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

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

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike gave Audrey the credit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being real: Dairywomen share insights, Part One

AUTHOR’S NOTE: It’s Women in Dairy month and the season of harvest and Thanksgiving, so I reached out to more than a dozen women across two generations and several states for their insights and wisdom. Each woman received the same five questions, and the feedback was both informative and inspirational. Here is part one.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 16, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — When asked what challenges and opportunities women see in dairying today, many of those interviewed pointed out the low milk prices and the difficulty in managing costs and juggling payments through the months when milk prices don’t stretch. But even more so, they identified consumer communication as a primary challenge.

“Conveying milk and dairy products as superior (because dairy is), conveying the economic struggle… and meeting consumer demand and desires with economic realities,” writes Katie Sattazahn of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania describing the main challenges she sees for dairy.

Katie is part of Zahncroft Farms LLC with 250 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows in a conventional freestall and parlor facility. She manages the calves and does the farm financials and is part of the third generation of the farm owned and operated in partnership with her husband and brother-in-law.

She also shares snippets of life on the dairy — the basics with the hows and the whys — with her friends on her personal facebook page.

Other women, too, expressed their desire to have the general public understand more fully what dairy producers face and to know the clear nutritional benefits of dairy over other choices in the food and beverage marketplace.

An interesting observation by many dairywomen is that there seems to be a large gap of understanding between farmers who are struggling and the industry representatives who receive a paycheck, regardless.

This was touched upon by Jessica Peters of Meadville, Pennsylvania also. She farms in partnership with her brother and father as the fifth generation, milking 275 Jerseys through the parlor at Spruce Row Farm.

She does a column in Hoards, in which she touched on this topic.

Jessica also does the farm’s facebook page with over 5800 followers, and her “See Jess Farm” style has drawn consumers and other farmers into the discussions of all things dairy, including a lot of myth-busting. She has become known for her social media expressions, including videos where she is clear to be herself and to be real and to be entertaining.

Recently, she spoke to a group of industry representatives and warned them that her presentation would be unlike anything they’d ever seen.

“I talked about what I do online and why I do it,” says Jessica. “I touched on what they can do for us. I told them to understand life sucks for us right now, that it is difficult for us to answer the phone because you want money, and we don’t have any, and you are our friends, and it is awkward,” she explains in her very honest and direct manner.

She also produced a little video “Dear struggling farmer,” several months ago that has continued to fill her phone and inbox with others reaching out to talk or to thank her for putting into words what they are feeling and could not express.

After speaking to bankers and industry reps, Jessica says she couldn’t believe how many came up to her and said they did not realize how hard it is right now. The difficulties go beyond dollars and sense and what Peters describes is the reality of what people feel and how it affects relationships and every part of their lives and businesses.

“My dad always says we don’t want to be complainers, and I am not a Debbie-downer, but not speaking about what we feel is part of what got us here,” she says.

For Katie, the challenge of meeting consumer desires for small to mid-sized family-run farms in an environment where processors and agribusinesses are leaning toward wanting larger farms, is an example of the challenging gap in understanding.

“How do we give consumers what they want — quickly — so they don’t find another product to consume?” Katie asks. “We have a superior product that we don’t need to alter… We just need to educate consumers to understand that dairy packs a huge nutritional package per dollar of cost. As a younger farmer, I recognize everyone needs to eat … so the opportunity in 20-plus years is definitely there for our generation.”

Renee Troutman farms with her husband, milking 100 Holsteins in Berks County, Pennsylvania. She milks, raises calves, does the heat detection and bookkeeping.
Seeing the challenge of rapid consolidation of the dairy industry, Renee points out the impact of diminished market options, which was not the case when they started farming.

“The dairy gave us a great quality of life for our first decade in, and it was our plan and desire to continue that way. But things are changing in the industry and the feeling of becoming obsolete because of our size and structure is tangible. The last several years of low milk prices has all but eroded that first decade of progress,” says Renee.

She and others talk about looking ahead at ways to diversify and ways to get closer to consumers who seem to want that relationship with food producers.

In a broader way of relating to others, Jessica put some of the farming realities in the form of submitted photos into a recent “This is Farming” video for National Farmer’s Day in October, organized to an uplifting and inspiring song.

“I am very millennial. It has to be fun or emotional to catch my attention, and that’s what I try to do with my videos, catch their attention and just be myself,” she says.

The “This is Farming” video is something she had in her head for awhile after watching The Greatest Showman. She loves music and theater. It was Jessica Peters — along with Katie Dotterer-Pyle of Cow Comfort Inn Dairy, Maryland — who started the “dairy dance off” earlier this year where farmers, farm women, farm kids across the country caught on with little stress-relieving videos of themselves or others on the farm dancing karioke-style while doing chores.

For “This is Farming,” Jessica had the vague idea in her mind, but then decided to post a request for photos at the Dairy Girl Network facebook group. On-farm photos started pouring in from across the country. Within a half hour, she had 300 photos. It took 6 hours to edit the video together, and she posted it later that day on Facebook and YouTube. (Here’s a link to it again: This is Farming)

“I never expected such a good response,” Jessica says. “It is one of those videos that speaks to the heart for those in and out of the industry.”

She notes further that “everyone is feeling this concern right now.”

