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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Win, win and win: Turning tough challenges into abundant goodness

Philabundance partners with local dairy farms to bring Abundantly Good dairy foods to those in need.

By Sherry Bunting as published in July 20 Farmshine

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — Great ideas often come wrapped in tough challenges.

For Lancaster County dairy farms and Philabundance — the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization with a 30-year history of rescuing and upcycling food — the urban and rural challenges of hunger, food waste and price-depressing surpluses have converged under the new ‘Abundantly Good’ business model and brand.

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The folks at Philabundance are enthusiastic about working with Lancaster County dairy farms, like Cedar Dream(pictured) near Peach Bottom.

It’s mid-morning in July, and the day’s first milking and chores are done at Cedar Dream Farm. The 53 registered Holstein cows on this southern Lancaster County dairy farm lay comfortably chewing cud in the fan-cooled tiestall barn.

They will be turned out to pasture in the cooler overnight temperatures after the evening milking. Tended by Abner Stoltzfus, his wife Rebecca and the older of their eight children, the herd produces an RHA of 24,000M 3.9F 3.3P with somatic cell counts between 100 and 130,000. Their cleanliness and comfort tell the story.

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Next to the spotless and kosher-approved processing room, the chiller holds not only finished products but also clean, bright white pails of fruit puree for yogurts. I was attracted to the in-season black raspberry!

Before looking in again on the cows and heading to the fields, Stoltzfus takes time to show me the dairy processing room and the chiller full of consumer-ready milk and yogurt in the small creamery built a little over a year ago on the farm.

He offers a pint of the strawberry drinkable yogurt. Creamy, with just the tiniest hint of color from the strawberry puree. It had all the farm-fresh flavor I was thirsting for. Yum.

We talk about how co-packing for Philabundance and Sunset Farms helped launch the Cedar Dream creamery last spring.

What began for Philabundance in the past few years — utilizing PASS (PA Ag Surplus System) funds from the Pa. Department of Agriculture to reclaim surplus milk and pay the processing, packaging and transportation to turn it into cheese — is now expanding with the funding from the new retail brand, according to Monika Crosby, assistant manager of food acquisition for Philabundance.

To increase their reach, Philabundance launched the Abundantly Good brand a year ago, focusing primarily on specialty cheeses. For each pound of cheese sold through retail partners, $1.00 is returned — totaling over $9,000 so far — to buy even more surplus milk to make even more cheese, and now yogurt, for the food banks, soup kitchens, Fresh For All farm markets for eligible families, and other Philabundance clients and programs.

Crosby shares her concern about the 40% of food that is wasted yearly in the U.S., while 1 in 5 Philadelphians don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

She grew up the daughter of a dairy farmer in the New York Finger Lakes Region. When her father met Amos Zimmerman of Dairy Pricing Association during a meeting in New York, the connection between Philabundance and Lancaster County dairy farms followed.

“There is an overabundance of perfectly good milk, and yet so much of it has to be thrown out. So, we developed a business plan with Sunset Farms to utilize surplus milk to create cheese and yogurt,” Crosby says, explaining that the surplus milk goes to Sunset Farms in Ronks for cheesemaking and butter. Excess skim from butter-making goes to Cedar Dream.

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Abner Stoltzfus figures he’s made 8,000 pints of drinkable yogurt, with over half of it vanilla flavored, using surplus skim milk for Philabundance, and half from his farm’s own milk as Cedar Dream strawberry flavored drinkable yogurt (left) for the retailers selling Cedar Dream whole milk and whole chocolate milk (right). He also does other sizes, including 6-oz. bottles of milk and drinkable yogurt as well as cup-yogurt.

At Cedar Dream, the skim milk is heated to 108 degrees in the new vat pasteurizer. Yogurt cultures are added, and 12 hours later, flavoring is added. The process turns a pound of surplus skim milk into a pint of nutritious, full-bodied and flavorful drinkable yogurt — with nearly 4000 pints of vanilla made for Philabundance families since April.

This journey really began in the spring of 2017, when Philabundance used PASS funds to help divert 12 loads of surplus milk destined to be dumped. Local cheesemakers turned this into 66,000 pounds of natural, high-quality cheese for hungry Pennsylvanians, according to Crosby.

From that experience, the idea for the Abundantly Good brand was born during collaborations between Philabundance and its partners, including the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and Chester County Food Bank, as well as the Pennsylvania dairy industry.

“We saw the great need for more high-quality dairy products… and decided to develop the Abundantly Good program to help fund our purchases of more dairy products for our community,” says Crosby.

The Abundantly Good specialty cheeses are sold to retailers like Di Bruno Brothers, Riverwards Produce, The Common Market and Third Wheel Cheese Co.

“We jumped at the chance to partner with Philabundance by selling Abundantly Good cheese, as it gave us the chance to sell something that tastes good and does good at the same time,” said Emilio Mignucci, vice president of Di Bruno Bros. in a press release. The specialty food retailer piloted the concept by carrying five varieties.

