Milk education ‘heroes’: How 97 Milk came to be

AUTHOR’S NOTE: With proof of concept in place, the support of farmers and community running strong (see graphic), and the public response rewarding these efforts, there is something powerful here with the 97 Milk effort, and it is just the beginning. 

By Sherry Bunting from Farmshine, October 23, 2019

RICHLAND, Pa. — One farmer. One roundbale. And six painted words — Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free.

The excitement of the 97 Milk effort is contagious. What started with Nelson Troutman’s first painted roundbale in Richland, Pa., has rapidly multiplied into community-wide and nation-wide milk education efforts aimed at consumers on one hand and policymakers on the other.

Nelson Troutman placed his first “Milk Baleboard” in a pasture by an intersection.

By February, retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey of Robesonia found five businesses to pay for the first 1000 magnetic 12” x 12” vehicle signs with the same message. Since then, more companies have joined in and some of the original businesses have printed more.

As legislators began to take notice, Morrissey and Troutman assembled a grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee of 10 farmers that meet monthly in person or by teleconference and interact with lawmakers, including the petition effort to bring whole milk back to schools. More agribusinesses joined in to help fund their expenses.

Then, 4’ x 6’ banners were created for places of high visibility and an effort to place them at stores is underway. A September Farmshine cover story helped spread the word. Morrissey reports the banners “are going like hotcakes” with additional businesses joining in to print more.

Another effort was underway simultaneously, when Rick Stehr invited a diverse group of farmers to a February meeting in Lancaster County to talk about milk education beyond the bale. Today, the joint efforts work together like two well-oiled machines comprised solely of volunteers.

Stehr recalls getting questions back in January. He invited Morrissey to talk about the milk baleboards at R&J Dairy Consulting’s winter dairy meeting. Noted expert Calvin Covington was the keynote speaker that day, and he told the 300 dairy farmers that promotion needs to focus on domestic demand, and that “we in the dairy industry need to talk about milkfat and not hide behind it not wanting things to change. Consumers want that taste, and we’re not talking about it,” he said.

Morrissey then told the crowd about Troutman’s “Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free” roundbales that were just starting to multiply at farms and businesses after a cover story appeared in Farmshine.

“As I talked with non-ag people, I realized many of them didn’t know quite what it meant,” says Stehr. “I thought the missing link is education. We needed to educate the public.”

Nelson Troutman and Jackie Behr prepare for a television interview about 97 Milk.

Stehr’s daughter Jackie Behr has long believed milk sales suffer because milk education is missing. She has a marketing degree from Penn State and experience in non-ag positions before becoming R&J’s marketing manager.

Even Behr was surprised by her February focus group interviews with non-ag friends. “I was blown away by the obvious gap between dairy farms, milk nutrition and consumer perception,” she reports.

Behr shared the focus group responses at a February meeting of farmers that included Troutman. “It was an obvious eye-opener for everyone. These were educated women responding to my questions. How did we miss so much milk education all of these years?” Behr wondered.

They not only had zero knowledge of milk’s nutrition — other than calcium — their minds were full of information that was just plain false.

They said they drank organic milk because they ‘didn’t want to drink all those hormones.’ Or they chose almond beverage ‘because there are no antibiotics in it.’

“The biggest misconception is how much fat they thought was in whole milk. Just like Nelson’s been saying. And when you tell them whole milk is standardized to 3.25% fat, their response is ‘Oh, wow!’ That alone is big,” says Behr.

Her marketing savvy kicked in. Ideas for a website were kicked around with obvious choices already taken.

Then one attendee said: “How about 97 Milk?”

It fit. And it captured attention. By the second meeting, they were ready to establish 97 Milk LLC and chose a volunteer board of Lancaster County farmers Mahlon Stoltzfus, Lois Beyer, Jordan Zimmerman and Behr, with GN Hursh serving as chairman.

The website was up and running by the end of February with a Facebook page (@97Milk) that has gained more than 8,500 followers in less than eight months and a weekly average reach of over 150,000. Individual posts have reached up to 1.2 million through thousands of shares and hundreds of interactions. Twitter (@97Milk1) and Instagram (@97Milk) are also active.

Behr says it all stems from what Troutman started, and he was happy to add 97milk.com to the bales with Morrissey making sure the website appears on signs and banners.

“To get someone to change their mind, you have to get the facts in front of them,” Behr observes. “We’ve got three seconds in front of their eyes to leave information that plants a seed.”

With some content help from others, Behr comes up with ideas, designs and coordinates Facebook posts six days a week.

The result? “People are shocked and come back and say, ‘I had no idea,’” Behr explains. “I am in the industry, and even I have learned so much about milk that I didn’t know before.”

“Now that 97 Milk has become a tool used by dairy farmers to educate the public about our product, the conversations that are happening are only the beginning,” Stehr observes. “We could have 97 Milk boards across the nation.”

As interest builds, 97 Milk LLC is looking into how different geographies could have their own chapters, with the website and materials providing some continuity.

“That’s where the power is, with the producers in each community or state,” says Stehr.

He credits Troutman and Morrissey for getting everyone’s attention and believes what they are doing creates the opportunity for the ‘beyond-the-bale’ education piece carried by 97 Milk LLC.

“The word milk has been used liberally, and the understanding of what it is has been diluted,” says Stehr. “We let that happen over the past 30 years and did nothing about it. We let them bash our product. Now we are educating people that the fat in milk is not bad, that there’s not 10% or 50% fat in whole milk, but 3.25%, that there is complete protein in milk and all of these other good things.”

From the baleboards, vehicle signs, banners and communications of the grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee, to the website, social media and educational events of 97 Milk LLC, a common bond unites these efforts — Troutman’s practical courage when he painted the first roundbale because he was frustrated and had had enough.

“We have lost market share, why? Because people don’t know what milk is and they don’t know what it tastes like,” says Troutman. “By promoting whole milk, we are opening their eyes and their tastebuds.”

While national co-ops think it’s “innovative” to develop a low-fat milk and nut juice blend, those involved in 97 Milk believe the response they see from diverse consumers tells a different story.

“People want to feel good about the products they are buying. The goal of 97 Milk is to share education, to share the dairy farmers’ stories,” says Behr. “You don’t pick up health magazines and see the benefits of milk. People need to see that positive information because they don’t know what milk provides.”