Jessica and others say they see the emotion in conversations and posts in networking groups and in the unspoken word.

“People need a place to go to connect,” she says.

“I guess one of the most important things I want people to know is that they are not personally failing,” says Jessica. “It’s almost like agriculture as a whole is falling hard right now, and that we need to talk to each other and realize that even though it feels personal, it’s not.”

She too is concerned about the public perception of agriculture, but takes it a step farther. She wants it to be real.

“People don’t seem to consider farmers as people. I just don’t think they realize we are people, the same as everyone else. We have done that by setting ourselves apart from the average consumer,” Jessica observes.

That’s changing through social media and dairywomen who give glimpses of life on the farm within the context of every day life their non-farm peers can relate to.

“Building relationships is important as a first step with the goal of getting others to trust you enough to come to you when they have that question,” says Jessica.

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

Summer memories and milk margins

GL 4736.jpgAuthor’s Note: Amazing how even more true this piece from 2016 rings today in 2018. This “Growing the Land” column was originally published two years ago in the July 20, 2016 edition of the Register-Star in New York’s Hudson Valley. Indeed, it is still timely today, two years later, as summer memories are still grand and dairy farm milk price margins are still poor — and as a society we continue to incrementally lose the soul of our food, which we may not even fully appreciate or realize is happening.

By Sherry Bunting, originally published July 20, 2016 Register-Star

The fresh flavors of summer are in — sweet corn, tomatoes and, of course, ice cream. In fact, July is National Ice Cream Month, and it is certainly hot enough for some extra frozen goodness.

Summer foods bring back summer childhood memories: Celebrating first pickings with a dinner of simply sweet corn and sliced tomatoes. Or an ear of sweet corn for breakfast — no sugar required.

And then there were those summer evenings when Dad would get in just before dark, singing: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Off we’d go to the nearby ice cream shop where the number of flavors made our heads spin and the homemade goodness left us smiling.

So much goes into producing these simple pleasures we may take for granted. I recently ran into a cousin of mine attending an event I was covering for the ag papers at a dairy farm in southern York County, Pa., that had been in two branches of our family four generations earlier. He had grown up in Baltimore and now lives on a nearby small farmette that had stayed in our great uncle’s family, renting a little crop ground to a neighbor.

I had brought my then 94-year-old grandmother to the farmer-meeting. My cousin Tom decided to come over also — curious to see the place as a modern dairy farm that had some historic significance to our family.

I was there just doing my job.

Before the farm tour, the event gave farmer-attendees a run-down of the latest business improvement resources for managing below-cost milk prices and updates on various regulations.

Unlike my cousin, I had spent my high school and college years working for nearby dairy farms — milking cows, feeding and caring for livestock, running equipment; beginning later a career as an ag and markets reporter. I was accustomed to the farm life my cousin had not experienced.

Having a deep appreciation for local farmland around his current home, he attended this first-ever farmer meeting and found it to be an eye-opener.

“How do they keep doing it?” he asked. “It sounds like they have to interact with a lot of regulations and governmental departments to get it all done.”

He was also surprised by the number of young people at the meeting, whereas I had many times witnessed the passion of next generation farmers — their love for bringing new life into the world and their dedication to nurturing life, which in turn produces for the rest of us a bountiful harvest.

He just shook his head in wonder. Why do they do it? Why do they carry-on this time-honored tradition of feeding the world? Why do they do the hard work for an often thankless society? And how do they keep pushing forward through daily chores and challenges when the prices they receive for their products are often below what it costs them to produce it?

This is certainly the case for dairy farmers over the past 12 to 18 months. (2018 update: that situation is going on 4 years now). Their farm-gate milk price has dropped 40 percent below 2014 levels and is roughly where it was 40 year years ago, while the input costs continually increase.

There are roughly 2 million farms of all kinds and sizes in the U.S., but less than 40,000 of these farms are dairy farms. The dairy farm sector may be small in number, but they represent the largest economic driver in dairy states like Pennsylvania and New York, where they account for half the cash farm receipts in the state, and one job is created in the greater community for every 9 dairy cows on nearby farms. Nearly half of those jobs are related to dairy farming and the service and supply sector, and the other half related to dairy processing and other downstream aspects of the dairy economy.

Dairy farms are often a linchpin for the infrastructure relied upon by all farms in a region.

In these tough economic times, dairy farmers are exhausting credit lines, spending their savings, borrowing on the equity of their land and looking for other work to add to their already busy days — just to pay the bills for the goods and services that are associated with feeding and caring for the cows, servicing and keeping up the equipment, and other aspects of economic revenue generated throughout the community by the production of milk.

If milk prices don’t turn around soon, more dairy farms will be lost. (That was in 2016… Fast forward to 2018, the rate of dairy farm loss has accelerated even more, in some areas these sell-offs are up 30% this year)

Families who have expanded their dairy operations in the past five to seven years — when industry and government asked them to produce MORE milk to fuel what was a rapidly growing yogurt industry in the Northeast at that time — now find their investments at risk because of the low prices paid for their milk today.

A reported oversupply of milk, globally, has depressed the commodity markets on which the federally-regulated milk prices are based in a globalizing industry. Regionally, dairies are also losing access to markets for their milk in the Northeast U.S. as consolidation at the dairy retail, processing and marketing levels continues at a rapid pace. (This hit an unprecedented level in 2018, though this was written in 2016).