As they saw success with cheese, Philabundance went back to their farmers and learned there was excess skim milk from butter production.

“We determined that yogurt would be both delicious and nutritious for our families in need,” Crosby adds.

Stoltzfus says most of what his creamery does right now is co-packing for Philabundance, Chester County Food Bank and Sunset Farms. But he also brings a bit of his own herd’s milk in to package whole milk, whole chocolate milk, cup yogurt and drinkable yogurt under the Cedar Dream brand.

“They say it takes a full year to get started into on-farm processing. That’s about right,” says Stoltzfus, thankful for the opportunity to co-pack while he begins developing and marketing his own products. They are seeing a slow and steady increase by word of mouth in a few small local markets like the Solanco Market and East Drumore Foods.

“I want to provide consumers with a local Pennsylvania dairy product, fresh off the farm, and be happy with the product I produce,” he explains, emphasizing that this is not something that happens overnight. “I knew to be careful and not get too aggressive too fast. I want to take one step at a time, so I don’t fall.”

A former board member of Dairy Pricing Association, Stoltzfus understands the double-challenge of dairy excess pressuring farm milk prices and the plight of food-insecure families, so he was more than happy to do something that is beneficial for others.

“We have the facility to do this and are gladly doing it,” he says. “I figured we’d be focusing more on cup yogurt, but after sitting down with Philabundance, we started making the drinkable yogurt, and they seemed to really like that.”

Set up to bottle 400 to 500 pints per hour, he does about 500 to 600 pints per week with some weeks up to 3000 pints, but it’s the prep and everything else associated with having a creamery that takes time.

“I see the way things are going, the uncertainty, and I knew we better figure something out to keep us going,” he reflects.

While he likes being involved on the processing side, and sees more people exploring this option to help save smaller family farms, he’s quick to point out: “It does take some attention away from the farm and the cows.”

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Copacking helps Cedar Dream creamery get established

He knows he needs to balance his time and growth, even though he’d love to take milk from every dairy farm that has contacted him as new market uncertainties emerge in his community, not just for independent producers, but also co-op members around how Sunday milk pickups are handled.

“I would love to say yes to everyone, but I am just getting started,” says Stoltzfus. “I can’t grow too fast ahead of myself. Getting established is very important.”

He is grateful to those who are helping along the way, including his lender, Ephrata National Bank, for seeing the vision in the creamery investment.

For Philabundance, it’s dairies like Sunset Farms and Cedar Dream that are a big part of the triple-bottom-line they seek with the Abundantly Good brand, according to Elizabeth Sanon, assistant procurement manager.

“This project has enabled us to provide quality dairy products that far surpass anything we’ve been able to offer to our families previously,” she says. “We are not only combating the need for better access to healthier foods… but are reducing unnecessary waste of agricultural products and creating an innovative new revenue stream for local farmers.”

Under the farmer-mantra of ‘leaving this place better than we found it,’ Sanon says that while the U.S. continues to lose family farms at a rapid rate, the number of food-insecure people continues to rise. “With Abundantly Good, we are able to create solutions within the community to address these problems.”

The hope is for the Abundantly Good brand to continue to grow in retailers and product lines to ultimately fund the free distribution of dairy products to those in need on a year-round basis.

To learn more about Philabundance, including its Fresh for All program and the Uplift and Upcycle partnerships, visit https://www.philabundance.org  or contact Kait Bowdler, deputy director of sustainability at sustainability@philabundance.org.

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Abner and Rebecca Stoltzfus and their children milk and care for 53 registered Holstein cows and their replacement heifers. Cows spend the hot days in the fan-cooled tiestall barn and are on pasture in the cooler temperatures after the evening milking. They produce a 24,000-pound herd average with 3.9 fat, 3.3 protein.

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Milk Map MATH…

map-1.jpgAuthor’s note: Since Milk Map Math was published April 6, I came across another interesting piece in April 11 Tank Transport Trader, where Dr. Mark Stephenson talks of the surpluses in the Midwest and West and states the 8 bil. lbs. Northeast milk deficit and 41 bil. lbs. Southeast deficit, and how the challenge is getting milk from the surplus areas to deficient areas. Read on, for Milk Map Math – 2017 data.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 6, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – Dairy consolidation away from the eastern U.S. continued in 2017, aided by further losses in basis revealed in the average net mailbox milk prices.

As the state and regional variations in mailbox milk prices move closer to a national price, the losers on the map are the states encompassed by the Federal Orders with highest Class I utilization: Northeast, Mideast, Appalachian, Southeast and Florida.

Not only is fluid milk the shrinking piece of the expanding pie, it is also the segment of the market with a legacy tied to local farms, family farms, farms that are getting dropped by bottlers as the milk bottling industry is also consolidating into wider spheres of milk sourcing.