The Dairy Question Desk at the website fields a steady stream of five questions per week and when social media is included, 97 Milk fields 5 to 20 questions a day.

Every one of Behr’s original focus group have switched to whole dairy milk. The experience so far shows her consumers know very little about milk and have a real willingness to learn.

“All of our messages are simple. One fact. An infographic that’s simple to understand and that people can relate to,” says Behr. “Even if we have their eyes for just three seconds scrolling through, that little seed is huge.”

The posts fill other gaps. Behr believes people want to see that dairy farmers love their cows, that they care. The baleboard sightings and “cow kisses” have poured in for posting from several states.

The posts also help consumers fulfill a desire to be connected to their food, to buy local, and to support family-owned small businesses. “The simple fact that 97% of dairy farms are family-owned is a post that generated a lot of activity,” says Behr.

While she sees the environmental discussion as being big right now, she attributes this to the vegan activists driving it. By contrast, the 97 Milk facebook data and demographics reveal that 90% of consumers really want to hear about the health benefits, according to Behr.

She gives the example of the popular “yummy yogurt” infographic posted last week. It was visually attractive and simply listed a few health benefits.

“We get a few facts out on an infographic, and if you’re kind of hungry — or a mother like me trying to find healthy snacks for my kids — it hits,” says Behr. “It’s the simple things that get milk back in and help people feel good about buying milk products.”

The support from the agriculture community, and others, has been overwhelming.

“When someone calls, who you’re not even working with, to complement the work Jackie is doing, that’s rewarding,” says Stehr.

“When you see the response of a person in your community finding out they can drink whole milk and they really like it, that’s rewarding,” says Troutman.

“When legislators hold up a sign, or want their picture taken with a baleboard and say ‘this is the best thing going in dairy right now’, that’s rewarding,” says Morrissey.

“When people write into the Dairy Desk and we can answer their questions, that’s rewarding,” says Behr. “But most rewarding is hearing the excitement, seeing dairy farmers wanting to be involved, understanding the importance of marketing and seeing the results of getting involved. Receiving a simple note thanking us for positive messages, that’s rewarding.”

97 Milk LLC raised funds from more than 20 local and national businesses (see graphic) to cover expenses for the website and printed materials, and they’ve worked with Allied Milk Producers to have milk and dairy products available for parades, corn mazes, and other venues.

Meanwhile, individuals and communities take it upon themselves to paint bales, print bumper stickers, make signs, incorporate the message into corn maze designs, hometown parades, create farm tour handouts, initiate milk tents at athletic events, and more.

Young people are enthusiastic: FFA chapters, 4-H clubs and county dairy maids are printing their own banners and carrying the message at diverse public events. They love participating because it is real milk education, sharing the truth about milk and the life and work of America’s dairy farming families.

Morrissey and Troutman get calls from other states for banners and car magnets, and they’ve sent to these states at cost. Locally, the businesses paying for printing these items are giving them away (see graphic).

Behr has also designed items with the 97 Milk website logo, cows and farm scenes. These files are on the download area at 97milk.com and can be used to make banners, yard signs, license plates, bumper stickers, educational handouts, and more.

Troutman has added new baleboards for community events, including one that reads: Ask for Whole Milk in School. He and Behr recently did a television interview with a local PBS station.

Both the grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee and the 97 Milk LLC are running on shoestring budgets from donations (see graphic) with all volunteer effort, and the grassroots are blooming where planted to multiply the impact in ways too numerous to mention.

As a glimmer of hope, fluid milk sales nationally were up 0.2% in July, the first year-over-year increase in decades, with whole milk up 3.6% and flavored whole up 10.4%. Stores surveyed in southeastern Pennsylvania, where 97 Milk began, say whole milk sales are up significantly since January. It is also notable that many stores don’t seem to be able to keep enough whole milk on the shelves — a nationally obvious phenomenon.

Also being promoted is the petition to bring whole milk back to schools. This week, the online petition ( https://www.change.org/p/bring-whole-milk-back-to-schools ) topped 8000 signatures, plus 4000 were mailed in envelopes for a first-batch delivery in Washington Oct. 24, with a second batch goal to double that by January.

Reflecting on the past 10 months, Troutman says, “I thought if they’re not going to do it, someone has to, and here I am.”

And he’s happy. “Really, I’m thankful, thankful for so many who are helping make this work.” 

To contact the grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee about banners, magnetic vehicle signs and baleboards, call Bernie Morrissey at 610.693.6471 or Nelson Troutman at 717.821.1484.

To contact 97 Milk LLC about spreading the milk education to other communities, email 97wholemilk@gmail.com or call Jackie Behr at 717.203.6777 or write to 97 Milk LLC, PO Box 87, Bird in Hand, PA 17505, and visit www.97milk.com, of course.

 -30-

Hoffman Farms: ‘We do what we can to promote milk education’

By Sherry Bunting for Farmshine Nov. 8, 2019

Tricia (Hoffman) Adams planned her educational exhibit for months ahead of a multi-county cross country meet at the farm on October 15.

SHINGLEHOUSE, Pa. — Educating the public has long been a passion of the Hoffman family at Hoffman Farms in Potter County, Pennsylvania. The school and home communities of the two generations (five families) involved in the 1000-cow dairy are on both sides of the Pennsylvania / New York boundary.

In fact, Tricia (Hoffman) Adams gave a presentation back in 2006 on how they set up the learning components of their school tours at a Women in Dairy Conference that year. Attendees were inspired to find ways to invite the community in, and the family was later recognized with a Pa. Pacesetter Award in part because of progressive operations on the farm and in part because of their commitment to educating the community about milk and dairy farms.

Today, with tours, community events, a facebook page and the next generation so involved in school clubs and sports activities — in addition to showing dairy animals and market steers and pigs — the family has become a recognized source for their community to ask questions about dairy, livestock and agriculture, in general.

Earlier this year, the Hoffmans were among the many farms painting round bales and placing them in visible areas with the Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free message. They have always served whole milk, along with other dairy treats, when schools and community groups tour the farm. The Baleboards drew attention and gave Tricia an opening to answer questions people didn’t even know they had!

She reports that the schoolchildren on tours last spring loved the ‘milk baleboards’ and wanted their pictures taken with the “cool” roundbales.

In fact, the 97 Milk effort has revitalized Tricia’s educational resources, she says. She and her father Dale Hoffman are also both serving on the grassroots Pennsylvania Dairy Advisory Committee.

