Dairy farmers prompt Franklin County, Pa. Milk Drop

Over 2000 families blessed with 3600 gallons of whole milk

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Zach Meyers (center), Franklin County Farm Bureau president among the volunteers ready with gallons of whole milk and half gallons of whole chocolate milk

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 15, 2020

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — “Watching Franklin County help Franklin County is the best way I can summarize this. Seeing the community come together was a blessing to witness,” says Lucy Leese who helped organize the 3600-gallon Milk Drop at Franklin Feed and Supply, Chambersburg, Pa. on Saturday, May 2. Leese is the office manager for the Franklin County Farm Bureau, and she works part-time on a local dairy farm.

The idea came from dairy farmers in the county seeing other such events in Lancaster and Tioga counties. Franklin County Farm Bureau president Zach Meyers, an area feed nutritionist, was contacted about it by one of his dairy clients.

“They knew Farm Bureau could reach more people to make this work, so we helped organize it,” says Meyers. “But the farmers get the credit. They made most of the donations. With this event, they basically sent a personal message to the entire community — that dairy farmers love you and care for you.”

May 1st dawned sunny, and people were itching to get out. They came in droves for the Milk Drop, some even breaking out their restored cars for the lineup.

Organizers say some people came because of true need in these hard times, others simply to show support for the dairy industry, and others just wanting something to do — to take a drive and be part of something. Whatever the reason or season – sunshine or rain – these Whole Milk Donation Drops, Drive-throughs, Challenges, call them what you will, are really catching on and spreading all over.

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Lucy Leese works for a local dairy farm and as office manager for Franklin County Farm Bureau. Along with the whole milk, they gave out goodie bags with dairy facts, recipe and coloring books from county dairy promotion. Photos submitted

From idea to event, a whirlwind eight days transpired. Leese communicated with county Farm Bureau members and others by email and social media about the plan, and she quickly saw the high level of community interest through donation pledges as well as people expressing interest in coming out.

“We also reached out to others who have done this. Mike Sensenig (New Holland) had a lot of insight and gave us some things to think about ahead of time,” she said.

“Our biggest thought was that we wanted to be sure to use Pennsylvania milk, so we worked with Harrisburg Dairies,” Meyers relates in a Farmshine interview. “Most of the dairy farmers here are already producing milk at a significant income loss, and yet they still gave money to buy milk for the Milk Drop.”

According to Meyers, the vast majority of funds were donated by dairy farmers and supportive agribusinesses. A few donations also came from individuals and businesses with no connection.

“We wanted it to be whole milk,” said Meyers. “What is better than giving a gallon of whole milk and a half gallon of whole chocolate milk and having our community actually taste something good?”

Over 2000 vehicles, in about a five-hour time frame, snaked through the Franklin Feed property off Rte 11 into four lines on either side of two Harrisburg Dairies trucks with 30 volunteers handing out milk and a goodie bag with a dairy fact sheet, recipe book and coloring pad courtesy of Franklin County dairy promotion.

The size of the event exceeded early expectations. They initially had money pledged for 500 gallons on Sat., April 25. By Monday evening, when they had their video chat to organize the event, they had funds to buy more than 2000 gallons. By Wednesday, April 29, three days before the event, they had pledges and paypal funds for seven times the original amount and confirmed their final count with Harrisburg Dairies for Saturday morning.

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Pretty cool to see 15 tons of milk come in on three box trucks. Harrisburg Dairies sent employees to man the lifts and keep the milk moving to the distribution tables between four lines of cars. 

“It was pretty cool to see 15 tons of milk come in on three box trucks,” says Leese. “Harrisburg Dairies sent their own guys to man the lifts and keep the milk moving to the distribution tables.”

The community was eager. “We had cars coming in at 7:45 a.m. right behind the trucks, so we started letting them through at 9 instead of 10,” says Leese, describing the initial rush of cars that gave way to a steady flow into the early afternoon.

In the end, Shippensburg Food Pantry sent a refrigerated truck for the 150 gallons that were left at 2:15. Earlier in the day, folks from a nursing home in Waynesboro had come through for 40 gallons. “They said they weren’t able to get whole milk, and their folks needed milk,” Leese reports.

