‘I’ve got to get home to my cows’

With courage and grace, Reese comes home after 22 months

By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from FARMSHINE March 25, 2016
Reese03Author’s Note: It has been almost a month since Reese’s homecoming and she is getting back to the precious rhythms of life on the farm: Greeting her little sister off the bus on sunny afternoons, feeding her prize cow’s new calf, riding the gator with her grandfather, having tea parties with sister and cousins on Sunday afternoons, getting together with school friends, still attending school virtually via “Double,” her robot, even going to the dentist! Her journey continues to inspire. I am grateful for the opportunity to interview Reese and her mother and grandmother on the quiet first Monday after her arrival home Friday, March 18, 2016. Get ready to be inspired by this young lady, and by her family and the local farming community and worldwide dairy community who continue to think of her. Thank you to Jean Kummer, Laura Jackson and Jennifer DiDio for providing some of the photos here.

 

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Nina Burdette tells the story of granddaughter Reese teaching her cow Pantene to lead when she was a calf five years ago. Reese was four at the time, and Nina told her “Don’t let go.”

“That calf pulled her around, and at one point she was flat on her back holding on, until that calf wrapped itself around a post,” Nina recalls she had rope burns on her hands.

Reese never let go.

So it was two years later, on May 26, 2014, when Reese arrived at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, where she would spend the next 662 days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) recovering from burns over 35 percent of her body and smoke damage to her heart and lungs after a fire at the home of her grandmother Patricia Stiles, who also recovered from significant trauma carrying her from the burning room.

Reese never let go.

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Today, she is back home at Windy-Knoll View farm in rural Franklin County, Pa., with her sister Brinkley and their parents Justin and Claire Burdette, and of course her cow Pantene and her three heifers Pretzel, Panzee and Pardi Gras.

Over and over, Reese told her doctors: “I’ve got to get home to my cows.”

Words spoken from the heart of a true dairy farmer. “Oh she has her mind set on that, just like her mom and dad,” says Nina. “We call her the junior manager.”

Driving through Mercersburg to the Burdette home on Monday, purple still proclaimed Reese’s homecoming parade from the preceding Friday. Purple and white cows stood in yards and driveways, purple balloons, welcoming TeamReese banners, home-made signs of love and support, purple bows tied to trees, poles and fence posts all along the route of young Reese Burdette’s drive home from Baltimore to Mercersburg — the 200-mile trek her family has traversed between the home farm and their second home at Johns Hopkins for nearly two years.

Reese had set a goal to be home for her 9th birthday, which she celebrated with family and friends — at home — on Sunday, March 20.

“Friday was surreal,” said Mom, Claire, during Monday’s Farmshine interview as Reese sat in the next room attending school via her robot, screen and headphones. Brinkley, 5, had also gone off to school that morning, and Reese was eager to be on the porch in a couple hours to see her little sister get off the bus — something she had envisioned for months.

A return to the ordinary rhythms of life on the farm is just what this child has longed for as she recovered from that fateful day.

Friday had dawned brisk and sunny as Claire and Justin and Brinkley waited with Reese for morning rounds. “When the doctor said ‘you’re free to go,’ it felt so good to hear those words we had waited and prayed to hear for so long,” Claire recalls.

A sendoff party was attended by hundreds the night before at Johns Hopkins where Reese has become quite the celebrity in what everyone referred to as “the sunshine room” where there was no room for worry. She shared her games, was known for her aim in shooting foam darts at a deer on the doorway, and had a machine for making snowballs and popcorn for sale with lines out the door to her room some days. Her PICU room had been transformed into a rehab that looked as much like home as possible for the past year. Toward the end of her stay, Reese surprised her family with a video of her journey.

“She’s not afraid to talk about the fire,” said Claire, noting that the hospital has learned from Reese as they tried processes for the first time with her burns. Jim tells of the time she consoled a grandmother whose granddaughter was getting a tracheotomy, explaining to her there is nothing to fear. She had become quite the advocate for her own care, face-timing Dr. Kristen Nelson about medicines and earning the name “Dr. Reese” among the residents in training (RTs).

In fact, Dr. Kristen, as she is known, is quick to point out that, “Reese has surprised me in so many ways about perseverance and strength and hope and grace and bravery, and I am forever a part of her life.”

On Friday morning, an entourage of 25 doctors, nurses, RTs, and custodians, escorted her to the white SUV sporting the large purple bow.

And so, they began their journey back home to a new normal.

Claire said the sight was “amazing. There are no words to describe riding up and seeing people after people after people.”

A sea of purple lined the streets. “There was so much joy… and tears. People were waving and hugging each other,” she said.

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The local fire company brought every piece of equipment for the homecoming escort. They drove through the high school, where the band played, and then through the middle school and through two elementary schools where children and adults lined the streets and filled the parking lots and rooftops with banners and balloons and smiles and waves.

In town, the First National Bank closed for 15 minutes as every employee, donning purple, came out to cheer Reese homeward as the Burdette family drove by. The John Deere dealership, car dealerships, and other businesses decorated profusely in purple to welcome their hometown hero.

“I thought she was going to jump out of the car, she was so excited. Of course, we had to stop at the barn first,” Claire said with a smile. “She wanted to see her cow Pantene, and the new heifer calf she had on Tuesday.”

Reese had already named the calf Pardi-Gras because she was born during Mardi-Gras, and last week was a ‘Pardi-Gras,’ of sorts, for the two dairy families of Waverly Farms and Windy-Knoll-View… Reese was finally coming home.

“Only Reese would get another heifer calf,” her mother noted. That’s three heifers in a row for Pantene. Reese smiled at the thought. “Ha! My dad’s been getting bulls!”

Her Momo and Papap — Jim and Nina Burdette — had spent much of the past two years at the hospital. Jim says he had envisioned Reese’s homecoming a thousand times.

“It is such a great relief to have her home. We went up to the parade in town, and then beat it back home quick,” Jim said. “I wanted to be here on that porch looking down and seeing her pull in.” After which, he says, “I promptly beat it down the stairs to see her.”

He had spent some time getting Pantene all cleaned up. “We knew that’s who she’d want to see first,” Jim said. “It was too cold to take Reese into the barn, so Justin brought Pantene out to the car.”

It was a poignant moment for Justin as a father to see his young daughter greet her special cow — the cow she had shared with hundreds of Johns Hopkins staff through a photo book Nina made and through a visit by Pantene, along with coolers full of chocolate milk, at the hospital last year during June Dairy Month.

Having seen Pantene and her calf, it was time to get home. Within minutes, she was sitting proudly in her purple chair, reading with her sister, talking of everything she wanted to do.

“She fell right back into life here, as though she never left,” Claire observes.

Having ‘face-timed’ from the hospital during milking, Reese knows her cows and fought to come home to them.

“I spoiled Pantene,” a smiling Reese admits. “She leads good for me, but not so good for anybody else. You know, once a cow gets to know you, she really likes you.”

The purple sign proclaiming “Keep calm and love cows,” that hung in her hospital room, now hangs at home, next to the words from a song the medical staff would hum before every surgery: “Every little thing gonna be alright.”