In September, Tricia worked with two vendors — Dan Rosicka of Progressive Dairy Solutions and Country Crossroads Feed and Seed to help share the good news about whole milk. Each vendor purchased 50 of the 12-inch x 12-inch magnetic vehicle signs with the 97 Milk message and website to make available in the community.

Tricia also acquired a 4-foot x 6-foot banner as well as other materials with the 97 Milk message and milk education information.

And then she added her own flare. She had been thinking about it and working on it on-and-off since summer. The farm was hosting a multi-school championship cross-country meet in October, and she was providing the “recovery” beverages – whole milk and whole chocolate milk — and other goodies.

“I’m not one to sit around and wait for help,” says Tricia. Like other dairy producers she is frustrated with the negativity surrounding milk and meat. “I am upset that our children have to suffer in their school diets, with the lack of milk choice and the meatless days. I decided our farm will do what we can to promote the ag industry through ag education, ag awareness and ag positivity!”  

Each time Hoffman Farms is asked to donate money to a school club or a team sport, they donate dairy products instead — “with a side of education,” says Tricia.

For the North Tier League Championship Cross-Country Meet on October 15 at Hoffman Farms, Tricia set up two tents and tables. In addition to the 97 Milk banner, she had a Chocolate Milk Refuel and Recovery banner. For the “side of education,” she created a large cutout cow and numerous ‘spots’ with questions and answers.

As a farm that buys their own materials for these events and tours, Tricia feels strongly that whole milk products should be served and serves them when the events are after school or at the farm so that the schools are not jeopardized in any way due to the flawed diet rules they have to live by during school hours.

She reports that the young people (and adults) say they look forward to having “the good milk.”

“Whole chocolate milk as a recovery drink after a race, whole milk cheese sticks or toasted cheese sandwich supplies to add to a sports concession stand — whatever helps our industry and our future generation of students is what we are going to focus on,” Tricia explains.

She’ll admit that some days, “It feels like an uphill battle, but we have had many clubs, organizations and businesses wanting to help as well,” says Trica.

“At the end of the day, I’m not sure how many people will benefit or even how much I can change, but I would rather try by doing something constructive.”

Three generations are involved in the award-winning 1000-cow dairy at Hoffman Farms in Potter County, Pa. The farm was founded by Dale and Carol Hoffman with 30 cows. Today their daughter Tricia and sons Keith, Brad, and Josh have transitioned into leadership and a third generation is also involved.

-30-

Mixed feelings prevail after Expo

There were plenty of new things to see among the 859 trade show vendors, but the trade show was down a bit from 887 businesses exhibiting a year ago. Attendance was reported at just over 62,000, down from over 65,000 a year ago and over 68,000 two years ago. International attendance at 2,133 people from 94 countries last week was off by about about 200 compared with a year ago and 500 fewer than two years ago. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, October 11, 2019

MADISON, Wis. — On the business side of the 53rd World Dairy Expo last week, I came away with feelings as mixed as the weather — gloomy skies and a deluge of rain at the beginning of the week gave way to sunny skies and brisk breezes at the end.

There were plenty of new things to see among the nearly 859 trade show vendors. Annual attendance is reported at around 62,000. U.S. and international attendance did appear to be down from previous years. 

For many, the first three days of the show felt slow in comparison even to last year. Some observed that the steep loss of family farms over the past 18 months was “being felt” at Expo.

Some pointed to the weather as heavy rains produced flooding Tuesday into Wednesday. 

Others blamed the discouraging — and twisted — headlines that came out of a town hall meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the start of the week. The town hall was attended by around 200 dairy farmers, agribusiness representatives and organization leaders, along with dozens of reporters and television cameras.

What followed the hour of honest and detailed discussion (reported here as in Farmshine last week) were press accounts that warped Sec. Perdue’s comments and went viral through the wire services, starting with the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune and continuing into various agricultural press.

By Thursday, Wisconsin Farmers Union had sent op-ed responses to high profile news outlets, taking on the Secretary for his supposed comments about how we supposedly do things in America.

The stage was effectively set to cast the current Trump administration as purveyors of a factory farm model, attributing to the Secretary a proclamation that, “In America, the big get bigger and small get out.” This is now playing right into the hands of Democratic presidential hopefuls who are pal-ing around with HSUS in the Midwest, pretending to care about cows, farms and fly-over country.

Well, maybe some Democrats do care, but we know HSUS does not, and we know what the purveyors of the Green New Deal think of our cows. That’s another story.

Trouble is, the Secretary never said the words that have started this chain reaction. Or, at least, not in the order in which his words were parsed together in print.

You see, many other words were omitted. Context is everything.

From the sidelines and super busy with other pursuits at the Expo — but having attended the town hall meeting in person and having written my own coverage of the event in last week’s Farmshine — I began to see the headlines erupting on social media as share upon share made the news travel rapidly from Tuesday into Wednesday and then it was off to the races.

I began wondering how I could have missed such a derogatory comment. And I learned by Friday that, no, my notebook and partial recording had not failed me. Full transcripts were released by other reporters — providing that important context.

Transcripts showed clearly that the offending quote from Sec. Perdue was pulled from a very long and detailed response to a question and spliced together to make new statements. Not only is context everything, so is punctuation.

Too late, the discouraging and depressing headlines continued to beat small and mid-sized family farmers over the head all week. They began to feel as though even the USDA could care less about their survival – wanted them gone in fact to make way for “factory farming.”

The narrative was discouraging and many farmers confessed to me just how it made them feel. Several said reading those words made them feel like – why bother even going to Expo?

“Stick a fork in us. We’re done, according to Perdue,” a Wisconsin dairy farmer said to me Thursday.

Bad enough that the headlines erupted after Tuesday’s town hall were discouraging. Worse, that they were false in what they signaled to family farms. But there is also much truth in Sec. Perdue’s observation. He was describing “what we’ve seen in America,” not making a proclamation of how things will be done in America.

And the advancements in science and technology ARE what we have seen in America. Yes, they help smaller farms too, but it is science and technology that are contributing to the progress that is allowing rapid consolidation to take place.

For the record, I am pro-science and pro-technology and pro-innovation. But I also believe we are at a crossroads where it has gone so fast and so far, that we need to walk back and look at outcomes and impact and have a national conversation.