Hearing the emotion in Leese’s voice as she described the experience in a Farmshine phone interview, it’s obvious that an event like this truly touches the givers and the receivers.

“Several times people asked for additional milk for their neighbors or grandparents. We said from the beginning all are welcome, no questions asked, because we are all in a tough situation right now,” Leese explains.

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Two teams of volunteers kept milk moving from three trucks. Throughout the 5 hours, area dairy producers took shifts. For them, it was personal, to show love for their community.

“It was encouraging for us as volunteers to be able to serve and give back to the community here at a time that we have felt helpless for so many weeks. This was an opportunity to be active and to serve,” she adds. “The folks coming through were just so grateful with words of thanks and blessings, and if they could, they gave money to pay forward for other Milk Drops.”

The way the lines flowed into Franklin Feed from Rte 11 gave the event a special touch for homebound families getting out. Wide-eyed children looked around at the sights of grain bins and feed equipment and then the milk trucks as they lined up between them.

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Over 2000 vehicles, in the space of five hours, filed off route 11 in Chambersburg, snaking around the grain bins at Franklin Feed and Supply before breaking into four lines on each side of two Harrisburg Dairies trucks.

“People actually thanked us for the tour,” Leese said. “We needed to move quickly so the line wouldn’t back up to route 11, so we had four lines, and the volunteers came in shifts.”

While the Franklin County Farm Bureau is not planning another, others in the community are talking about more milk drops.

“As people are seeing and recognizing the need and the positive response, the idea is really taking off,” Leese observes, adding that they’ve been contacted by their peers in Centre County wanting to do one. Also, Harrisburg Dairies has been involved in other events like this, but this was likely their largest one-day, one-location event.

“We learned that people will give whatever they can to support something like this,” she says.

Leese’s advice for others includes: Overplan your volunteers, have popup tents for shade, wear gloves and masks.

“When you are standing there giving something to people, you can still smile with your eyes and be pleasant — even wearing a mask,” says Leese.

“People have been missing interactions, so we wanted to be cheery and welcoming, and people noticed. It helps raise everyone’s spirits,” she reflects.

Leese is grateful to the dairy farmers who had the idea, the many volunteers, and to Franklin Feed and Supply for providing the accommodations and being so helpful.

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Ron Wenger, county Farm Bureau vice president, directed traffic into four lines to keep traffic from backing up onto rte. 11.

She says Farm Bureau first vice-president Ron Wenger, a dairy farmer from Pleasant Hall, was instrumental in figuring out the traffic patterns to make sure they had things flowing well.

“Coming from a farm background, working for a farm and the Farm Bureau, I know what farmers are going through, what they are facing, and it’s not pretty. Yet a portion of the donations came directly from dairy farmers, and they were out here to share and to give and to protect people. To see the community respond in such a positive way to this outpouring from the dairy farmers was gratifying.

“People understood that they were getting something good for them from farmers who care for them, so we got some kind of understanding happening here,” she observes.

“Now the question is how to hold on to that, and make it flourish.”

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Whole Milk Gallon Challenge: Titusville couple uses ‘stimulus’ payment to bless, educate, inspire

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Jake and Casey Jones wanted to bless and educate their community with a Whole Milk Gallon Challenge they hope will inspire others.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 8, 2020

TITUSVILLE, Pa. – Whole Milk Gallon Challenge? It’s not a milk-chugging contest. It’s a way to bless the community, support local farms, educate the public, involve the school district, and get people talking about the choice of whole milk for healthy kids, healthy families, healthy communities.

Jake and Casey Jones of Titusville, Pennsylvania held their first Whole Milk 500 Gallon Challenge at the local middle school last Friday, May 1. They purchased 500 gallons of whole milk from a local bottler and 500 educational handouts through 97 Milk and worked with the Titusville Area School District to set up a drive-through in a parking lot adjacent to where families pick up school meals on Fridays.

The response was overwhelming and the gratitude from the community, humbling.

It all began when the CARES Act passed by Congress resulted in COVID-19 ‘stimulus’ payments to Americans last month. Jake, a territory manager for Mycogen, was still working full time in agriculture and had not been asked to take a pay cut. As the ‘stimulus’ credit showed up in their bank account, they were seeing farms forced to dump milk.