The dairy community, local community, faith community and the medical staff that have become like family, have all rallied to support Reese not just because her injuries were so severe, but to celebrate the inspiration of the toughness and grace with which she has persevered, and the way God has worked in her life and through her to help others.

“It feels really good that maybe we have given something that people want to give back,” Jim says with emotion. “So many people have done so many things to help this family. We knew Justin and Claire needed to be with Reese and we would do whatever was necessary to keep the farm going for Reese to come home to.”

Their part-time employee went full-time, they hired another helper, and Nina got back into milking again, sore knees and all, but they would never have made it these past two years, says Jim, without the help of others.

“We are part of a good and kind dairy industry and the best small-town America you can find,” Nina adds. “People taking care of people.”

Claire tells of the thousands of letters and messages her daughter Reese has received. Letters that told stories of how Reese’s battle back from the fire inspired others to face their own battles. She tells of three women in the tri-state region who each sent a card to Reese faithfully every week for nearly 100 weeks. In fact, Reese asked the nurse to check her mail before departing Friday. Claire said every piece of mail has been saved, and as Reese faces new goals and challenges, the letters will be read and re-read.

And the way people rallied to help with medical bills through selling and re-selling cattle, and the various groups and clubs and fund drives too numerous to list here.

The challenges will continue. “We’ve closed one chapter and opened another,” says Claire of her daughter’s journey which continues now at home.

Getting her completely off the ventilator will be the next challenge. But she is home and off to a good start. By her second day home, she was already pestering her Papap to get her back out on the Kubota to pick up her driving lessons right where she left off two years ago. She wanted to ride through the fields and tell him every weed she saw. She wanted to walk through the cattle, and tell her Dad and Papap what they should do with this one or that one.

Her next goal? “I want to be walking good enough to lead Pardi-Gras in the All-American at Harrisburg in September,” she said with a radiant smile.

Asked what she would want to say to readers more than anything, she replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me.”

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All smiles, Justin and Claire Burdette bring their daughter Reese to the front door of home after 662 days of surgeries and recoveries at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Jean Kummer

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First stop before stepping over the home threshold, was the barn to see Pantene. It was a bit cold Friday, so Justin brought his daughter’s cow right to the car window. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Getting back to the rhythms of daily life at home, Reese takes a break from the screen that transports her to school via robot every day for a picture with her mother Claire Burdette. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The families of Windy-Knoll View, Mercersburg, Pa. and Waverly Farms, Clear Brook, Va., join the crowds of hometown folk lining the streets of Mercersburg for Reese’s homecoming parade. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Jim Burdette envisioned this day thousands of times over the past 22 months. He knew he wanted to be on the second story porch watching his granddaughter come home. But then he beat it down the stairs for a hug. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Reese’s cow Pantene had a sign of her own for Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Laura Jackson

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Pantene’s third heifer calf Pardi-Gras was born just three days before Reese came home. Photo by Jean Kummer

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At the one end of Reese Way (left), put in between the two home farms when she was born, is Reese’s home. At the other end of the lane (right) is the entrance to Windy-Knoll View. When the Fast Signs company that made all the TeamReese signs came to put this one up, Jim Burdette told them, “Don’t cover the farm sign, Reese will love seeing Pledge, Pala, and Promise here to greet her.” Photo by Sherry Bunting

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The land is awakening. Cattle are out grazing. A special cow has a new heifer calf. And a special young lady — ReeseBurdette — has returned home to the joy of her farm and everyday life after 22 months of recovery at Johns Hopkins. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Reese and Brinkley share a special moment at the hospital on the morning of Reese’s homecoming. Photo by Jean Kummer

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Justin and Claire Burdette with daughters Reese and Brinkley before Reese’s most recent surgery before Christmas. Photo courtesy Jennifer DiDio Photography

 

 

 

 

‘This is the best area. We never felt alone.’

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, we just don’t get emergency texts on our cell phones saying “Tornado warning in this area. Take shelter now.” But in February, we did. An EF 2 tornado traveled 6 miles in eastern Lancaster County. No one was injured, and the community pulled together and set to the task of rebuilding just 8 miles from my home. 

 

‘This is the best area. We never felt alone’

With livelihood gone, Ebys thankful as they face major rebuilding after tornado
(Reprinted from Farmshine March 4 and 11, 2016)

 

SALISBURY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — With little more than a 10-minute warning for those with cell phones, the tornado had struck eastern Lancaster County after dark last Wednesday (Feb. 24). Of all the folks interviewed in the days after, no one saw it. But many felt its fury.

Corrie Eby was just trying to put her two-year-old daughter to bed. Her husband James was in Paradise at a church event with their two older daughters. Her mother-in-law called from the house next door and said she had just heard the warning. Corrie called her husband as she and her daughter headed for the basement. They spoke briefly and then lost contact.

Minutes later, she heard the roar and felt the wind rip as though right through the house above them. It lasted but a few seconds, she said: “Then complete silence. The power was out. It was absolute dark and so still.”

The house had been spared except for some damage to the slate roof. She called her husband.

“I told him something has happened. This is not normal,” Corrie recalled a week later.

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Indeed, it wasn’t. She saw the row of pines, separating their home from James’ parents’ home, was gone. She heard the generator going in the chicken houses on the hill so she didn’t give that a thought. She saw a stone’s throw from the house that the garage, shed and huge portions of the 200-year-old bank barn were gone, gates were flung everywhere and the door of the barn was crumpled-in like tin foil.

“The cows were all safe and sound, so I rigged some gates for them,” she said.

James was on his way home and received a call from the White Horse Fire Co. that his chicken houses were gone, destroyed. They were the home for the couple’s 35,000 organic cage-free layer hens — their sole source of income, apart from the small beef cow/calf herd of which all 25 cows survived.

By the time James got home, people were arriving by the dozens. “We easily had 200 people here that night,” he recalls. “Emergency management said it was too dangerous to go into what was left standing of the second chicken house until it could be evaluated in the morning.”

At first light, emergency management folks and the team from Heritage evaluated the surviving and injured poultry and set about the trying task of humanely euthanizing them.

“People just kept showing up that morning by the van loads. We had 300 people here, an incredible outpouring from friends and family, and people we never met before,” he said.

“Before we could even assess what we needed or grasp what was happening, people brought large equipment. Dumpsters came and went,” Corrie added. “The organization was phenomenal, incredible. By day two, the area was completely cleared of rubble.”

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A roller-coaster of emotion followed. Going into the weekend, the couple was invigorated. But on Monday morning, reality struck.

Their layer hens were gone, and their income along with them. A new flock at the hatchery was already tagged for them for June delivery in the normal turnover of layer flocks, so they realize they now have a narrow window to rebuild the two houses and see the difficulty of getting the building scheduled into that window. If they miss the June rebuilding date, it could be months before another flock could be scheduled for them.

One of the two chicken barns lost was built in the 1980s when James’ father Dennis operated the farm, and the other barn would have been one year old in April. Both are completely gone, except for the egg-packing house at the far end.