Just one day after the Expo closed, Land O’Lakes CEO Beth Ford and member farms like Dotterer’s Dairy, Mill Hall, Pa. were on CBS 60-minutes talking about how high-tech dairy is today and the market challenges being faced by dairy farmers at the same time.

The twisted quotes from Tuesday’s dairy town hall meeting at Expo gave the impression that Trump’s USDA is proclaiming a factory farm model for the future of agriculture. In a sense, as we embrace rapid technological advancement, we are embracing that transition. These are inescapable facts that must be sorted out and dealt with.

The Secretary was merely observing the reality of what has been happening in America’s rural lands with increasing speed over the past decade.

While some of Perdue’s specific answers to specific questions were disappointing and other responses were encouraging, none of those specifics were reported elsewhere with any attention. All attention was placed on the twisted quote.

We have a Secretary who can see what is happening and who can have an honest discussion about it, while being pragmatic about what the potential solutions are that can be accomplished without the help of a paralyzed Congress.

No matter what we think of Dairy Margin Coverage, it was put in place to help smaller farms withstand these difficult times and figure out their place in the future. That’s just reality.

At the same time, what was lost in those press reports is we have a Secretary that at least took time to cheer-lead for the small and mid-sized family farms by using his bully pulpit to advocate for whole milk in schools. No one picked up on that, except for Farmshine.

Perdue also touted “local” food as a way to bring value back to farms. I haven’t seen any other press reports talk about that.

Most reporters ignored those thoughts. They also ignored the fact that the stage for the rapid consolidation in dairy — that is occurring today — was set 10 years ago under former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who today has his salary paid by dairy farmers through their mandatory checkoff as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and defacto leader of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy that is streamlining “U.S. Dairy” through various checkoff funded innovations and programs.

Think about this for a moment: U.S. dairy has progressed with technological advancements that are unparalleled in the world. American farmers have always looked to technology and to the future to produce food for the growing population and to be good stewards of the land.

It is the love of science and technology – along with the love of cows — that draws throngs of U.S. and international visitors to the World Dairy Expo each year. They want to see what’s new. They want to learn from each other. They want to make progress to do more with less.

Technology allows farmers to do more with less. That has meant producing more food from fewer cows. At some point it also means producing more food from fewer farms.

Perhaps it is time to not just praise science and technology with the eagerness of children on Christmas morning, but to have an honest conversation about where science and technology are leading the food industry. 

Sec. Perdue was not very well informed when it came to the topics of fake meat and fake milk that are ramping up through USDA science and technology into cell-cultured and DNA-modified yeast factory vats and bioreactors. Instead of talking about factories replacing farms, he stated that “consumers will choose”, and he said currently those who are choosing fake meat and fake milk aren’t consuming the real stuff anyway.

That was the short-sighted comment that raised my eyebrow, not the parsed-together quote about big and bigger.

It’s time to dig into the structure of things.

Perhaps the real concern and conversation to be addressed is the structures and alliances that have been formed over the past 10 years as they are now coming to light. In former Secretary Vilsack’s talk at Expo about exports and dairy innovation, and in DMI’s workshop about what’s on the horizon, my initial impressions are that we are at a place where the industry is speeding up innovation and wanting more latitude on standards of identity at a time when we should be saying: “let’s push pause please.” 

The race to feed the world has produced immeasurable waste and loss already, will it now change the face of agriculture forever?

Where is science and technology supportive for the family fabric that has made our food production the envy of the world? And where is science and technology promoting a path that leads us away from that model of food production to take it out of the hands of many families enriched by competitive markets and put it into the new emerging models of fewer hands, consolidated markets and lack of competition.

Don’t blame Secretary Perdue for these wheels that have been in motion. Don’t expect the government to solve it. But what we can do is have the honest conversation, ask the questions, hold leaders accountable, and move the needle far enough to provide a more level field of play for the small and mid-sized family farms. 

You can count on Farmshine to break away from the narratives on both sides of this thing to do exactly that.

-30-

U.S. Ag Secretary Perdue: Small farms face difficult times

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (right) and Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture and Trade Brad Pfaff field questions and take in comments at dairy town hall meeting early Tuesday morning on the official first day of the 53rd World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019

MADISON, Wis. – Grabbing the headlines from a town hall meeting with U.S. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue during the opening day of the 53rd World Dairy Expo, here in Madison, Wisconsin, was a comment the Secretary made about the viability of small family farms.

He was asked whether they will survive. To which he answered, “Yes, but they’ll have to adapt.”

In fact, the Secretary said that the capital needs and environmental regulations that impact farms today make it difficult for smaller farms to survive milking 50 to 100 cows.

“What we’ve seen is the number of dairy farms going down, but the number of dairy cows has not,” said Perdue. “Dairy farms are getting larger, and smaller farms are going out.”

But in additional discussion, Perdue said that consumers want local products. He said that marketing local, even without the buzzwords, can be done successfully to bring value to farms.

He noted two things about dairy farms. First, they can’t be sustainable without profitability and second, he described the dairy industry as prone to oversupply.

Picking up on these comments, recently retired northwest Wisconsin dairy producer Karen Schauf said Farm Bureau is looking at the Federal Milk Marketing Orders and how make some adjustments on the milk pricing.

“But what we really need to do is balance supply and demand of dairy products much closer,” she said. “I would ask if you would support a flexible mandatory supply management system to help producers keep that supply and demand in closer relationship.”

Perdue asked if she wanted the short answer or the long answer, stating that when his children want a quick answer, it’s always “no.”

Schauf replied, “Mr. Secretary, I just want you to think about it.” The subject went no further.

At another point in the questioning, a Wisconsin producer observed the disheartening price levels and said last year was a record high level of exports, while prices to farmers were worse than this year and worse than 2017.

He noted that exports hit 17.6% of milk produced, and settled out at 16% last year, which is a record, but his milk price averaged $14.60. He went on to say that, “our exports are off 2% this year, but I’ll probably come close to an average of $17 on my milk price.” He also noted that National Milk Producers Federation recently put out a press release stating 2015-18 as record years in domestic dairy consumption.

“This is all good,” the dairy farmer said, “but in Wisconsin we are losing 2.5 farms per day and I think the call centers are full with distressed farmers calling in, so beyond trade and some of these things you promote at the federal level, what can we be looking at so we never experience another five years like this?”