What can consumers do to support the agriculture and dairy farms that support their communities?

1) Thank a farmer, when you have the opportunity, and if you have questions about food and farming, don’t rely on ‘Google.’ Go to the source: Ask a farmer, visit a farm.

2) Buy local, whenever possible. Read labels, look at plant codes (check them out on whereismymilkfrom.com and @findmymilk on social media). Supporting local dairies is a sustainable step every consumer can take. Look for other label clues about milk origin, such as the PA Preferred label in Pennsylvania. To earn that label, the milk is not only bottled at a Pennsylvania plant, it must come from a Pennsylvania farm.

3) Realize that dairy milk is nature’s ultimate protein drink, containing up to eight times more protein per serving compared with plant-based beverages that falsely call themselves ‘milk.’ In addition, the amino acid quality of dairy protein is unsurpassed among the fraudulent beverages that steal milk’s good name. Dairy milk is also a natural source of calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals with no added sugar, thickeners or other additives found in those plant-based not-milk beverages. And the truth is known, that full-fat dairy is good for us!

4) Realize how the local economy depends on local dairy farms and how 97 percent of U.S. dairy farms, regardless of size, are owned and run by families.

5) Understand that farmers are passionate about the dairy life — caring for the land and animals but they also need to operate the farm as a business. For example, they adopt new technologies, just like other businesses, as they strive to navigate the devastating price cycles. If farms are not profitable, their ability to continue to the next generation — investing into the local economy, jobs, environmental stewardship, open-space beauty, and fresh food security benefits — can not continue here for the rest of us to enjoy.

A former newspaper editor, Sherry Bunting has been writing about dairy, livestock and crop production for over 30 years. Before that, she milked cows. She can be reached at agrite@ptd.net.

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July 12 was Cow Appreciation Day, and while we may think about the cows when we have delicious, nutritious dairy foods, we may not have a full appreciation for the farmers who are truly appreciating their cows — caring for them through all types of weather and markets. No matter the size or management style of farms today, 97 percent are family-owned and operated. New generations of young farmers, like Justin Pavlot of New York, are passionate about what they do, and dedicate themselves to this work, even as they navigate an uncertain economic future with today’s depressed milk prices. Sherry Bunting photo

Dairy at a Crossroads Part I: 2018 Turning point?

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Number of farms, robust infrastructure are interdependent. The ripple spreads wide and the pain in rural communities, deep.

 By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, February 23, 2018

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. — Dr. David Kohl recently said he is still bullish on the small farms that populate the eastern dairy industry, that there will always be a place for them, but they will change their focus.

Still, lenders and industry participants confide they are concerned about a large number of dairy exits in 2018. They are encouraging producers to work with advisors, and urging the industry to work together in the embattled eastern U.S., because the whole infrastructure depends on the number of farms as much as — if not more than — the number of cows and amount of milk produced.

While lenders like Dale Hershey, director of ag lending for Univest Bank and Trust, say they have already seen many diversify and change how they operate, others are in the process of re-thinking their futures.

The biggest concern for Hershey is when farms decide to sell the cows, seldom do the cows come back to the farm.

“Some of those farms will stay empty. That, I do see,” he asserts. “Occasionally they’ll come back in and milk, but mostly they will go into something else, or if the farm is sold, we’ll see most of them stay dark in terms of dairy production.

“I think we’ll look back 10 years from now and see 2018 as a turning point.”

Mike Peachey of Acuity Advisors and CPAs agrees. He sees dairy at a crossroads similar to the hog industry in the 1990s: “My concern is that we will see a dairy industry 10 years from now that looks very different from how it looks today, and we are helping our dairy customers take stock of that.”

Peachey observes that as the number of farms decreases, “This puts a lot of pressure on the dairy infrastructure and the ag businesses that support the dairy farms. One of Pennsylvania’s competitive advantages is that there is a lot of infrastructure and support in the whole supply chain that is very beneficial for competitive pricing for our dairy farmers.”

He cites the region’s multiple feed companies, multiple points of expertise, nutritional perspectives and a bidding process, multiple veterinarians, the strong ag lending infrastructure, equipment dealers, and expertise in different specialties.

“My concern is that if the number of dairy farms decreases, and if the infrastructure goes away, then it changes that competitive advantage,” he says, observing that the number of cows or the amount of milk produced does not necessarily make up for what is lost when the quantity of individual farms is reduced by consolidation.

Yes, the dairy industry is at a crossroads, and no where is this perhaps more evident than in eastern states, like Pennsylvania.

The Northeast was a fluid milk market in the past, close to 50% of utilization. Today it is less than 30%. As more milk is produced — even if per capita fluid milk consumption stayed the same — not enough other products are made here, so mailbox prices are falling under the coinciding weight of increased hauling costs and losses in competitive and quality premiums.

Meanwhile, the Class IV utilization has increased as a percentage in the blend price, leading many to believe the Northeast model of dairy pricing may be broken.

In fact, so concerned are states and dairy organizations that state-wide analyses are being conducted in top tier “notably fluid” states like Pennsylvania and New York in the Northeast as well as in Georgia, in the Southeast. The states of Michigan and Wisconsin are also looking at their state’s production, processing and infrastructure to improve their future competitiveness.