And then there is the bank barn. The stone end wall and part of the rock side wall, mortared with horse-hair plaster from over 200 years ago, still stands, but it took a major hit with much of the surrounding wood structure gone or damaged. The farm has been in the Eby family five generations. The barn houses their small herd of cattle and their hay. It has stood the test of time and is the spot where James and Corrie celebrated their marriage.

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On day five after the storm, a builder, stone experts and an architect were on hand working to secure the stone wall before arrangements could be made to set new rafters and restore it.

“A lot of people have backed us this week. We never felt alone in this,” the Ebys agreed.

Sharing the thoughts of many who have worked in this community and volunteered all week to restore its homes, barns, and schools, Chris Stoltzfus of White Horse Construction noted, “This is so much bigger than any one of us are. It’s good to be part of something bigger and think beyond ourselves.”

He and his crew had worked on another damage site before coming to the Eby farm on day four to work on outbuildings and the stone bank barn. Like other contractors, he had been out all week and into a second week doing this work in the tornado-stricken community.

 Stoltzfus tells of the professional network of suppliers also opening up their schedules. For example, “Rigidply Rafters got trusses to us in less than 24 hours, and the concrete and stone companies offered special pricing and kept drivers on staff to help,” he said. “AJ Bolenski suppled us with dumpsters, not free, but this took extra staffing. And Lowes gave us a 10% discount and prioritized delivery.

“The real heroes are the ones doing all the work and those behind the scenes, including the ladies at the fire hall with the food, the office staff and my wife Kate,” Stoltzfus added.

Stoltzfus and others on-site at the Eby farm Tuesday, said it was the hardest hit from an economic standpoint. When work begins on the chicken houses — once the Ebys secure a poultry house builder who can schedule it — skilled volunteer crews from the community and beyond will be coordinated to move the process along and make the deadline for the June flock. They hope to avoid going more than three months without income.

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At the same, time, they realize, “We are so blessed no one was hurt and that our home is still standing,” the couple said. “As for the outpouring of this community, we can’t describe fully how thankful we are. We live in the best area. This has proven to be true.”

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A friend of the family has up an Eby Tornado Restoration Fund at https://www.gofundme.com/rrr93ns8. Over $8000 has been raised toward the goal within the first 10 days.

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‘Tornado seemed to find its own path of least resistance’

Community recovers, rebuilds in week after Lancaster County tornado

WHITE HORSE, Pa. — It was 7:22 p.m. last Wednesday evening (Feb. 24) when cell phone alerts warned residents in eastern Lancaster County from Gap to Caernarvon to New Holland and Terre Hill: “Take shelter now.”

The EF 2 tornado touched down just 10 minutes later, along a 6-mile stretch on both sides of Rte. 340 by the Pequea Creek, producing winds over 100 mph and doing an estimated $8 million in damage to barns, sheds, homes, and schools of this largely Amish community of farmers and craftsmen, including the loss of two-chicken houses and 35,000 hens at the non-Amish of James and Corrie Eby.

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Miraculously, not a single person was injured — even more so, considering that in a barn just across the road from the one-room schoolhouse that had been completely blown away, 150 youth were holding a benefit auction. There was no time for them to do anything but wait it out. They described feeling as though the wind lifted the roof six inches from the rafters above them without removing it. The 100-foot wide tornado veered just northeast of the barn to level the empty schoolhouse and proceed through a windbreak of trees, missing a house on the hill and diminishing in its fury just shy of the Wanner farm in Narvon.

“The tornado seemed to find its own path of least resistance,” said Melvin King of White Horse Machine, a longstanding volunteer with the White Horse Fire Co. “It could have been so much worse.”

Much of the damage along the tornado’s path lay immediately west of the fire hall. Traveling the area on day four after the storm, it was unbelievable what had been accomplished with a little organization from the fire hall and the community’s storm recovery committee, combined with the downright amazing outpouring of volunteer crews within the extended community, as well as skilled crews coming in from more than 100 miles away.

On the night of the storm, White Horse Fire Co. was busy responding to calls, checking for injuries, helping those whose homes were impacted find refuge, and securing the safety of the situation.

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By 7:30 the next morning, over 150 people and 10 to 12 contractors showed up with their trucks, tools and skills at the fire hall, instead of going to their jobs. The efforts gradually bridged over to the community via the White Horse Storm Recovery Committee.

By days two and three, there were over 500 volunteers on one major-damage site and 300 on another. And there was plenty of food all week, donated by the area’s restaurants and grocers too numerous to name.

“Each day, every morning, people just walked in to the fire hall to help,” King recounted.

They brought vehicles, equipment, backhoes, track hoes, and contractors secured a steady flow of dumpsters. Skilled craftsmen made outbuildings at their shops and brought them to the locations sustaining losses. Taxi drivers and shuttle vans showed up donating a day of service picking up volunteers and moving them between damage sites.

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There were seven primary damage sites and a total of approximately 35 properties sustaining a range of minor to severe damage. A firefighter was assigned to each of the seven primary sites to maintain radio communications because the first priority was to secure the safety of workers as they cleared debris and evaluated and stabilized buildings.

Of the dairy farms affected, it is reported that cows were able to be milked pretty much on schedule. While the tornado lifted and scattered the second story on several bank barns, the tie-stalls below were largely spared.

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As for the rest of the largely Amish community, most were unaware of the broadcasts on local television until the national news media began to show up. They were amazed by how the outside world would be so generous to come help. People were calling the fire hall and visiting the White Horse Fire Co. website looking for ways to donate money, services, food. The fire company created a link on their website where visitors could link up with the Mennonite Disaster Service, based in Lititz, Pa.

A committee was formed for the White Horse Tornado Relief Fund so that donations there go to the folks who are facing true hardship. Once those needs are satisfied, any potential remaining funds will go to victims of other storms elsewhere through the Mennonite Disaster Service.

For those wanting to donate to the Tornado Relief Fund for Salisbury Township and the village of White Horse, donations are being received by the Mennonite Disaster Service, 583 Airport Road, Lititz, Pa. 17543. Checks should be made payable to Mennonite Disaster Service while noting “Lancaster County Tornado” in the memo line.

Skilled crews who want to be involved in current and future restoration from the impact of the tornado in Lancaster County, can contact the White Horse storm recovery committee via the fire company at whitehorsefire.org.