Perdue thanked the producer for his facts and said it is amazing that things “can be good and yet feel so bad.” He acknowledged that dairy has been under the most stress, and he said that the 2018 Farm Bill did “exactly the right thing” with the new Dairy Margin Coverage. He pointed out that this coverage is specifically in place for smaller dairy farms.

“Milk prices are cyclical, and I think we’ve met that trough, and things will improve for 2020,” said Perdue.

Referencing the 2% milk on the table in front of him, Perdue said: “You pretty much know what happened to milk in our schools, with the whole milk and the accusations about fat in milk. We hope to get some benefit, maybe, from the Dietary Guidelines this year, which drive a lot of this conversation.”

Noting that USDA “is leading” the Dietary Guidelines along with Health and Human Services, the Secretary said: “We have a great panel and they will bring together the best scientific facts about what is healthy, wholesome and nutritious for our young people and our older people  and all of us, so we’re looking forward to that.”

On trade, the Secretary was hopeful. He cited the recent trade agreement with Japan, but did not have exact numbers for dairy, just that it will be beneficial for dairy. On China, he was optimistic and said progress is being made, but that it has been important to take this stand because they have been “cheating” and are “toying with us.”

One area he mentioned in regard to trade with China is that U.S. agriculture has become too dependent on “what China will do.” He said the administration is really working on trade with other nations in the Pacific and elsewhere that do not represent such large chunks as to disrupt or distort markets as they come in and out of the game. This has held true for dairy exports from the U.S., which are rising in so many other parts of the world.

On the USMCA, Perdue said the outcome will depend on whether the Speaker of the House brings it to the floor for a vote. “It will pass both caucuses, but it has to come to the floor. We hope to see that happen by the end of the year, that distractions won’t get in the way,” said Perdue.

The town hall meeting covered a wide range of other questions and comments, and often, the answer to the toughest questions was “it’s complicated and we’ll be happy to look into it.”

On the Market Facilitation Program, several had questions about why alfalfa-grass is not included as a crop, just straight alfalfa. Perdue explained that alfalfa is a crop exported to China and that the crops in the eligible crops for MFP payments have to be “specifically enumerated.”

As with other questions, he emphasized the local FSA Committees who implement some of the more subjective pieces of these programs that farmers can appeal to their local committees if they’ve been denied.

In the prevent plant flexibilities for harvesting forage, Perdue said USDA is looking at this as perhaps something to be made permanent – the ability to harvest forage on prevent plant acres in September rather than waiting until Nov. 1.

Paul Bauer from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery focused his comments on the spread between Cheddar blocks and barrels on the CME and how this is deflating the price paid to dairy farmers – especially in Wisconsin – but also across the U.S. because of how it affects the Class III pricing formula.

“For the last four years, the spread between blocks and barrels has been greater than 12 cents. Historically, the spread has been three cents or less per pound for the prior 50 years,” he said, noting that the spread at the end of the previous week stood at just shy of 35 cents per pound!

“The common thought is that this bounces back to a normal range, but it doesn’t,” said Bauer, noting that last year’s average spread cost dairy farmers 60 cents per hundredweight on their milk price. “Those farmers who ship to barrel plants, such as Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, were affected by $1.20/cwt on their milk price due to this wide spread.

He noted that last week’s 34 ¾ cent spread between blocks and barrels cost dairy farmers $3.40/cwt, which is 20% of their base price.

Acknowledging that this is a complex issue, Bauer asked the Secretary if USDA will take the first step and admit there is a problem instead of “rolling their eyes because of the complexity.”

“This is unfavorable to our farmers and unfair to our producers,” said Bauer, explaining that all dairy products are priced off the block-barrel on the CME, ultimately.

“It’s important to get it right,” said Bauer, explaining that it is a problem when the industry can build barrel inventory to create this divergence in block / barrel prices on the CME, which in turn suppresses the price they pay to producers for the milk used in a multitude of other “modern” products.

“Barrel production comes from 16 plants (nationwide), and represents 6% of the nation’s dairy supply, and yet has had a 58% of the impact on all producers’ milk checks,” said Bauer. “When the system is out of sync, that negative value affects us all.

“It’s time for USDA to formally take action and for the data to come to light that are influencing the market,” said Bauer. 

He explained that the system is there to protect farmers and local buyers but is now being influenced by foreign cooperatives that keep one product – barrels – in oversupply in order to keep milk prices lower for products that are priced off the higher blocks in short supply. 

Bauer said the secrecy of buyers and sellers on the CME protects this practice. “It’s time to update the system to keep up with modern times to protect our farmers and our food supply also in terms of quality and safety.” 

Secretary Perdue drew laughter when he asked Bauer: “Would you repeat the question?”  But he took it in and asked for a written copy of the question to look into it. Perdue said that concerns are often raised about the Federal Milk Marketing Orders.

“They are a fairly complex issue, but we’d be happy to investigate. The government’s role in general is to be the balance between the producer and the consumer and ensure no predatory pricing practices,” said Perdue, “while not interfering with commerce and contracts.”

He gave the example of the fire at the Tyson beef plant in Holcomb, Kansas and the staggering loss to cattle prices since that fire over a month ago that have resulted in packer margins at an unprecedented $600 per head.

“We saw a spike in the delta – the difference between the live cattle price and the boxed beef price at historic highs, and we are investigating that, to make sure there was no pricing collusion,” said Perdue. “I’ve asked those packers to come in and give me their side of the story. That’s the role of USDA.”

Pete Hardin of the Milkweed asked about the cell cultured meat, citing a publicized comment by the Secretary last summer pointing to the value of this science. Hardin asked if any studies have been done on the safety of this technology.

Perdue did not know if any specific studies have been done, and he confessed to trying an Impossible Burger, adding “There’s now one restaurant I no longer attend.”

He stressed that these products cater to people who aren’t eating meat anyway for whatever reason, and he said: “In the end, consumers will be the ones to choose.”

Picking up on this in a separate question about how dairy and livestock farms can remain viable with all of the imitation products competing for consumers, the Secretary observed that, “As farmers we are independent and like to sit behind the farm gate and produce the best, most nutritious food in the world at the lowest cost anywhere in the world, but we’ve never told the story.

“It’s up to every one of us to speak out locally and statewide and federally, nationally in that area and tell the story of what’s happening. No longer can we hide behind the curtain,” said Perdue. 