They decided to use the ‘stimulus’ funds to do something that would have an impact on their community and local dairy farms.

Both Jake’s and Casey’s parents have dairy farms, and they are involved in Jake’s parents’ farm. They saw the level of losses, revenue down 30% in a month and down potentially 60% by June. They had previously contacted Farmshine about the whole milk choice in schools petition  and they were seeing schools provide meals during COVID-19 closures.

At first, they thought they could donate whole milk for the school to give out with meals. However, the USDA waivers for that were only in force for the month of April, and the process was complicated. Schools had to prove the fat-free or 1% milk was not available.

“We were frustrated — always hearing reasons why you can’t do this or that, when it comes to milk. We were tired of seeing and accepting roadblocks,” Jake related in a Farmshine phone interview this week. “We decided to find a way to do what we could to impact the situation. We feel incredibly blessed, and this felt like the right thing to do — putting the ‘stimulus’ money to something bigger to hand out a gallon of whole milk separately, but in conjunction with the school lunch system.”

Now they are hoping to inspire others to keep do the same.

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Jake and Casey Jones (left), along with (l-r) student volunteer Joey Banner, Titusville Area School District superintendent Stephanie Keebler, school maintenance manager Garret Rose (front), and Ralph Kerr (not pictured) from Titusville Dairy helped make the Whole Milk Gallon Challenge successful.

In April, one of the first contacts they made was to the Titusville Area School District superintendent Dr. Stephanie Keebler. “We told her our idea, and she immediately jumped on board as one of our biggest supporters,” the couple confirmed.

“Jake reached out to me by email, and it was just amazing, very generous,” said Keebler in a phone interview. “They worked collaboratively with their church (Pleasantville Presbyterian) and the milk board and with our local Titusville Dairy and the manager Ralph Kerr to acquire the milk.”

Keebler coordinated things on the school end to make sure they distributed the whole milk in a way that would not put their foodservice program at risk (low-fat rules) and got building maintenance, Garret Rose, involved to set up the traffic flow for safety.

The school has been serving 450 to 650 individual students’ two meals a day since the COVID-19 closures. Meals are grouped for pickup on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at three locations.

“When you talk about the critical need we have within our community, our foodservice people have been fantastic. They have never taken a day off and there has been no lapse in service for our families,” Keebler indicated.

By Tuesday, April 28, the Joneses had the details set. Keebler used the district’s all-call technology to notify the families of the district’s 1,915 students to let them know about the milk distribution.

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A steady flow of cars came through the Titusville Area middle school parking lot Friday as the Whole Milk Gallon Challenge was set up at the front of the school as meals were picked up at the back.

“As families drove in the back through the bus loop for the meals, we reminded them to enter the front and follow the driving pattern to where they had the refrigerated truck with the milk,” Keebler related.

Jake and Casey, with two young children at home, were assisted by a student volunteer Joey Banner in handing out the gallons and information cards. He was enthused about the challenge too.

“We are extremely grateful they reached out with this idea. The ease of collaboration between the family and the district pulled off a very successful event. Developing relationships and connecting with the community is vital,” Keebler noted.

On the milk end, Ralph Kerr and the Titusville Dairy team were instrumental, according to Jake. They provided logistics, the refrigerated truck and put them in touch with Marburgers Dairy to arrange the purchase of the milk.

“Once we had the green light, setting up the logistics went fast. We wanted every gallon of whole milk to have a handout with information,” he added. “We wanted to bless and educate at the same time, while building some ground level support for the choice of whole milk in schools.”

Other than the school district’s automated call to student families, the Joneses did not advertise the event. Until Friday.

“We did a facebook post at 10:30 a.m. that morning, knowing the school lunch pickup was set for 11 a.m. By 10:35 a few vehicles were lining up,” Jake explained. “As the first few cars drove through, we told people to let their friends and neighbors know. By 11:00 a.m., we had a big rush, and then it was steady. People were excited and asking questions.”