 

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The scene 12 hours after the tornado at 7:30 the next morning as crews arrived to begin cleanup before restoring dairy buildings on this Amish dairy farm. Photos by Jim Landis

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One of seven major-damage sites, this was the scene on day three as rebuilding of dairy barns was nearing completion. Photo by Jim Landis

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Volunteer crews met every morning at the White Horse Fire Co. and at the end of some work days to coordinate community restoration efforts. Photo by Jim Landis

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Over 150 youth were in the red barn at right when the tornado came through and completely blew away the one-room schoolhouse across the road. At the far left behind the trees, the rebuilt schoolhouse awaits windows and paint on day four. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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Another Amish dairy and heifer barn in the restoration process on day four after the tornado. Photo by Sherry Bunting

 

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Within two days, all of the rubble was removed from the site of the two large chicken houses, that were home to 35,000 organic layers and the sole source of income for the Eby family. Photo by Jim Landis

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From the road above, the path of the tornado crossed the Pequea Creek to destroy outbuildings and damage a 200-year-old stone barn at the Eby farm before continuing up the hill to destroy both chicken houses that once stood a bit left of the center of this photo to the right of the small red egg-packing house that still stands. From there, the tornado continued onto the next few farms, including several Amish dairies before damaging a one room schoolhouse and barn, pushing debris into a portion of the roof of the Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church, where it crossed Rte 340 and continued northeast through the cemetary of the Pequea Presbyterian Church and across Meadville Road where it leveled another one-room schoolhouse before stalling in the windbreak where trees four days later showed the remnants of barn siding, insulation, and other telltale signs of debris from three to five miles away. Photo by Sherry Bunting

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In addition to the chicken houses and some outbuilding losses, the Ebys are trying to restore the portion of the 200-year-old stone barn that still stands. Photos by Sherry Bunting

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James and Corrie Eby say they have not been alone in this. They are thankful for the outpouring of the community even as the reality hit them Monday that their livelihood is gone. One of the two chicken houses lost in the tornado was not quite one year old and a new flock would be coming from Heritage in June, so they have precious little time to get them rebuilt. Photo by Sherry Bunting

 

Something different: My public comment on milk marketing rules

My great grandmother grew up milking cows in East Berlin, Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the battle of Gettysburg. She loved to cook. She always smiled. She was seldom cross, but you knew she meant business when she said: “Now, mind!” She was practical and daring. She wore pants before it was fashionable for ladies to do so and pierced her ears when the younger generations were still wearing clip-ons.

Growing up, I heard Sadie Phillips say more than once: “Trust your gut and Be bold!” Today, I have decided to do just that. I am using my blog to carry the public comments I will submit to USDA on the due date Monday, April 13 regarding the FEDERAL MILK MARKETING ORDERS and how they are (or are not) fulfilling their purpose and the effect on small businesses (A Section 610 Review). I’ll get knocked around for this in some circles, I am quite sure. And this is certainly very long for anyone to read. But here it is. Have at it. Or, if you are so inclined after reading it, shoot me a message, note, or thumbs up if you want your name added before I submit officially to USDA on Monday. 

April 11, 2015    

RE: Comments on the Federal Milk Marketing Order Program

Dear Mr. Rex A. Barnes, Associate Administrator of Agricultural Marketing Service: 

As a freelance ag journalist and market reporter for the past 30-plus years — as well as having as clients multiple small businesses and dairy farmer organizations for whom I do writing and photography — I get around the country and see firsthand what is happening to milk movement and dairy markets and the effects on dairy farm small businesses — as well as the small businesses that serve the dairy farms and the combination of jobs and revenue they provide to sustain rural economies.

Small businesses in the dairy industry — from the farm, to the service and supplies, to the processing, to the retailing — are in trouble. National Big-Business retailers and processors as well as national Big-Business cooperatives employ stables of milk accountants, attorneys and others in a centralized management model to re-shape the grid of milk movement within and between Federal Milk Marketing Orders (FMMO). Why would any small-business want to innovate in the fluid milk category when the two national Big-Business cooperatives (who work together through regional “marketing arms”) can come in and swoop the earnings away using FMMO rules to do so?

Yes, it has become increasingly difficult for the Northeast and Southeast milksheds to hold on to their Class I utilization in their respective blend prices. It is becoming more difficult to supply local milk beverage needs with a local supply of farm milk as the FMMO program of marketwide pooling actually facilitates the move to centralized models that displace milk from the local small businesses, local farms, local communities.

In effect, national Big-Business cooperatives are locking up regional balancing assets. By owning or controlling with full supply contracts most, if not all, of the dairy manufacturing in a region, independent bottlers and small co-ops find fewer options for selling extra loads to self-balance their local-to-local fluid market.

As a result, we are seeing individuals and small co-ops lose longstanding contracts with local bottlers in pockets all over the Northeast — especially in western Pennsylvania and central New York. In some cases, farms have been forced to sell their cows because they are now without a market at all.

These devastating effects have played out in other regions where small co-ops lost their markets to the Big-Business bottler and national Big-Business cooperative, and now this same effect is playing out in the Northeast — this time facilitated in part by complex FMMO rules.

The current FMMOs provide a needed structure and accountability in the buying and selling of milk. They also have the purpose of stabilizing prices through marketwide pooling. But opinions and analyses differ on whether the classification system — as it exists today — is stabilizing or instead contributes to price volatility. It also seems to detract from a competitive value being paid for manufacturing milk.

None of the above points are the actual defined purpose of the FMMOs. According to USDA, here are the 3 purposes of the FMMOs:

  • To provide for orderly marketing
  • To assure reasonable prices to both dairy farmers and to consumers
  • To assure an adequate supply of wholesome beverage milk to consumers

These 3 purposes (above) are not being realized in the current FMMO system.

  • A signal of DIS-orderly marketing is the fact that dairy farms within the Eastern markets are losing their access to milk marketing.

Milk produced in Georgia — that used to go to Florida — is moving North, while milk from Texas moves into Florida. Milk in Pennsylvania and New York is being displaced from its own milkshed by milk from Michigan. Milk from Illinois moves into Order 5 while milk from Kentucky has recently been trucked all the way to Texas, and vice versa. Truckers talk (more than tongue-in-cheek) about loads passing each other on the highways.

Both the Northeast and the Southeast are being chastised for having dared to increase their production. Farmers in Pennsylvania and New York are blamed for creating their own bottlenecks of surplus milk forcing tankerloads of milk to be dumped. Those ‘bad boy’ Eastern producers should not be growing their dairies. After all, that growth is throwing a monkey wrench into the planning of other regions to grow rapidly with eyes on filling the Eastern milk market deficit, using Class 1 sales in the East to sweeten the blend price paid to dairies that locate or relocate near huge dairy manufacturing plants in the West so those plants can enjoy the cheaper price paid for the milk they use to make dairy products.

  • The fight is on for the shrinking Class I piece of the milk market pie, when in reality other manufacturing uses have more value! In the process, consumers pay MORE for their beverage milk and farmers receive LESS. Farmers receive a shrinking percentage of the consumer retail dollar and a shrinking percentage of Class 1 sales. And yet…. the milk is all the same standard whether it goes in a bottle, in a cheese vat, a butter churn or a yogurt process. It’s all the same quality grade of milk!

As for current milk production growth. The truth is that the Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are not out-growing the needs of their areas. They are located in close proximity to consumer population growth, and their own milk production growth reflects an attempt to merely gain back some of their own formerly lost production that has weakened their infrastructure over the past 14 years for the farms that remain.

  • The Northeast milkshed and the Southeast milkshed are both deficit if just the milk within their borders is considered. My home state of Pennsylvania, for example, has lost 55,000 cows since 2002 and 100 million pounds of production.

Furthermore, leaders of states in the Northeast and Southeast milksheds — Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Kentucky for example — have implemented programs and incentives aimed at GROWING their respective states’ dairy small businesses.

The Governors and State Assemblies in these states have — in effect — said: “Our ag infrastructure of small businesses can’t stay in business here providing local jobs and revenue if you the local small business dairy farms don’t grow back to where you were!”