“There’s a growing movement about knowing how you do your job, what’s in the milk, how the animals are treated, and there’s no going back from that. We have to engage with consumers. We have to tell the story loudly and proudly.”

-30-

Dairy mis-leaders call for unity, bring on misery

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine Op-Ed, July 19, 2019

Dairy producers find joy in the big and little things in life on the farm, working with family, raising children on the farm, building or continuing a family business, seeing the sun rise and set as they work, producing wholesome milk they take pride in, helping a cow have her calf, watching that calf grow and develop, planting tiny seeds, watching a crop grow.

We know personal stress on farms is at an all-time high, amid price and weather pressures. There is some optimism returning as last month’s milk checks were a bit better, and the futures markets fueled some optimism before hitting the see-saw again. Also, the first round of dairy margin coverage (DMC) checks have been received or are in the mail. (Signups for 2019 DMC end Sept. 20).

But despite the return of some optimism, stress continues to build on our dairy farms because the hole that has been dug is so deep, the ground to make up so vast, and the future sustainability of family farm businesses more challenged by the industry’s control of how they operate.

My thoughts here are based on personal meetings, phone conferences, emails and other communications with young farm families operating small herds and multi-family operations with very large herds. 

In my various work and volunteer efforts as a freelancer — I visit a lot of dairy farms. 

Even though milk prices are gradually rising, net mailbox prices are flat and costs are going up, eating into the price gains. Forages are tight, weather is an added burden, farmers are utilizing new strategies, adopting progressive practices, improving their business management – and yet, their farms and families are fraying over the question of whether to stay the course or sell the cows and leave it behind. 

Many are taking on other work and adding to their already long days with efforts to bring in income to support the farm.

Communities are feeling the long fingers, and farmers and related agribusinesses are supporting each other as best they are able. The levels of farm community unity have probably never been higher in this regard: People are coming together to promote milk through voluntary efforts, to support their neighbors, and to reach out to each other as friends and colleagues.

The industry leaders say the dairy industry must be unified. They say it is wrong to challenge the path of the industry because doing so is “depressing and divisive” and “brings more stress onto the farmers.”

Don’t challenge the system, they say, because this creates negativity and stress when farmers need to stay positive and united. This, I’ve been told by leaders.

Questions and challenges are not meant to divide or stress our farmers. The stress is already there. It may not always be spoken, but it is there, and it is visible. 

This stress cannot be painted over with pretty colors.

Stress on dairy farms today is rooted in the way this industry and various milk pricing and nutrition policies have economically failed our farmers (and our consumers), especially since 2008.

To talk about the industry’s path — to discuss and debate marketing decisions made with producer dollars — does not mean one is being divisive. This is America where ideas and challenges can still be discussed and debated, and where leaders can be questioned and held accountable.

How much more divided can an industry become than to see marriages, families, businesses, dreams fractured from the undue stress of not only a tough deal on the milk pricing but perhaps even more concerning, the increased levels of control that this same system puts upon our farmers, and how they manage their farms, as a condition to keep their milk contracts?

This loss of independence and loss of their ability to control the ‘controllables’ is of utmost concern. If we ignore these trends — in an attempt to be passively non-divisive — does that make the issue or problem go away? Certainly not.

Rapid streamlining of the dairy industry is underway, at least in part because this is the path charted in 2008 by the DMI Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and the U.S. Dairy Export Council working via memorandums of understanding with USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack who is today a DMI leader as USDEC president and CEO and instrumental in the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. 

Both USDEC and the Innovation Center are primarily supported by the mandatory checkoff paid by dairy farmers; but they also partner with food supply chain companies that work on proprietary products, ideas and concepts for the expressed purpose of growing the dairy sector globally.

The industry leaders tasked with spending the farmer’s 15 cents per hundredweight say raising exports to 20% (last year was 16%) is the key for a growing dairy industry.

Most notably, Vilsack reported in May that, “2018 was a record year for U.S. dairy exporters with export volume up 10% from the prior year. Simply put, exports support the growth aspirations of the U.S. dairy sector.”

Nowhere in his statement, or the entire blog post at USDEC, did Vilsack mention the dairy farmers who pay his salary. He mentions the dairy exporters and the dairy sector, but not the dairy producers.

Are exporters and sectors paying his salary of $750,000? No, not really. A small portion of USDEC is funded by ‘industry’ memberships, and importers pay a smaller checkoff, but the bulk of the agency and its CEO Tom Vilsack are funded directly from government-mandated dairy producer checkoff funds.

Where are the statements about a promotion agenda that seeks to return a fair price and livable income to those producers paying the agenda-makers salaries?

At various meetings last year where milk markets were discussed, dairy traders stated that exports do not raise farm-level milk prices. Interestingly, 2018 exports were higher than 2017 while 2018 prices paid to dairy farmers were much lower than 2017.

The direction of the dairy checkoff is toward growth of the dairy sector globally, at all costs, and yet the U.S. dairy farmers are paying the bill for this, with USDA having very close control of it.

This goal has been positioned to farmers as an all-out race to gain global market share before other countries do it, without a methodical approach or review on the impact to domestic markets and producers along the way.

This global agenda is also steering the sustainability frameworks and alliances DMI’s Innovation Center is forming that will control more aspects of management at the farm level in the future.

In recent proof of conversations between farmers and checkoff staff and board members, questions about Innovation Center projects, alliances and partnerships were passed off as though the board receives its information on these projects on a “need to know” basis. A board member stated in these exchanges that they are not concerned with seeing every detail of a proprietary project because DMI’s attorneys and USDA’s attorneys know the details, and the board trusts the staff.

(I have served on boards elected by citizens. Trust in staff is critical, but so is transparency of projects paid for by a checkoff — the same as a school tax.)

For some, a call for unity means don’t ask questions. For others, it means get informed and start mobilizing a grassroots unifying effort.

In a copy of non-executive February DMI board minutes received by Farmshine, a strategy is detailed by the Farmer Relations and Consumer Confidence Committee. According to the minutes, a key discussion at the February 19-21 board meeting was stated as “farmer engagement around checkoff value is more important than ever before.”

A key bullet point was for national and local checkoff board members to “focus on the movable middle.”

Another bullet point of the discussion in the minutes is that DMI is “learning from the checkoff Facebook page and regional media coverage (Farmshine) reinforcing that you do NOT continue to engage with those detractors that cannot/will not be moved.”