In Wisconsin, milk prices are driven off the cheese market — a growing market that has been cultivated to generate variety, demand and competitive premiums — whereas the Northeast model is built off Class I, which is not competitive, nor is it growing. And, unlike cheese with its diverse growth in specialties and brands, the Class I milk at the store is treated like a base commodity against which all newcomers and imitations are compared and premium-priced.

Dairy producers and industry participants also say they are concerned about the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board’s role in terms of the costs associated with milk assembly vs. where the state premiums are going.

Meanwhile, store inventories are kept close to the bone. If they throw a gallon of milk away, the margin on every other gallon is affected, and so stocking depth is being reduced.

These are the kinds of issues that states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, New York and Michigan, among others, are actively looking at as they study capacity and market needs and trends.

Producers don’t control these decisions, but their input is vital.

From farm to table, technology and workforce are two other big pieces with immigration reform being a double-edged sword.

If the Congress and the Trump administration are able to legalize immigrant worker status, what will that really do for the dairy workforce? A National Milk Producers Federation study with Texas A&M reveals that 80% of the nation’s milk was harvested by immigrant workers — up from 60% in 2009.

With general unemployment now falling below 5%, which many economists consider to be full employment, a legalized immigrant workforce may be lost to jobs in industries with better margins.

Workforce issues are also affecting trucking and other infrastructure employment.

Labor is fast replacing environmental as the number one issue facing the dairy industry, and against that background, farms will do things differently over the next 10 years to systemize their production, say various experts.

Builders, lenders and others are seeing the emphasis for this in three areas: wet calves, dry cows and post fresh, as well as through investments in technologies that improve management, specifically by their impacts on cost of production because this is the criteria that will drive farm-level investments into the future.

Technologies may help solve it, but this requires investment. The right answer, policy-wise, is elusive, but for individual farms, the right answer comes, again, from knowing cost of production from which to weigh out the options and run projections and scenarios based on where the farm is now and where it wants to be in the future.

While some see opportunities to drive milk output per cow higher with more cow comfort and better heifer programs, pointing out that Pennsylvania lags behind other states in its milk output per cow, others in the industry point to imposed restraints pushing the focus toward managing risk.

Complicating the marginal milk model for improvement in Pennsylvania is the Land O’Lakes base program. When producers are over base — because they’ve improved their management — they take a penalty when the base is enforced, depending on the eastern region’s total production.

Learning to manage through this intermittent penalty seems to be affecting mainly the producers in the East, despite more substantial growth in the West. In addition, DFA has started a base program for portions of its membership in parts of the Southeast U.S., where milk is already regionally deficit.

How will this push-pull play out at the farm level?

Some producers will carry a lunch. Hershey is seeing a trend toward small farm operators finding seasonal off-farm employment to keep their dairy farms running.

Others have and will become diversified, which can reveal two pathways: Getting successful in another area and exiting the dairy, or seeing the dairy as a lifestyle to keep, and using other income streams to weather the storm.

In addition to diversifying, lenders note niche processing will be a path for some. There are a number of niche producers in this part of the country. Some have been doing this a long time, others are just getting in.

“The good economy has really helped those operations. Tourists are traveling, coming to our county, dining out, and packing the places we deal with,” Hershey observes about Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Some of our cheesemaking stores are flourishing right now, but that business is not for the faint of heart. It requires deep pockets to get into.”

Connecting dots for consumers is essential for eastern states, like Pennsylvania. For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there is this dichotomy. The county — like other parts of the eastern U.S. — has grown in produce and other specialty crops to become a great hub of food. To some degree this includes dairy, but more stimulation is needed.

As will be further discussed in part two of this dairy-at-a-crossroads series, knowing the cost of production for the farm business and knowing where lie the passions, strengths and weaknesses of the farm family are keys to finding each farm’s own path — whether that means keeping the cows and diversifying, investing in niche marketing, getting more competitive on cost of production or giving the cows up and channeling that valuable positive experience and energy to new pursuits.

This industry is about the milk and the cows, but even moreso, it is about the people.

“We can do it here,” says Peachey. “When we know our farm’s cost of production, we know the weak spot in our model and can figure out how to compensate for that and find where our opportunities are.”

As these changing tides and issues sort themselves out, Peachey observes how dairymen are making these “tremendous strides to improve their operations,” and he believes the next wave of improvement is figuring out how to do risk management well, how to capture margins when they are available, and how to protect operations from downside risk.

“We can take an operation so far and continue to improve, but the next wave of significant profitability and improvement is in managing the top line price and the input costs and locking in those good margins when they are there,” says Peachey.

“A generation ago, with price supports, dairy farmers could work hard and do okay or very well. Now it is a business requiring an approach to management for the long run,” he adds.

In part two of this series, we’ll examine the map for navigating the dairy crossroads.

 

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Ag economy runs counter to urban economy

Dr. Kohl connects dots, prepares farmers for economic reset

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By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, February 2, 2018

EAST EARL, Pa. – “The growth of the economy is hotter than a pepper sprout, but for how much longer?” observed Dr. David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus. He then opened eyes, and ears, saying that, “When the urban and suburban economies are going gangbusters, the ag and rural economies tend to struggle. That is very typical. The ag economy tends to run counter to the general economy.”