Now, the very dairy farms these incentives were implemented to uphold are cast aside as the milk is displaced from elsewhere.

The implementation of the Federal Orders has become short-sighted in the quest to simply “Assure an adequate supply of milk to consumers.” But what about the future when the small-business farms and infrastructure here in the East are so diminished they implode?

And look at the cost! Fluid milk consumption is down and we keep jacking up the price with all of these maneuverings. Maybe if a more localized model was respected and cMilkTruck#1onsidered, farmers and consumers would both benefit.

The purpose of the Federal Orders needs to be more considerate of the long term. It should not be declaring the winners and losers, but instead provide a level playing field where the real costs of transportation are factored into the value of local milk to local markets.

The large and powerful market movers take over the grid and push regional suppliers — mainly small businesses that are central to their own communities — to the side. These entities bring milk into the community and then drain local dollars out of the community.

As a result, small dairy businesses are going out of business at an alarming rate. Independent dairy farmers, small and mid-sized, as well as small cooperatives, are getting notices that they are being dropped by local bottlers in my home state of Pennsylvania and north into New York and in Ohio. Young Plain-Sect farmers are finding out in the Southeast they can’t just start milking cows like their fathers did before them. There is no market, they are told, even though the Southeast is a milk deficit area. The Northeast is as well.

The small regional bottlers are being squeezed by the large national co-ops who own or control the balancing assets (through both ownership and contracts) within the Northeast, and Southeast.

So, when milk from members of the national Big-Business co-op is produced in the rapid (double-digit) growth areas of Michigan and Texas, for example, that milk takes precedence at the national co-op-owned and controlled balancing assets in the Northeast and Southeast — effectively pushing the local small business independent shippers and small regional co-ops out of the bottling plants and into situations where they don’t have a market for their milk.

The Walmartization of food retailing has infiltrated its way to the farm-level because local small businesses have limited access to the dairy product processing plants where they once sold extra loads at a discount in order to balance the fluctuations of the fluid milk market. The set make allowance that is built into the manufacturing class milk prices also encourages large single-product plants versus a market-savvy and nimble processing class that makes for the market.

In Pennsylvania, some bottlers are working together with local food banks to balance the ups and downs of the fluid market so they can keep their longtime shippers instead of giving them up to the national Big-Business co-ops who in turn broker the milk back to the plants it went to in the first place.

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What do the Federal Orders bring to this mix or — should I say — mess?

First, It is currently too easy to move milk and get paid more for moving it the farthest!

As a result, dairy manufacturing plants are being built where there are not many cows. “If you build it, they will come.” But then they will also send their milk back East to get that juicy Class I utilization to boost their blend price and keep the cost of milk down for the large new manufacturing plants.

The small businesses of the eastern region need a method by which to have the local-ness of their milk count for something in this equation!! If the government is going to be so involved, then it needs to look at the big picture.

Currently, not enough incentive is built into the FMMO structure to give local-supply-arrangements and advantage in the fresh fluid milk beverage market based on the fact that milk flows in smaller circles and does not have to move so far.

While I am not an expert on how all of the pieces of the FMMO came to be, I do know that some of the fixes have created new and worsening problems.

My ask of the USDA AMS — as a small business and as a consumer — is 3-fold:

1) Please extend the comment period to allow for more time to comment. Dairy producers are waking up to some disturbing activity in the Eastern markets. More is becoming known about the current failures of the Federal Orders to uphold their intended purpose! Dairy farms — in increments of half-dozen to a dozen at a time — are getting notices RIGHT NOW that they must find another market or sell out their cows, their investment, their vocation, their family-living, their heritage.

More and more of these producers losing their markets are the highest quality milk producers! Their only fault is they are small businesses (40 to 1000 cows) or part of a small co-op (8 to 12 producers). A large iron fist is coming down in the eastern markets and blaming the bloodbath of farms forced to shut down, dump milk, and go out of business on “too much milk” in the East.

All the while, milk from Michigan in the north and Texas in the south is displacing local eastern milk in the balancing assets of the two large national-and-centralized co-ops that work together. Members first, locals last.

2) Before considering the addition of California to the current FMMO system, please hold national hearings to first evaluate and devise a new pricing formula. Consider basing it on 2-classes of milk: fluid and manufacturing as well as component values based on an array of products — and evaluate removal of the “set” make allowance. This could facilitate competition among various entities buying milk for a variety of manufacturing uses — instead of declaring the winners and losers via set make allowances that encourage large single-product plants that are not nimble nor responsive to changing market conditions.

This could also cut down on some of the gaming we see among balancing assets and lead to more actual marketing of dairy milk products rather than large output of products the market may or may not want because the set make-allowance assures a margin where pure scale is the key to profit and efficiency.

An example of this is the difference between skim milk powder – a uniform product with a standardized protein content – vs. nonfat dry milk (on which the make allowance for powder is based) which is a lower quality product and not uniform in that the protein percentage falls into a 4-point range. If the market wants SMP for its repeatability in a recipe but the make allowance is based on NFDM, the response in a downtrending market is to make more of the latter because the margin is guaranteed by a set make allowance, which further depresses the market.

3) Re-evaluate the purpose, relationship and actual function of transportation credits, touch-base provisions, diversions and other aspects of how milk is supplied so that a premium resides wherever local milk supplies local markets and wherever the regional infrastructure of dairy farms and businesses is upheld in the movement of milk within a Federal Order. Perhaps instead of using such credits and rules to facilitate the bringing of milk from far away, the fund would be better used to get local milk to local markets.

Local small businesses are being forced out of business rapidly. The Department needs to move quickly to establish a fund where processors pay in what would have been spent to bring the distant milk so those dollars are used in the local community or within the Order to offset the balancing cost of keeping local dairy farms on the rolls.

In short, perhaps it is time to use the Federal Orders for their intended purpose and break up the centralized stranglehold of the two national Big-Business cooperatives working together (even sharing attorney and milk accountant assets) by forcing them to stop painting their milk movements with a centralized broad brush – forcing them to more aptly consider local to local, regional to regional.

It is also worth mentioning here that some shifts in the gap between the USDA “all-milk” price and the “mailbox” price released months later are becoming apparent as the national mailbox price has been higher than the all-milk price while the Southeast, Appalachia, Pennsylvania, and New York mailbox prices are falling further and further behind the all-milk price than ever before. This may have something to do with the 6% reduction in Class I utilization in the Southeast in 2014 and the 4% reduction in Class I utilization in the Northeast in 2014. The national reduction in Class I utilization is 3% by comparison.

This reflects not only the raw milk movement but also the infiltration of packaged milk coming from outside of the Northeast and Southeast milksheds directly onto the shelves of large buyers like Costco and Walmart.

On a personal note — as a former milking employee, 34-year veteran ag journalist in dairy and beef, and an eater of dairy products and drinker of dairy milk in the Northeast — I have this to say about “free markets”…

Some are calling for the abolition of the “archaic Federal Orders.” I would be on that bandwagon in a heartbeat — favoring open markets over the continued use and misuse of rules and structure to supress a region’s own supply of dairy farms, small businesses and infrastructure — if I didn’t think the Federal Orders still have a purpose of accountability and to be a running record for what is happening.