While Farmshine was still seeking answers to questions and had not yet published the DMI chair’s letter of response (published Feb. 21), DMI had already taken a position in its Feb. 20 board discussion to “not engage” with detractors, mentioning Farmshine parenthetically by name in this category.

According to the minutes, the rest of the DMI board discussion on this topic centered on the need to “reach out to those farmers who see/hear from the unmovable detractors” (that would mean Farmshine readers as per the above). According to the minutes, “ways to reach the movable middle” were discussed.

So, while organizations chart a course for unity and reaching out to a movable middle, dairy farm families are focused on finding ways to move forward on their farms and to unify and inform their communities.

Even though our legislators are taking notice of the growing crisis — and some sincerely care and are trying to do something — these stopgaps and investments are a drop in a very large bucket. Those drops are appreciated, but there are big things to tackle that require courage when it comes to the needed changes in nutrition rules, checkoff rules, promotion rules, labeling rules (and also lack of standard of identity enforcement), complex milk pricing rules (while processors and co-ops are readying a proposal for their make allowance increases as soon as prices improve a bit), not to mention rules that impact the cost of doing business every day on the farm.

As dairy farm families keep moving forward, finding ways to do more with less, working longer hours with less help, taking on off-farm employment and finding other revenue streams to pay their bills — They are consequently burning the candle at both ends and incurring more stress.

The stress on farms of all sizes can be overwhelming and is felt by even the best operators.

We do need unity, yes, but the question farmers are asking themselves is: Who will be part of dairy’s unified and globalized future? They deserve to know the direction the organizations they fund are taking their product, their market, and the industry they have supplied with wholesome milk for generations.

We can do better than this in America where agriculture truly is our backbone. Without strong farm families, all else fails eventually, including our liberty and security as a nation. 

-30-

Decision made, faith shared as his beautiful Lancaster County farm auction is set for Feb. 9

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 1, 2019

RustyHerr01

Picture postcard perfect in Tuesday afternoon’s snow, Rusty Herr’s 71-acre farm, including the all wood construction dairy and heifer barns (shown here), designed to showcase Golden Rose Genetics, as well as the restored historic home (not shown) in the Andrews Bridge historic district of southern Lancaster County will be auctioned by Beiler-Campbell on Feb. 9.

CHRISTIANA, Pa. – “It was a gut feeling, more than anything — an inner sense of knowing something had to happen,” says Rusty Herr about his November decision to auction the 71-acre farm and its most unique dairy facility that is home to Golden Rose Genetics and its elite herd of 40 cows, 25 of which are related to the Oakfield Pronto Ritzi cow he purchased as a yearling in 2009 at the New York Spring Sensation Sale.

Beiler-Campbell Auction Company will conduct the public auction at the 3 Sproul Road farm in the Andrews Bridge historic district of southern Lancaster County near Christiana, Pennsylvania next Saturday, February 9 at 1:00 p.m. In addition to the farm, and it’s not quite four-year-old dairy and heifer barns, the sale includes the family’s restored historic home.

RustyHerr00

Rusty with his foundation cow Oakfield Pronto Ritzi EX93, in front of the dairy facility at Golden Rose Genetics. The facilities and renovated farm house are part of the auction Feb. 9 of the 71-acre farm. Pronto Ritzi’s is from a genetic line that is now 19 consecutive generations EX with the most recent four generations bred here at Golden Rose and a potential 20th generation EX — a red and polled first calf heifer — waiting in the wings to be scored.

Rusty will determine his options for the cattle and equipment after the sale of the farm. He’s hoping to be able to keep some of his best animals and some heifers for his children to show.

The beautiful all-wood construction Canadian-style barn, complete with indoor wash rooms and a show case entryway was built so that Rusty could give his small herd of high-scoring cows the individual attention and as a show place to merchandise the genetics he has been developing.

In fact, his Golden-Rose Ladd Glory-Red (below), both Red and Polled, has not yet been classified and has the potential to be a 20th generation EX in Oakfield Pronto Ritzi’s line.

RustyHerr-ProntoRitzi

Oakfield Pronto Ritzi EX93 is the foundation cow at Golden Rose

RustyHerr-Glory

Golden-Rose Ladd Glory-Red is a polled first-calf heifer that will be professionally photographed in February. She is not yet classified, and Rusty has high hopes for her as a potential 20th generation EX from the Oakfield Pronto Ritzi line. Rusty will make plans and choices for his cattle after the public auction of the farm.

Good cows and good genetics, along with a love of marketing and the training and skill-set for reproductive work — these are the things Rusty has learned and will continue to love – even if the path forward right now is like opening a book of blank pages.

While it was a gut feeling and months of deliberation that led to the decision to sell the farm, it all comes down to the financial strain he and other dairy producers are enduring.

“Each of us has to know how much longer we can tread water before losing everything,” he says. “We also have to look at how the financial strain may be impacting on other areas of our physical, emotional and family life. If the dairy industry was in a good place, financially, it is obvious we would not have all of these farms going out of business.”

In kitchen table discussions with other dairymen who’ve crossed this bridge over the past several months, one thing is apparent, our industry’s young farmers and transitioning families do not have the cash flow to finish transitions or move into later stages of having started as beginning farmers. They also don’t have the peace of mind that the markets will cycle high enough to pull them up from four years of losses. This is concerning for the future as we are not just seeing the older generation retiring out of the business, we are seeing unprecedented numbers of young people who have a passion for dairy in these tough decisions.

For Rusty, it means walking away from the farm and most unique dairy facility he had spent years dreaming, planning, preparing for and then in 2015 building for his Golden Rose Genetics.

He had been sharpening his skill-set in embryo transfers, ultrasounding and IVF work, building a line of Excellent cows from the Oakfield Corners yearling he had purchased. He methodically built up the genetics side of his business, ultimately downsizing his prior herd with a 2015 auction to fund the new barn and intimate setting for a smaller herd where he could specialize in genetics.

What he didn’t plan on — what nobody could have — is that the milk price would abandon its three-year cycle to tumble low for four straight years, beginning in 2015 when he moved his smaller herd into their new quarters at Golden Rose.