The only way to slow this trend is to work directly with consumers and retailers because they have already told the dairy industry they want: local milk. Trouble is, the industry, and the checkoff dollars paid by these significant farms in the diminishing eastern region, are not listening to consumers. They’ve got eyes set across the seas on exports hitting 20% by 2025, while leaving the domestic market for nature’s most perfect food — milk — vulnerable and neglected.

Meanwhile, the milksheds on both the East and West Coasts had production levels in 2017 that were lower or unchanged, while big gains in production in the Western Plains milkshed overtook all milkshed production for the first time.

ChartWhile U.S. production was 215 bil. lbs., up 1.4% over 2016, the traditional Northeast milkshed, at 36.88 bil. lbs. added just 0.6%. Anchored by New York (up 0.9%), Pennsylvania (up 1.1%), Ohio (up 0.8%) and Vermont (unchanged), this milkshed includes other New England states that lost 3 to 5% and Maryland down 0.4%.
National-footprint cooperatives, like DFA and Land O’Lakes talk of the flood of milk in the Northeast.

Land O’Lakes is shrinking the Eastern base from 9 mil. lbs. per day to triggering penalties above 8.6 mil. lbs. per day, according to letters received by members. At the same time, different rules are applied in the Upper Midwest where demand will be affected by expansion of the Agropur plant driving expansion in the I-29 corridor.

DFA has placed a base program on members in parts of the Southeast, despite the Southeast deficit and virtually unchanged milk production in the milkshed, while different rules are applied elsewhere on the map, even in states that ship milk to the eastern states throughout the year and have a new powder facility in Kansas to balance that.

When the industry refers to the eastern markets being oversupplied, they are really talking about the ability of expansion areas of the U.S. to serve the markets and consumers of the East.

In particular, they are including in the description of a Northeast supply, the Mideast states of Michigan (up 3.3%) and Indiana (up 2.7%). Even when we figure in these states, the combined Northeast and Mideast milksheds produced 52.37 bil lbs in 2017, up 1.3%.

The Midwest milkshed — from Wisconsin and Illinois to the Dakotas, including the rapidly growing I-29 corridor of Iowa, Minn. and South Dakota — made 50.25 bil. lbs, up 1.3%.

The sea of green in milk production, however, can be found in the Western Plains milkshed from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona in the south to Nevada, Utah, Idaho to the north, including rapidly growing Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. This milkshed grew by 5% to 53.12 bil. lbs.

Texas, alone, produced over 12 bil. lbs., up virtually 12% on the strength of output per cow and 7% more cows — leapfrogging both Pennsylvania and Michigan for the No. 5 spot — pushing Pennsylvania to 7th.

New Mexico grew 6.5% to 8.21 bil. lbs. with 4.3% more cows. Every state in this milkshed grew by more than 5% except for Nevada’s growth of 3.6% and number 4 Idaho’s small loss of 0.3%. The West Coast made 48.85 bil lbs, down 1.7% in 2017 with No. 1 California off by 1.7% and Pacific Northwest off by more.

Shifts in state and regional Mailbox Milk Prices tell the story. Losing the most ground relative to the U.S. average were Pennsylvania and the Southeast states. Both were averaged by USDA at $17.55 for 2017. In fact, the eastern Pennsylvania portion of that price was even lower, at $17.39.

Interestingly, the West Coast gained the most ground on net mailbox prices with California’s mailbox at $16.19, up 9.3% over 2016 and the Northwest at $17.59 up 10.2%.

Florida regained the number one position with a mailbox price of $18.96, up 9%, while the Southeast milkshed was tie for 10th with Pennsylvania at $17.55. This value represented a 7.2% gain over 2016 for Pennsylvania but just a 5.8% gain over 2016 for the Southeast.

New England was second at $18.65 and the Appalachian region regained third with a 2017 mailbox price of $18.09, up 8% over year ago. New York was $17.46.

Wisconsin had the fourth highest mailbox price in the nation at $17.95, up 7.6% while Minnesota was 9th at $17.56, up 6.4%. Iowa and Illinois were up 8 and 9% with mailbox prices of $17.69 and $17.96, respectively.

Ohio was up 9% with a mailbox average of $17.61, while Indiana was up 7.4% at $17.02.

Michigan, up 8.3% at $15.59, and New Mexico, up 5.4% at $15.24, were the states with the lowest mailbox prices. West Texas garnered a mailbox average at $16.77, up 8.6%.

Wisconsin and Pennsylvania remained the top two for the number of licensed dairy farms. Pennsylvania lost 80, down 1.3% at 6570. Wisconsin lost 430 at 9090, down 4.6%.

Overall, the U.S. milk production increase of 1.4% came from 67,000 more cow on 1600 fewer licensed dairy farms. Across the 50 states, the number of licensed dairy farms fell 4% to 40,219 and the number of dairy cows grew 0.7% to 9.3 million head.

Keep in mind, USDA milk production statistics are compiled, in part, using Market Admin. pooling reports for marketings relative to cow numbers. With milk moving in ways it never has before, there could be some gray areas in some of these state and regional tallies.

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