However, if the current problems are not fixed to give local milk, supplied by small businesses a fighting chance, then perhaps the FMMO system should go. We have seen the loss of too many small business in the dairy industry where nationalized Big Business processors and co-ops used FMMO rules to their advantage to take over markets. Without a change in FMMO rules, this will continue and accelerate, and we will see more losses of small dairy businesses that sustain rural communities.

If the current problems are not fixed, small businesses may find they are better off in a totally free market, unencumbered by the structure and rules that are increasingly designed by the national Big Business operators to effectively put them out of business as they increase their own centralized national footprint.

Please do not add California until after the current issues with the FMMOs are fixed to a point where local is rewarded in the formula and small business is respected. Once California is added, it will be much harder to make new changes that benefit local small businesses fighting for survival in the East. Thus, the current areas controlled by FMMOs should have a chance to improve the rules before adding the state that has wanted to be state-regulated for decades and represents almost one-fourth of the total milk production in the U.S.

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Thank you for your consideration,

 

Sincerely,

Sherry A. Bunting

 

To file your own comments with USDA, click here

No ‘snow days’ on the farm

cows6781By Sherry Bunting, columnist, Register-Star, Feb. 21, 2015

There are no ‘snow days’ on the farm. “When it is this cold, the simple every day protocols become enduring days of work,” notes Cody Williams of Wil-Roc Dairy, Kinderhook, where 1500 Holstein dairy cows are milked and cared for.

“We change our teat dip when it’s this cold, for extra moisturizing to the skin,” Cody explains. “We also adjust the cow diets to keep our cows in a positive energy balance as they burn more energy to maintain themselves during weather extremes.”

Operating a dairy or livestock farm in the extreme cold is not for the faint of heart. Veteran beef producer Phil Trowbridge of Ghent observes: “We know how to take care of ourselves. We dress in layers and give each other breaks.”

Frozen pipes, pumps, waterers, and manure — as well as difficulty in starting equipment — are commonly reported concerns. When the snow piles up and the temperatures plummet, concerns turn to keeping rooftops clear of a too-heavy burden and being vigilant about the increased risk of fires.

In closed group discussions throughout social media, farmers exchange ideas and seek support from each other.

When the Polar Vortex gripped the northern half of the country in 2014, farmers were up to the challenge.

Last week the mercury hit -14 at Trowbridge Angus Farm, where it is calving season January through March. The family, and their over 300 beef breeding cows, were navigating two to three feet of snow cover.

Twenty miles away near Schodack Landing, temps of -11 went virtually unnoticed by the over 700 Jersey dairy cows at Dutch Hollow Farm. They are tucked away in their barns with retractable sidewall curtains that stay open more often than not for natural light and ventilation but remain closed when the wind chills get this low.

Cattle are cold weather animals, but they do not like wind or drafts. The difference between beef and dairy breeds is the way their centuries-old partnership with man has adapted through specialized breeding and care.

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Beef breed cattle are kept outside pretty much year-round, coming into the barn only at calving time. Dairy cattle, on the other hand, are typically housed in barns year-round. While beef breed cattle spend more time foraging for their food and seeking the natural and provided windbreaks to lay down, dairy cattle in freestall barns will amble short distances inside from feedbunks and waterers to the deep-bedded stalls that are groomed for them two or three times a day while they are milking.

Dairy cows are accustomed to constant human handling from the time they are calves. 10986660_10206244497857081_5937924373439440151_oThey have a different temperament about the whole calving deal.They aren’t worried about predators and trust the humans they work beside day in and day out to care for them and their offspring.

Beef breeding cows, on the other hand, are more self-sufficient and protective of their young. They raise their offspring for the more hands-off life as a non-milking breeding animal or to spend 80% of their life foraging on pasture with the last 20% of their life in the beef fattening phase.

One thing in common: Both beef and dairy producers focus on the newborns immediately at birth to make sure each calf gets a warm start and enough colostrum for the passive transfer of immunity from its dam.

“When we get real cold weather like we have seen this winter, we spend more time in the calving barn at night. We pretty much sleep here with them when it’s this cold,” says beef producer Phil Trowbridge, who has had 50 calves born since January 1. “The main thing is to get those calves dried off and warmed up as soon as they are born, and to make sure they get enough colostrum. In two or three days, they’re old enough and strong enough to go outside.”

Not only are they prepared for cold weather, they frolic in it. “I took a video with my cell phone of the calves the other day when it was minus-11. We were putting out bedding for the cows, and saw those calves were feeling so good, they were just running through the snow,” Phil relates. “I like seeing that.”

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Stockpiled pasture grasses make a nice winter forage as cattle can push off a few inches or a foot of snow to graze it, and they do well getting around in the snow outdoors. But with over two feet of snow cover this winter, the Trowbridge family cuts trails to help the cattle conserve energy. They also put down extra bedding, more often, in the areas with windbreaks and feed more outdoor hay and supplement.

Meanwhile, on a dairy farm, the cows calve year-round. Calving pens are watched through video monitoring or by walk-throughs. The immediate newborn calf care continues through the first few weeks of life in the calf nursery or individual hutches. Newborns often get time in a heat box or wear calf jackets and sometimes earmuffs when it’s this cold, and they are fed more often for increased energy to maintain their temperature and to grow.

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Tricia Adams pictures one of the heated boxes for newborn calves at Hoffman Farms

“Taking care of the animals is pretty much routine. The feeding is very consistent day to day, and the freestalls are bedded twice a week,” says Paul Chittenden of Dutch Hollow
Farm.

“Clean and dry and plenty to eat are what we focus on — regardless of the weather,” he adds. “Cows always have dry sawdust with extra sawdust stored in the front of the stalls. This allows for plenty of dry bedding to stir around each time we groom the stalls when the cows go to the parlor for milking.”

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Water is critical for drinking and cleaning, so lines are buried underground and drinking tubs are equipped with heaters.

“Cold weather management is really not too complicated,” explains bovine veterinarian and dairy farmer Dr. Tom Troxel. “Cows need to have plenty of feed and water, be out of the wind, and have a dry place to lay down. If they have these things, they can survive an awful lot.”

“No matter the weather, we have our jobs to do here,” notes Cody of Wil-Roc Dairy. “That is itself the reward. Getting our everyday tasks done and looking to see how the stressers of weather and other events can affect our system… That is how we keep improving how we do things all year long.”

Sherry Bunting is a member of North American Agriculture Journalists and has been covering beef and dairy production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows and graded beef cattle for market reports. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net

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Dairy and beef cattle are adapted differently, but they all depend on their people for great care during the weather extremes we have seen here this winter. Farming is not for the faint of heart. Everyday tasks take longer to complete but it sure is rewarding to see cows thrive and calves frolic after a good start – regardless of the weather! Photos by Sherry Bunting, Tricia Adams and Evelyn Troutman.

‘Work hard. Save money. Be careful. Love the job.’