RustyHerr02.jpg

With a rough-cut pine exterior and the interior smooth pine tongue-and-groove construction, clear-coated to protect the wood against moisture, the 40 tie-stalls and four box stalls were designed for the individual care of high-scoring cows. They currently produce 75 pounds/cow/day of milk with 4.2 fat and 3.3 protein and somatic cell counts 160,000 and below. They are fed a forage-based TMR of mainly corn silage and double-cropped triticale, along with some dry hay.

“Without one good year in the dairy markets (since 2015), it’s been an uphill battle,” Rusty reflects. “We were treading water, but then the outlook sealed it. If it looked like markets would be a lot brighter going into 2019, maybe we could hunker down a bit longer, but we felt like we have already hunkered down and pushed it.

“Obviously it has not been an easy decision to make,” but he says that it is the right one for his family to move on from dairy farming as they have known it.

Looking back, he has no regrets.

RustyHerr-showcase

The entryway to the cow barn is part of what make this property a unique opportunity for many types of buyers. The location and beauty of the property and its wood-crafted dairy facilities designed for a small elite dairy herd could easily be converted for horses or for a farm to retail business.

“Life has a way of teaching us valuable lessons that we would have never learned if we didn’t go through certain things. When things get difficult, when the pressure is high and the pain is great, those are the times when we learn the most, when we figure out who we really are and come out better and more prepared to handle what is to come,” he describes the perspective that leaves him with peace about stepping towards whatever God has in store next for him and his family.

With the decision made, the marketer in him has Rusty feeling excited about the upcoming auction on February 9.

He and his wife Heather feel a sense of relief knowing the financial strain will ease, and he believes that any number of options could be in front of him.

He says the whole experience has taught him patience and to trust God for His perfect timing.

“This wasn’t how I would have planned it, having just purchased the farm and begun construction on the dairy less than four years ago, but it’s how the script is unfolding,” he notes.

“The dairy industry is changing in many ways, and to think that anyone could have predicted the markets would be moderately to severely depressed going on a fifth year in a row would have been unimaginable.”

But he adds that, “This is the reality of where we are with a high debt load, input costs from all angles and a very uncertain outlook. It’s just not sustainable to continue with the farm and small dairy herd.”

He and his wife Heather and their four children have put the future in God’s hands. He loves the work he has been doing both on and off the farm.

If a buyer wants to keep the dairy going and keep him working with it, he is open to that potential.

If the farm sells to a buyer completely unrelated to dairy, his path could change dramatically, and he’s ready for that.

RustyHerr-08.jpg

The foyer has a comfortable and historic sitting-room feel where milk quality certificates, pedigrees and ribbons and banners won by his daughters showing cattle at the local fairs are displayed. You can see the cows behind the double doors in the tiestalls. A visitor from the Netherlands surprised Rusty with a cow decal on the wall, a signature he leaves at every farm he visits, worldwide.

“We chose to auction the farm. This is not a forced auction,” Rusty affirms. “I have always loved cow auctions and after meeting with Beiler-Campbell, we decided this is how we would handle the farm sale.”

True to form, Rusty finds himself seizing the opportunity to learn about marketing real estate through this whole experience. Just another way to embrace circumstances and decisions even if they are completely opposite of earlier dreams and plans.

RustyHerr-AuctionSign.jpgIn fact, Rusty penned these words in a Facebook post 10 days before Christmas just after the auction signs went up, thanking their network of family, friends and church family and offering to others a glimpse of the hope and faith that remain strong – knowing so many farmers are wrestling with similar difficulties and decisions.

“Yes, it is sad to walk away from something I have worked my whole life to get to, but in other ways I can be so happy to have been given the opportunity to do it. So many people can never say that,” Rusty wrote, and reiterated during a Farmshine visit to Golden Rose Monday evening. During the visit, Rusty confided that the rollercoaster has not been the markets — they’ve been down with no relief. The rollercoaster he and other dairy producers deal with every day is an internal up-and-down in the mindset of whether they can move forward, or how.

“We can control a lot of things, but not the market,” he explains that they have done all they could to increase income and cash flow amid the perfect storm of lower prices for milk, cattle and beef. He stepped up his ET, IVF and other reproductive services to dairy producers in the region –pulling him away from the very farm he was bringing income back to keep going.

“What’s the family farm going to look like in the future?” Rusty wonders aloud. “That question, I think, is being answered. We are disappearing.”

“I don’t want sympathies and people feeling sorry for us…” he wrote in that mid-December post announcing the sale of the farm. “There are dairy farm families right now who are grieving over the loss of a loved one who thought that ending their life was the best way to cope with their overwhelming situation. They are the ones who need our prayers and support. There are others who have no idea how they are going to get through the coming months and years if things don’t dramatically improve. They might be retirement age and have just watched all of their net worth get eaten up while trying to ride out the storm. I would like this post to be about them.”

Rusty is grateful for family, friends and faith. He urges everyone in the dairy community to “Reach out to your neighbors and friends. Let them know that you care and are praying for them.”

In short, he says, “2018 has been the most difficult year in modern history to be a farmer. Farmers are strong people and can deal with more than most will ever have to, but we all have a breaking point. Pay attention, listen when someone just needs to be heard. Be a shoulder to cry on if needed. Be kind — you never know how much someone might be dealing with. People are good at hiding their struggles and pain.”

RustyHerr06.jpg

It’s milking time, and Daisy Herr, 13, gets started Monday evening at Golden Rose.

As Rusty and one of his daughters, Daisey, 13, began milking Monday evening, younger daughter Maddie, 12, fed the cats and prepared to join in. Their dad started a pot of coffee and prepared to feed.

“It’s a bittersweet thing,” he said as we concluded the interview as night fell. “The decision was difficult, but we’re all looking forward to what’s next, even if we don’t know what that looks like at the moment. For now, I’m focusing on the auction on Feb. 9, and trusting God has our back.”


“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

 

Jeremiah 29:11

RustyHerr07

Rusty pushes up and gets ready to feed while daughter Daisy milks and daughter Maddie helps with other chores. He says Alli, 15, Daisy, 13, and Maddie, 12, have been taking turns with the milking. Son Jeremiah, 9, helps Heather’s mom with feeding calves.

RustyHerr-dronephoto.jpg

RustyHerr04

RustyHerr-HeiferBarn.jpg

RustyHerr-Maddie.jpg

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.

Bunting-0841

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.”

-30-

CenterfoldCollageDairywomen.indd