucracies do not move as quickly as desired and there are regulations for literally everything.

“We can’t” are words she does not like to hear.

“There are very few things in this world that cannot be done. It may be that we need to do them in a different or particular way,” says Hardbarger. “We have to fix this dairy crisis, and we can, if we get all the players involved.”

Toward that end, Hardbarger says her next goal is to have the PMMB work with other agencies in forming a “rapid response team” for dairy.

“We hear stories about how a vital bridge can be fixed within 40 days… how the state government made it easier to deal with regulatory processes and provided waivers to make something happen, fast, because it was economically feasible to do that,” she says. “Pennsylvania has a Dairy Development plan… and we need the same ‘rapid response’ in dealing with our dairy crisis.”

Looking ahead, she is most hopeful that, “We can get a working group together of one or two representatives of each constituency group… and start hammering out solutions to our problems, to talk honestly face-to-face about the issues and come up with a few solutions that will work, and that my time here will be productive.”

Adds Hardbarger: “The most rewarding thing so far is the people I’ve met. There is nothing like coming into the office in the morning and seeing smiles and enthusiasm among the staff and having positive responses and feedback from Senate and House staff, to see us moving in a direction.”

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PHOTO CAPTION Hardbarger9825

Retired education and technology expert Carol Hardbarger, Ph.D., of Newport, talks about the dairy crisis and her role as the new consumer representative on the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board during a recent interview at the PMMB offices in Harrisburg. She says the Bonnie Mohr painting behind her is a favorite reminder of youthful days spent on her grandparents’ dairy farm. “It also reminds me that the number of dairy farms throughout Pennsylvania help define who we are as a state,” she says. Photo by Sherry Bunting

 

NY’s ESF Wagyu dispersal Sept. 22: Japan’s ‘national treasure’ brings top-shelf flavor to beef

Niche cross-breeding opportunity seen for dairy

By Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine, Sept. 14, 2018

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NEW BERLIN, N.Y. — Their frame and appearance could be deemed more dairy than beef. Their meat is prized above all for flavor and tenderness. At hotels and resorts, Wagyu beef is top-of-the-line. If you’ve eaten the real thing, you know it.

In Japan, the Wagyu are a longstanding national treasure.

In the U.S., they have been the pride and joy of breeders like Donald ‘Doc’ Sherwood, DVM. He has been breeding full-blood Wagyu beef cattle for 17 years at his Empire State Farm near Binghamton, New York.

On Saturday, September 22nd, 100 lots of elite Wagyu cattle and genetics will sell in the Empire State Farm (ESF) ‘Final Chapter’ herd dispersal at the Hosking Sales facility in New Berlin.

The sale will feature young and mature cows, bred and open heifers, herd sire prospects, embryo recipient cows, cow/calf pairs, embryos and semen.

Cow Buyer will be in the house for online bidding as well.

The retired veterinarian once bred some top purebred Holstein dairy cattle under the ESF prefix in a joint venture several decades ago, with one of his sons, who previously had a dairy farm. They sold some ESF dairy cattle to Japan.

Years later, in 2001, Dr. Sherwood began importing the Japanese Wagyu beef cattle and developed full-blood genetics — taking his love of bovines in a different direction toward the elite melt-in-your-mouth beef of the Wagyu.

“I was interested in the disposition of these animals and the quality of their meat,” Sherwood recalls in a phone interview with Farmshine this week. “I researched them, and I realized they were a fit for me. There were not too many breeders at the time, and their disposition made it possible for me to work with them on my own.”

Full-blood herds, like ESF, are highly prized as sources of imported and developed 100% Wagyu genetics. Sherwood explains that purebred herds are defined as a minimum 93% Wagyu and that the industry today includes many other ‘percentage-Wagyu’ herds.

In fact, the American Wagyu Association (AWA) is the fastest growing beef breed association in recent years.

Sherwood chose to stay 100% Wagyu, breeding only full-bloods according to the Japanese tradition. Over the years, he’s sold mainly breeding stock, but also surplus males for others to finish for specialty top-shelf beef markets.

During his veterinary years before retirement in 2003, Sherwood and his wife Mary, worked as partners, but as he got into the Wagyu after retirement, she was unable for health reasons to help. He has developed a real affinity for this breed because of the way they acclimate readily to people making his work easier in these later years.

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“To look at them, you would never know what a superior beef animal they are. They aren’t muscular or thick like other beef breeds, and in some ways their body structure is more dairy,” says Dr. Donald Sherwood of Empire State Farm as he notes the outstanding meat the Wagyu produce and the pleasure this Japanese breed has been for him to work with virtually on his own for 17 years.