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Hector Jimenez (right) and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez have been working together since the late 1970s. Two decades of saving as they worked on dairies in California led to them starting their own dairy near Dublin, Texas in 2004. In an interview last May at their R&J Dairy, they reflected on a decade of dairying on their own in Central Texas. Photo by Sherry Bunting

By Sherry Bunting, originally published in Farmshine and Texas Dairy & Ag Review during the summer of 2014

DUBLIN, Tex – The decade of 2004 to 2014 has been a volatile one for anyone starting out in the dairy business. For these two producers it took more than two decades of
work on other dairies in California to pave the way to be living their dream today in Central Texas. Hard work, disciplined saving, and hands-on management are the three keys Hector Jimenez and his uncle Arturo Rodriguez say brought them through 20-plus years of working for others and 10 years dairying on their own – including the 2009-13 era of tight to negative margins.webR&J-536

“We worked together since 1979 and always talked about one day having our own dairy,” Hector recalls. That day came in 2004 when Hector and Arturo bought a dairy near Dublin that had been vacant for a number of years after its previous owner moved west to where the dairy industry was expanding in the Panhandle.

They moved here from California with nothing, bought 110 cows and milked three months on a rented dairy, then partnered in their own R&J Dairy. They bought another 150 cows and took their time raising their own replacements to expand steadily through internal herd growth.

“WwebR&J-165e started with No. 1 and this calf, here, is No. 2869,” Hector smiles, pointing out a newborn heifer. Today their herd of 850 milking cows is 95% homebred. They produce an average of 75 pounds/cow/day and have achieve somatic cell counts at or below 200,000.

They are satisfied with the current size of their dairy as they build back their numbers after a few years of heavier culling rates while milk margins and feed costs were tight to negative. The recent memory of 2009-13 brings daily reminders of the importance of saving, working, and being cautious.

“We culled heavily because we needed that money to pay bills,” Hector relates. Today, the herd is 30% first-calf 2-year-olds.

Asked how they made it through those tough years, Hector’s wife Fabiola said: “We prayed.”

“And worked hard,” added Hector.

He and Arturo are hands-on managers. “My uncle is out here feeding cows at 4 a.m. and I start at 5 a.m.,” says Hector, who does all of the breeding. His day starts with cleaning the milk tank and the parlor, checking fresh cows, and starting the day’s breeding lineup.

“My husband is in love with what he does. He never complains. He and Arturo are always here – rain or shine, good or bad — that’s how we made it this far,” Fabiola adds.

She and Arturo’s wife Sylvia — and more recently Arturo’s daughter Christian — take care of all the calves at R&J Dairy.

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Hector and Fabiola Jimenez (left) and Arturo Rodriguez (right) with his daughter Christian. Missing from photo are Hector and Fabiola’s grown children Clemente, Abel and Joann and Arturo’s wife Sylvia and son Arturo Stephen. Photo by Sherry Bunting

They employ 10 people, mainly milkers. They feel a sense of satisfaction in coming to the U.S. from Mexico in the mid-to-late 1970s, working hard, starting a new life here, including their own dairy business, raising children who are either interested in the dairy or working good jobs in the community, and now providing jobs for others in the community.

Halfway through their first decade in business together, Hector and Arturo hit the 2009 milk market train wreck followed by years of drought and surging feed prices. Cutting expenses was a big part of that picture from 2009-12, and the partners aren’t so fast to spend money now that dairy margins are good.

They have 220 acres and rent some additional property for growing coastal hay. That, and working with their nutritionist in feeding commodities like corn gluten, canola and cottonseed along with purchased corn silage — helps them manage feed costs.

They feed a dry cow ration and move the close-up cows and first calvewebR&J-125xxrs close to the house for observation. They also use Udder Comfort after each milking for a few days post-calving to reduce edema and improve recovery time.

The breeding program involves synchronization, but only for those cattle that are not showing heats. Hector and Arturo pick the bulls. “We look for high components – fat and protein – as well as calving ease,” Hector explains.

High components and high milk quality are two keys to making the most of their milk check in both high and low market times.

“The dairy business can be a tough business,” Arturo observes. “You have to enjoy it. I enjoy everything about it, getting up early, being out here. It’s all I’ve known since 1975.”

For the next generation of dairy producers dreaming of having their own dairies, Arturo has this advice: “Work hard, and sooner or later you will be rewarded,” he says. “Save money and invest in cows, but above all work hard. If it is work that you love, that won’t be hard.”

Those two-plus decades of hard work for other dairies have rewarded Hector and Arturo with more of the work they love, but now they do the work for their own dairy investment.

As these two partners have experienced over the past 10 years dairying on their own – “Even when you have your own business, the work doesn’t stop and in some ways you work even harder. You have to be here, work here, live here,” Arturo explains.

Hector agrees. “Even when I’m at the house, I’m thinking about the cows and wanting to see that they are okay. You have to like this job to do it well, and you have to like it even when you are losing money.”webR&J-151

It can be done, they say, “but you have to be careful. We had to spend money carefully,” Arturo noted. “We started this dairy during the good times in 2004. We’re still here, I think, because we were careful in the good times and the bad times. We watch every day how we feed, and when the times are tough, we cut out what is too expensive. When the going gets really tough, we shift our focus into survival mode, not to how much milk we can make.”

Cost of production at R&J Dairy runs almost $20.00/cwt at the moment (spring 2014), which includes all costs — everything. “It gets scary when milk prices fall to $16,” Arturo relates. “In 2009, the price fell below $12, and our cost of production at that time was $18. At one point we were losing $2000 per day here and borrowing to pay bills.”

He explains that they were fortunate to have built up some equity they could borrow on, and he estimates that another three months of milk prices as high as April’s may finally pay back what they lost in 2009.

“We try to stay ready for the next downturn,” the two men agree.

Arturo sees the new Margin Protection Program in the Farm Bill as something that will help dairy producers during future downturns. “It’s better insurance, better than the MILC program. When it gets tough in the dairy business, any help is nice to have.”

As for forward contracting, Hector and Arturo prefer to take on the risk. They believe that while the new insurance program will help and some folks have benefitted with forward contracting… nothing substitutes for hard work, saving during the good times, and close management and caution all the time.

The two partners worked day and night through the worst of 2009-10, and believe that is webR&J-572what got them through it. “We looked for those small daily victories,” Arturo reflects. “That’s what kept us going. We just kept thinking we would be okay — that if we worked hard, we would be rewarded for the years of suffering, and I guess we are seeing that right now.”

They prayed for direction… and found each other

By Sherry BuntingMeck-Hershey4576, Farmshine,     Oct. 31, 2014 – farmshine.net

 WOMELSDORF, Pa. — Some stories just have to be told, and this is one of them.

For Jeremy Meck and Kacie Hershey, engaged to be married November 7th, 2014, their chance meeting happened at a time of loss and uncertainty in the midst of one of the harshest winters southeast Pennsylvania has ever endured.

For Jeremy, it was a season of profound loss. Not only had he lost his brother to cancer in February, in Zach he had lost his best friend and business partner. Meck Brothers Dairy here in Berks County was the dream they had built up from scratch — a dream they had worked on together ever since grade school in Lancaster County when their late father Ronald, a poultry farmer, bought them a heifer calf for 4-H, igniting a passion for cattle that morphed from raising calves to milking cows, to buying and renovating their own dairy farm.