And with that, we were off to the races with Dr. Kohl, who spoke about positioning for success in the economic reset as the keynoter for the annual Univest Ag Summit that drew over 350 people — mainly farm families and many of them dairy producers — to Shady Maple Smorgasbord here last Friday, Jan. 26.

When Kohl is on the agenda for a meeting, you know you are in for an invigorating look at socio-economic trends, and a whole lot more. His high energy presentations deliver tidbits of insight that help make sense of market patterns that are so difficult to understand. The fact that he is a partner in a creamery is just ice cream on top of the cake.

Part of the reason for these opposite fortunes for urban vs. rural economies is the strength of the dollar and the price of oil that coincide.

Kohl is watching what happens with the U.S. dollar because this will influence inflation and interest rates in the general economy as well as exports in the ag economy.

“When the dollar is stronger, we are in a weaker position to trade commodities,” said Kohl. “When the dollar is weaker, it picks up inflation, so we have to watch out for higher interest rates. We are well into this period of low flat interest rates, but that is about to change.”

Kohl sees the Fed raising the prime rate possibly four times in the coming year, but that will depend on the rate of inflation. If it stays below 3%, there will be less incentive to raise interest rates. In fact, the report released that day pegged it at 2.6%. We shall see.

As he went through the indicators, Kohl indicated his bullishness on agriculture in the East. “One-third of the consumers with money reside within 10 hours of you,” he said.

While it is true that as the economy improves and consumers have more money in their pockets, the food processing and foodservice sector positions have improved, the problem is that the farm sector tends to ride at the back of that bus. What makes the difference for ag, according to Kohl, is the economic growth of export partners.

Trade has become integral to the marketing, pricing and distribution of farm commodities, including dairy, according to Kohl.

He travels extensively, especially during meeting season, and he said it is his ability to go out and confirm the numbers that allows him to see trends and connect dots.

Right now, he said, the problem for dairy is that we are working through a surplus. “The high prices of 2014-15 brought in some inefficiencies,” said Kohl. “When I see the bottom third of producers making good money, that’s when I know we will see financial issues within the next two years.”

On the trade issues, Kohl said that 1 out of 7 days’ worth of milk production in the U.S. is exported somewhere, and 39% of those exports are going to Mexico. During a conference in Mexico, he learned that those buyers will go elsewhere and pay more for dairy if they need to.

And while Asia, and China, are important export destinations for farm products, Kohl said that  NAFTA re-negotiations are important because the U.S. exports more ag products to Canada and Mexico, combined, than to China.

He observes that 47% of the Mexican population is under 25 years of age, and that “This youthful population of consumers helps fuel continued growth in U.S. agriculture.”

He also noted that 3 of every 7 consumers with money to buy goods reside in Asia, but the U.S. has pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, “leaving China to fill our spot, so now Canada and Mexico are in the TPP and they are making agreements without us there.”

Kohl acknowledged the currency manipulations that go on by other countries, including China and Mexico, to improve their market competitiveness globally, and he said that is something to watch both in the trade negotiation processes and in terms of economic factors affecting agriculture, particularly as the U.S. dollar is likely to weaken.

Within this trade discussion, Kohl said the single most important thing that President Trump has done is appointing former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad as Ambassador to China.

And here’s the stuff you get from a guy like Kohl: Branstad and China’s leader Xi Jinping have a very close trusting relationship that dates back 35 years to their work on an Iowa hog farm. In fact, China’s leader holds a Ph.D. in ag and rural markets. He came from an elite family in China, but during the 1980s farm crisis circumstances had him working on farms in east Iowa.

UnivestMeeting(DaveKohl)2“The leader of China worked on hog farms for two years. He ‘gets’ agriculture,” said Kohl, as he turned to a table populated with blue and gold jackets and said: “The relationships you form today, you will not know their impact down the road.”

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. sealed a “beefed up” pork and protein deal with China that has been good for the livestock sector. Perhaps dairy is next?

 Kohl also watches the weather. South America is in their double crop season and it is dry there. In the U.S. southwest, it is very dry in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. “If this continues through April 15 or May 15 and if it goes to the upper Midwest with a dry Southeast, it will impact corn.

He also keeps a careful eye on oil and energy prices, proclaiming that the U.S. made a pact after 9/11 to become energy independent within 25 years, but has done it in 10.

“We are now the energy leader in the world, so other nations can’t control us anymore,” said Kohl. Oil and energy costs influence the general economy, and really have an impact on farms. “8 out of every 10 dollars spent on the farm business are connected to oil.”

On the flip side of the oil coin is the historical relationship between oil prices and farm commodity prices. Kohl sees oil getting cheaper. “The demand side is changing. People are moving to cities and using public transportation,” he said, adding this surprising statistic: 31% of people aged 18 to 25 do not have a driver’s license.

He also noted that in Germany, they want to outlaw the internal combustion engine by 2040! And that in China, they want to have 25% of all vehicles run by electric by 2025.

The big trends impact so many things over time, and that is why Kohl pays attention to them.

In fact, he noted that the advances in farming technology have produced surpluses by taking the lower yield farms and really improving those yields. “That is what technology does. It improves the bottom end and that creates surplus, and this is why we need export markets.”