“These cattle are a pleasure to work with. It’s neat to have an animal you can work with by yourself as long as you let them know you’re around,” Sherwood observes.

He says many people are getting started into this breed and building on it, in part because they are easy to work with as long as they are not left to run wild.

“It’s not hard to work with the Wagyu. They adjust to people very well and become docile and friendly with interaction, where other beef breeds don’t get that disposition where they enjoy being around people,” Sherwood explains.

“The Japanese bred these cattle originally, and I’ve based a lot of my program on the proven sires from Japan. Most of my sires have come from Japan, where these cattle are a national treasure – they think that much of them,” he adds.

We hear the stories, that the Japanese feed the Wagyu beer and massage them and take individual care of them as smallholder operations. As Sherwood notes, Japan doesn’t have the land resources for cattle like in the U.S., so they are protective of their Wagyu in smaller and more intimate settings.

He is quick to point out, “It’s really the meat that makes the Wagyu stand out. These aren’t show cattle. Their claim to fame is how they look on the rail,” Sherwood explains. “With meat so outstanding, the Wagyu are more noted for the quality of their meat than being judged for their appearance in a show ring. They aren’t that muscular, but have that good-tasting beef with a healthy and flavorful fat.”

In the U.S., Wagyu (or as it is often described on menus as “Kobe”) often comes from percentage-herds or crossbreeding. But for those who’ve had the real-deal, it’s an eating experience not soon forgotten.

Information from the American Wagyu Association (AWA) suggests the type of marbling is different. Imagine thin ribbons of intramuscular fat evenly dispersed. And AWA notes this is a healthy fat that is high in Omega 3’s.

“To look at them, you would never know what a superior beef animal they are,” Sherwood says with a chuckle. “They aren’t muscular or thick like other beef breeds, and in some ways their body structure is more dairy.”

In fact, in Japan and Australia, Holsteins are often crossed with the Wagyu to reduce birthweight for first-calf dairy animals and to produce an F1 cross that offers a “commercial” version of this very distinctive high-quality beef.

In Australia, for example, the Wagyu herd is quite large, and they’ve developed the F1 Holstein x Wagyu as a secondary income stream for a dairy industry under siege of many years of poor milk prices.

Breeding Holstein females to Wagyu bulls is already commonplace in both Japan and Australia with Wagyu x Holstein deemed the ultimate cross in Japan because Holsteins are the next highest marbling cattle breed behind Wagyus, producing meat superior in quality to the meat of Wagyu crossed with any other breed, according to information available from the AWA.

Their highly-marbled beef typically grades Prime or above, even in crossbreeding programs. In fact, Japan has eight quality standards above the U.S. Prime quality grade that the Wagyu meet, according to the AWA.

In the U.S., less than 2% of all U.S. beef currently grades Prime. This, along with a return of consumers to fat and flavor after revelations about the pitfalls of lowfat diets, helps position the Wagyu as a breed that can make a significant impact on beef quality – particularly in dairy-cross programs where the value of bull calves is increased and sexed semen heifers are produced with matings to dairy bulls.

The AWA reports that numerous U.S. buyers are willing to pay $0.20-0.30 per lb premiums above local market beef prices for Wagyu F1 calves (Wagyu x Holstein).

However, this value is only realized when working with a marketing system that recognizes the superior eating quality of the Wagyu.

Still, Sherwood notes that nothing else — no cross — equals the flavor of full-blooded 100% Wagyu beef. And that is why full-bloods command such high prices.

As an example, one ESF animal selling on Sept. 22 had a sister sell for $16,000 at a sale in Limerick, Pennsylvania in April of this year. It was the Synergy Wagyu Genetic Opportunity Sale.

Synergy had several Empire State Farm (ESF) females in their herd and sold their ESF-pedigree offspring for amounts up to $46,000, according to information available in the sale catalog

In his letter to buyers, Dr. Sherwood says he does not claim to be an expert on Japanese Wagyu, but that he studied the breed extensively and incorporated the Japanese philosophy into his management to develop lines with the outstanding meat Wagyu are known for and crossing them with Wagyu lines that bring size, milking ability, small calves for calving ease as well as disposition and temperament.

“This sale is it for me,” says Sherwood, 86, about his beloved cattle project. “We had an auction five years ago, and then started up again, but age and health have me slowing-down so this is a complete dispersal this time. I’ve had 40 years as a veterinarian and a great wonderful time working with cattle and enjoying it. Now I’ll spend more time with my family with thanks to our sons Don and Steve, and especially my wife Mary. We have worked together all of our life.”

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