“It was a rough winter at the farm, with one thing after another, and it was hard to stay focused as Zach became more ill,” Jeremy related during a summer visit to the farm.

What he described was like a dark fog that threatened to settle-in around him. “I was praying for God’s guidance, for direction, for clarity… and I found myself praying for joy,” he recalls.

Goosebumps come with the next words from Kacie, as she confirmed her middle name is, you guessed it: Joy.

“God had a big part in us meeting,” she said about the chance meeting that was not so much by chance after all.

Kacie was facing her own need for clarity. She graduated with a teaching degree and was substituting here and there while working for her parents, Duane and Marilyn Hershey, at their Ar-Joy Farms near Cochranville, Chester County.

With Marilyn on the DMI board and Duane on the Land O’Lakes board, Kacie’s parents travel a lot. “I started picking up more responsibility at the farm and I needed to make some decisions,” she recalls. Seeking a teaching job, and feeling conflicted about the future, she, too, was praying for direction. What Kacie didn’t know was that her grandmother Anna Stoltzfus had started that week praying for God to bring someone into her granddaughter’s life.

Meanwhile, Kacie’s father, Duane, was one of several dairy farmers who kept intermittent contact with Jeremy during Zach’s illness and after his passing. Farmers in the community of Berks and Lebanon counties were especially helpful, reaching out in so many ways to mentor the brothers and to pitch in with fieldwork, and fundraisers, when the need arose.

From two neighboring counties in the same Land O’Lakes region, Duane and Zach had run against each other for the Land O’Lakes board seat a year earlier. The 3-way race had come down to a tie, and the differences could not have been more stark: Duane, a seasoned third generation dairyman whose father served as a representative in the Pennsylvania General Assembly versus Zach, the young, energetic, first-generation upstart dairyman always running full-tilt, wanting his generation to have a say.

The special tie-breaker election had occurred the previous January, with Duane winning the seat. The two continued their chiding camaraderie after the election, and Duane checked in from time to time to see how things were going on the farm after Zach’s cancer diagnosis the following September.

Newlywed to Suzanne Perdue, Zach’s illness came at a time when he was just settling into the future he thought lay before him. Being connected to a loss like this will test the strongest faith. Looking back on it, Jeremy says he learned a lot about commitment watching how Suzanne traveled that journey with Zach.

He recalls Zach’s advice to him: “Find a girl with quality values and a farming background, who understands what you are passionate about.”

But mostly, he recalls the example of how Suzanne was there for Zach every step of the way.

“I didn’t fully realize how bad it was until he passed away,” Jeremy reflects. “During his illness, I dug down deep and just kept focusing on doing everything around the farm, doing for two, wanting to keep it going for him, wanting to see our plans through, wanting to keep our dream alive, and hoping he could come back to the farm.”

With Zach gone, it was difficult for Jeremy to make that dream — their dream — his own.

The winter wore-on the way it does daily on a dairy farm. Sub-zero temperatures brought daily challenges from power outages and frozen pipes to difficulty starting equipment and the sheer effort of getting through the growing mountain of snow to tend cattle and feed calves and make a path for the milk truck to get up the hill.

Then the unexpected: The day-after-day snows and frigid temperatures took their toll at the Hershey family’s Ar-Joy Farms with the midnight collapse of the roof on their main barn housing over 500 milk cows. Thankfully, the milking employees were all at the parlor, not in the barn. Cattle were lost, but the majority of the herd survived.

The next 72 hours brought a whirlwind of moving cattle, cleaning up, and a community effort to come in with the builder to put up a new roof. A work day was organized by fellow farmers in that community and the word of it spread.

“I had so much happening here, I wasn’t going out or going anywhere,” Jeremy recalls. It was just two weeks after losing Zach when he heard from a neighbor about the Hersheys’ roof collapse. Duane had called to check in a few days before and so Jeremy returned the favor. He called to see if they needed help or equipment, but he never reached Duane by phone, so he headed to Cochranville figuring to lend a hand in the cleanup.

Had he reached Duane by phone, Duane would have emphatically told him to stay put, knowing Jeremy had enough on his plate at his own farm. But with no word from the wise to deter him Jeremy showed up and spent the day working on someone else’s problem instead of dwelling on his own.

“It felt good to be busy somewhere else,” he recalls. “Never did I imagine that day I’d meet the woman I’m going to marry.”

Jeremy and Kacie met as she brought water to her Dad and the crew. Kacie recalls thinking to herself: “Who is this guy, and why have I never seen him before?” Followed, of course, by making sure to procure another round of water for that crew.

Both were intrigued and struck up a friendship, after first looking each other up on Facebook (of course) and realizing they had friends in common. Jeremy’s best man is herd vet Nathan Kapp of Gap Vets, whose wife works with a friend of Kacie’s at Pioneer. A first date led to a second, and things took off from there.

“When I told my Dad we were dating, I just got this big smile and some comment about tractors,” Kacie laughs.

Spring came, and Kacie continued working at the home farm, then driving to Jeremy’s to help with whatever needed doing — from the cattle to the corn planting.

“What I fell in love with first is Jeremy’s faith,” Kacie recalls.

Windows of light open doors, through faith. Both Jeremy and Kacie were individually going through difficulties and seeking direction for their lives. They both had questions about their own futures, and God’s answer was an unexpected ‘chance’ meeting. “We would not have met any other way,” they agree.

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Gratitude

“For our country, for us all,” read the Marines billboard as I drove through the nation’s heartland. I turned the phrase over in my mind, thinking just what kind of courage, heart, and love of country it takes to serve iImagen our nation’s military.

A rush of thankfulness flooded over me as the tires of my Jeep Patriot ate the miles to the next destination, and farmland stretched endlessly on either side of the highway.

I whispered ‘thank you.’

Today, our nation commemorates Memorial Day, which began as Decoration Day, when the grave decorating custom became more prevalent during and after the Civil War, honoring soldiers who died — both Union and Confederate.

Since then, the final Monday in May has become a special time to honor all of the men and women who have served and died, paying the ultimate price for our freedom and our country.

flag18As I travel for various ag projects, I am struck by the diverse beauty of both the land and the people in our United States of America.

In the long rural stretches of open land from the Midwest through the Great Plains — where you can drive for an hour and not see another vehicle, where the farm report comes on the radio several times a day and consumes the hours of 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. on the local cable channel as I write this — you get a feel for the bigness of America, and its call of freedom.

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In the East — where the patchwork of small farms live at the fringes of suburbia with subdivisions sometimes sprinkled between them — agriculture, both land and livestock come in all varieties, a framing and founding fabric for our American tapestry.

American soldiers come from all walks of life and all regions of the country, but one thing we often overlook is the high percentage coming from farms and ranches and rural living.

As I drove past that billboard — on a highway near Lubbock, Texas — I also whispered a ‘thank you’ for the fathers and the mothers, and the families and the communities, who have raised, and then lost, these men and women who have paid the ultimate price so that we may all be free.

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