What does all of this mean for farmers? Kohl put the “correction” or “reset” he sees coming into perspective, observing that the 1980s correction went down fast and lasted five years. “This one is a grinder,” he said. “We are not seeing a collapse in the ag economy like we did in the 1980s. We are seeing it grinding along and surviving with technology and management.”

Kohl sees the stock market rate of gains as something that can’t last forever and believes it is a “bubble.” He quickly added that many people disagree.

He noted that student debt is record high, the rate of consumer savings in the U.S. is at the lowest level since 2007 and credit card debt just exceeded a trillion dollars.

Bubble or no bubble, Kohl encouraged listeners with his belief that what we have now is an “asset bubble” where equity and resilience will be the tools to guard. “Don’t get complacent on equity,” he urged.

The economic drivers of the current cycle are its elongation into a supercycle, the available technology and management, interest rates, stronger financial underwriting, working capital, land equity cushion, and crop insurance programs.

“Currently 90% of the world economy is hot,” said Kohl, adding that, “If it grows too fast, it’s a weed.” In his opinion, it is growing too fast.

The killers to watch out for are a rise in oil prices, a decline in the stock market, a tightening of credit strategies by the Central Bank and ‘bubbles.’ The bubbles to watch are auto debt, student debt, stock market, credit card debt and farm land asset to credit.

“Economic expansions do not die, they are killed off, and those are the things that can kill them,” said Kohl.

He said workforce development will be critical for sustaining the economic engine that is revving up, and he was encouraged to hear President Trump say last week that, “Not everybody needs to go to college. There is nothing wrong with vocational skills.”

What can dairy farmers do as these macro-economic factors around them are out of their control?

“Look at your business, and drive it toward efficiencies,” said Kohl. “Do your cash flows early and often to adjust to changing tides.”

Recognizing the trend toward diversified income streams on farms in southeast Pennsylvania, Kohl said that is more sustainable in today’s environment.

But the biggest piece of advice he gave was for farmers to “be proactive. Whether large or small, the top producers are making the adjustments, the middle is in denial waiting for bad weather somewhere to bring back commodity prices and the bottom third are at the end of the pier not knowing what is wrong.”

Look for Kohl’s cornerstones for success as this continues in a future edition.

Fire extinguished. Help, hope ignited.

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2013 Photo: Chuck and Vanessa Worden

By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, Jan. 20, 2017

CASSVILLE, N.Y. — On Saturday evening, January 14, the entire Worden family was together at the dining room table celebrating Chuck and Vanessa’s birthdays, including daughter Lindsey who was home visiting from Vermont.

By daybreak Sunday, the family was facing an uncertain future, but was lifted forward by friends and neighbors showing up when news spread quickly of the fire at Wormont Dairy, Cassville, New York.

“I had just walked through the cows and done a little clipping that night, so proud of how the whole herd looked and how well they were responding to the changes we had been making in the ration and fresh cow protocols,” Lindsey Worden reflected. “Less than four hours later, I was calling 911.”

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Photo from Kate Worden

Wayne and Mark Worden, who live off the farm but nearby, were throwing on clothes to come down and join their father Chuck and brother Eric in rescuing calves and heifers penned in the box stall barn adjoining their parlor/holding area and office, which was totally engulfed in flames.

Their mother Vanessa had gotten up in the middle of the night and saw the flames from the window.

“Just as Eric was carrying out the last calf, the fire trucks arrived and the barn was totally filled with smoke and starting to catch fire as well,” Lindsey reported. “Volunteer firefighters, friends and neighbors were pouring in. We managed to wrangle all the baby calves and young heifers into a bay of our machine shed, and got the older show heifers into our heifer freestall, while dad and the boys were helping the firefighters.”

Amazingly, the wind was blowing in the opposite direction of its usual course – sparing the main freestall barn and Wormont Dairy’s 270 milking cows from damage.

By 4:00 a.m. Sunday morning, “It was quiet,” Lindsey shares. “At daybreak we met to try and figure out a game plan for how to get 275 cows milked on a farm with no milking equipment.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Not one person or animal was harmed, and the family was so thankful, but reality was sinking in. Now what?

“It was amazing,” said Vanessa. “There are no words for the way people just showed up and lifted us up.”

Chuck said a neighbor started the ball rolling to place the cows, and people came with trucks and trailers lining the farm lane. “I didn’t make one call, people just came,” he said.

As Wayne and Mark noted, “It was humbling.”

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Photo provided by Lindsey Worden

Before long, with the help of some awesome neighbors, the Wordens had figured out two farms that could take the majority of their milking cows (heifers and dry cows are staying), and a short while later, cattle trailers started showing up, as did more friends and neighbors to help get them loaded.

“At one point, we had at least 10 cattle trailers lined up out the driveway, and we got animals relocated more efficiently than I would have ever imagined possible,” Lindsey reflects. “We are so thankful to the friends and first responders who showed up at 1:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to help get our immediate emergency under control.”

Friends and neighbors came from near and far – bringing trailers, helping to get cattle loaded and moved, helping to get scared cows milked off site.

“People brought enough food to feed an army for a week,” said Vanessa.

“At 7 a.m., my first thought is that we were probably just have to sell everything, but then as neighbors showed up, and connections were made, and trucks started moving cows, you start to feel how hope can change the whole outlook,” said Vanessa. “By 3:00 p.m., our friends and neighbors had given us hope that we can do this. I was actually happy yesterday. There is no way I could be sad after all that everyone has done, after all the hope they have given us.”

Each member of the family has so much gratitude for the dairies that opened their barns and took in cows. The 270 cows were moved to three locations by 3 p.m. Sunday.

“What an incredibly humbling day,” Wayne shared Sunday evening. “There are no words to describe the support we received and are still receiving with the cows. Thank you is not enough to say about what we were all able to accomplish today. What an incredible community the dairy industry is.”

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2013 photo Wayne, Mark, Eric and Chuck Worden

Electricians worked all day Sunday to restore power – light, heat and water. “And companies worked with us quickly to help us with things like restoring our DairyComp records on a new computer, getting basic medical and breeding supplies and all those little things that we need to keep the wheels on the bus this week,” Lindsey observes. “It is a really strange feeling to literally have none of those everyday supplies like calf bottles, navel dip, ear tags, IV kits, etc.

Everyone who reached out with suggestions for help or just kind words, prayers and encouragement, by call, text message, email, and facebook, or dropping by in person. We are so very grateful.”

Eric shared how “truly overwhelmed” he was by the amount of support received from farmers across the state following the fire. “Thank you for making the day go easier,” he said. “This is a tough blow for my family, but we will come back stronger than ever.”

Adds Lindsey, “By some miracle, not a single animal was lost, not even our lone barn cat!”

While there is no question, “we’ve got a tough road to hoe to get back on our feet over the next several months,” said Lindsey, “with some luck and the attitude everyone in the family has maintained over the last two days, I have no question we will come out on the other side.”

“Words cannot express how thankful we are,” Vanessa said. “The way people reached out to us in those early hours gave us hope. Hope is an important thing. It’s what we give each other, and it is amazing.”

As the family meets with insurance adjusters, lenders, builders, equipment specialists and others to chart a course for moving forward, the ready support of others in the darkest hour serves as a continual reminder of what the dairy community is made of – people who keep putting one foot in front of the other and helping their fellow producers get through times like this.

Even more importantly, the family notes that this dairy community is quick to give each other hope — that they’re not alone when confronted with a life-changing event — that when it seems everything is coming to a halt, it is the hope brought by others that carries everyone forward.

Crews from six fire departments responded to the fire at Wormont in the wee hours of Sunday morning, January 15, with others on standby.

Cleanup continues as the family pulls together to make decisions for the future – a future that they say reinforces how special the dairy industry is and how humbled they are to be part of it.

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Aug. 2016 Eric, Lindsey and Chuck at county fair

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2013 photo Wormont Dairy

Leaving boots in the mud to seek new ground on Tuesday

 

Editorial Comments by Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, Nov. 4, 2016

flag19Agriculture is at a crossroads, and so is America. But the choice of paths that lie before us are neither clear nor direct.

When we go to the polls on Tuesday, it will be with mixed thoughts and emotions.

As the mainstream media analyze and over analyze every breaking news story, every “narrative,” every campaign “spin,” every poll, every issue that they deem important, there is much that gets left on the cutting room floor — important issues that no one really talks about, and yet they are harbingers of our future.

What they don’t talk about – of course – is agriculture. What they don’t talk about is the backbone of our economy, the original resource from which all other facets of the economy are made possible.

Take, for example, Hillary Clinton’s speech to financial institutions, where she said she dreams of one world, one economy, without borders. When pressed on that issue, her response was to say that, ‘Oh, that speech! I was talking about the energy economy, a worldwide energy grid. I want the U.S. to be the renewable energy super-power of the world.’

A convenient response to a concept that should give us all pause — in and outside of agriculture.

In talking with farm folk who volunteer for missions or projects in third-world countries where helping to establish indigenous agriculture practices and infrastructure is deemed so important, it hit me: We will be that third-world country — maybe not in my lifetime – but nevertheless that is one path on this crossroads if we do not take care to protect our farms and our farmers. Not only is their stewardship of the land vital to regional food security, but they are the place-holders for the essence of our liberty as a nation. Private property rights and ownership are the keys to our freedom as a nation, as a people.

Globalization is happening at a rapid pace. Running parallel to globalization is market concentration as mergers and acquisitions put more and more power into the hands of the few when it comes to food and agriculture. And then those ‘too big to fail’ entities are being sold off to foreign nations, like China, who already owns, according to the Department of the Treasury, $1.24 trillion in bills, notes and bonds (about 30%) of the over $4 trillion in Treasury bills, notes and bonds held by foreign countries.

That, my friends, is the auctioneer’s gavel on our national debt. True to form as a businessman, Donald Trump is talking about the national debt. Hillary Clinton is not.

Exports are said to be necessary for all agriculture commodity markets, especially dairy, and while I believe exports are important, they are not the end-all, be-all – except to the multi-national companies that view us as though they are on a satellite in space counting their dots on the globe: production units or consumption units, bars on a graph, slices on a pie-chart, numbers on a sales report, quarterly statements to shareholders.

In these third world countries I referenced earlier — where the good folk of the USA help farmers establish themselves — one of the first realizations is that when we throw cheap food at them, through exports, they have difficulty getting their own agriculture established to have the food security we Americans enjoy and truly take for granted.

Think about that for a moment. Are we not in danger, ourselves, of going down a path that could leave us food insecure?

The trade agreements that give our farmers market access to foreign markets also give our domestic market away to foreign imports. The give and the take are contrived and uneven. Winners and losers are made, created.

There is nothing fair or free about world trade because nations are losing the ability to care for and protect their own – particularly the U.S. – and we don’t even realize it. We are focused on the tantalizing allure of what we can sell … so that we are blinded to being sold-out.

The magician’s trick. Watch the elaborate thing I am doing with my left hand while I fool you with my right.

Many of these trade agreements are not free and fair trade, but rather a march forward to globalization, where the World Trade Organization and the United Nations become a higher power than our own Congress, our own President.

We saw just a tiny inkling of this, firsthand, when Congress quickly repealed the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) last March, and when the administration lifted the ban on Brazilian beef in August, and when the first boatload of beef hit Philadelphia, via JBS, just three weeks ago, followed by a rapid downturn in cattle prices here at home.

We’ve already seen foreign interests, namely China, purchase Smithfield and Syngenta, to name a few. This week, the Dallas News reported that a team of Chinese bankers and a Chinese dairy are considering a possible takeover bid for Dean Foods, our nation’s largest milk bottler that handles 35% of the raw farm milk produced in this country.

What does this have to do with Tuesday’s presidential and congressional election? Plenty.

You won’t hear Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump talk about agriculture, specifically, but listening to their differing outlooks, overall, a few things are clear and have helped me make my choice for next Tuesday.

For me, voting for a third party candidate or writing in a name like John McCain (as previous candidate and Ohio governor John Kasich did) is not an option. Neither is it an option to write in Mickey Mouse or to leave that part of the ballot blank.

Folks, this is serious. This presidential election – for all of its circus acts – is no circus. This is our future. This is the future we are handing to our children and grandchildren. I, for one, cannot trust it to a candidate who has spent the past 30 years in the political realm as a profitable public servant, and has wasted so much of that time on her own agenda with such disregard for the rules others live by as to again be under investigation.

I will vote between the two major party candidates based on what I know about their outlook on the future along with what my gut tells me about the investigations into their pasts and what it says about what they could or would do with the power of the Presidency in the future.

Neither candidate lives like we do out here in middle and rural America. But, at least one of the two candidates lives outside of the political realm.

We are governed by career politicians embroiled in endless self-perpetuation. The more paralyzed they are in their elected offices, the more power is diverted to the longstanding and quite powerful bureaucracy whom are elected by no one.

Everyone complains about the gridlock inside the beltway, like nothing ever gets done.

Wrong.

Plenty of work is getting done in Washington D.C., it is just mainly the work of career bureaucrats that exercise more control and make us weaker, tearing at our moral fabric, eating away at the base of our economy, ripping through our roots, and chipping away at our freedoms.

There is a power- and land-grab underway in this country. Most all agriculture commodities are at prolonged below-breakeven prices while the political elite is poised to push yet another trade agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, into the mix.

Meanwhile, we have a hammer of political correctness keeping us in our place, not daring to be free thinkers. Many voices are silenced as the economic and moral decay are inextricably linked.

Take, for example, the way we accept how the government imposes ridiculous rules on what our children can eat for lunch at school. All things are connected so that local communities cannot even feed their children the way they see fit. Those rules, incidentally, create winners and losers. And in so doing, the voices of the affected are silenced.

We have a runaway EPA with the implementation and flawed interpretation of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) legislation that threatens to create a second wave of land-grab after the market pushes a first wave of farmers off the land.

And then there is the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and their silver-tongued Wayne Pacelle. He is campaigning for Hillary Clinton. Her animal rights agenda dovetails with the candidate and Democratic Party’s obsession with climate change — right down to the livestock and dairy cattle on our farms.

There is so much more I could say, but to summarize, consider this: Who better to tackle over-regulation, unfair trade agreements, national food security, a vital agriculture, family farms and small businesses besieged by a labyrinth of complexities foisted upon them by a government run by self-perpetuating career politicians and ever-present, accountable-to-no-one bureacrats than a business man — a man that for all of his faults, at least does not live and has not spent 30-plus years operating in the self-perpetuation of the D.C. beltway.

We need to break free of the career politician mentality and breathe fresh air and common sense into the mix as well as to toss a bit of our sensitivity and political correctness to the side to break the cycle we are in and alter the path down which we are being led.

For all of his faults, Donald Trump is the only one of the two less than optimal choices we have in this election that fits that description.

Even on immigration reform, he is the one to have the best chance of getting it done. Only after our border is secured will our divided nation have a chance to come together with compassion for the illegal workers who are here today, working hard, making a contribution and raising their families that were born here. I have listened to Trump on this issue, and I get it. He is leaving room for that conversation after the border is secured and the estimated two million illegal immigrants that have committed crimes are properly dealt with. He will consult the American people on the next move after that first important move.

Election after election, candidates promise to shake things up, bring about change, bring people together, work for the people, protect our country.

Meanwhile, the beltway fills with sludge and slow-motion sets in to the point where boots are stuck.

Instead of standing fast, I’m leaving the boots in the mud, these bare feet are seeking new ground next Tuesday.