After the school meal pickup ended at 12:30, traffic hit a lull. That’s when their facebook post and word-of-mouth drove visitors in from the community.

“Grandparents said their grandchildren told them to come see us. People drove through saying neighbors told them or that they saw it on facebook,” Jake reflected. “We had a massive second rush of people, and some asked for extra gallons so they could take to others.”

It was gratifying to see the blessing multiply.

By 3:30, they had given out 408 gallons of whole milk and contacted the local Associated Charities to receive the remaining 92 gallons.

“The director pulled in to pick those up as we were cleaning up. She told us ‘you have no idea how many people ask for dairy products — especially milk.’ She was also excited about the 97 Milk cards, to learn something new about whole milk and to give them out with their meal boxes,” said Jake.

“By the end of the day we were exhausted, but amazed,” said Casey, and by the evening, they heard from someone involved in agriculture who was inspired to provide funding for another Whole Milk Gallon Challenge if Jake and Casey would help with logistics.

“That’s phase two of our mindset, that anyone can do this,” said Jake. “Whether it’s 500 gallons or 200 gallons or 100, or maybe it’s 200 ice cream cones — to be creative and give not just based on financial need, but as something positive, uplifting and informative for the community.”

While they were distributing, parents were already posting their appreciation on social media. Jake and Casey updated everyone with a post later that day, and it spread through over 200 shares, nearly 500 likes and over 100 comments in short order. Local families contacted them with thanks, and children sent cards.

“Seeing the gratitude, that’s when it hit us,” Casey observed. “This was impactful, and it touched people.”

“It was based on the spirit of things, not the money or financial need, but something positive that everyone could be excited about and thankful for, because it was cool and different,” Jake added. “Handing out the 97 Milk cards (item #400 at the download area at 97milk.com) with each gallon of whole milk was pretty powerful. We saw people mesmerized, looking at them.”

All printable items at 97milk.com have the cost and printer contact information noted. The Joneses ordered on a Friday and had them by mail that Tuesday.

The printer even included some extra cards they made available to local stores interested in putting them out.

“What started as a gesture, opened up a ‘conversation’ with the education piece,” Jake related. “If the public is not educated about whole milk, then all the pushing in the world won’t make the choice of whole milk in schools happen.”

“We want to keep things happening in this town, and it can happen elsewhere,” Casey suggested.

“That’s the challenge,” Jake added. “If someone picks up the idea into other towns, states, with heavier population. Maybe a few families, a business, a group, take on the Whole Milk Gallon Challenge together and build some interest to get schools and families talking.”

Most important, said Jake: “If you are feeling you want to do something but think you can’t do enough, just do what you can. If a handful of people each do a little something – together — in a lot of different places, a lot can be accomplished.”

His advice? First, contact a local bottler. “Google to find a plant in your area or region. Start there. It was very easy once we talked to the people at Titusville Dairy and Marburgers,” Jake advised. “By using a local bottler, the local community gains more bang for your buck in supporting local farms.

“If you are not involved in agriculture and want to do this in your community, ask a local farm where they ship their milk,” Jake suggested.

“Many farms have facebook pages, look for one in your area and contact them that way about milk bottlers in the area,” Casey added.

Other advice: Call an area food bank or charity ahead of time to have a place for remaining milk. Pre-set the hours to a tighter window, like 11 to 2. Start publicizing 4 to 5 days in advance. And work with your local school district.

“Schools have big parking lots with traffic patterns already in place, and they can help you set up a safe flow of traffic and a way of communicating it to families in the district,” Jake said. “Plus, getting the school involved — superintendent, building manager, foodservice — increases awareness and gets them thinking and talking about whole milk.”

“It has to be whole milk with the educational component for the long-term impact,” said Casey. “Our mindset was to buy the milk and give it away, along with the information.”

“Let people know this is as much a gift as an educational thing, and that all are welcome to receive,” Jake concluded. “Don’t be intimidated by a number, just do what you can.

“We would challenge all of us to do what we can because we can all be doing more.”

To contact Jake and Casey Jones for information and advice to do a Whole Milk Gallon Challenge, email them at Jake.t.jones46@gmail.com

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May 1, 2020 was ‘food heroes’ day — a national day to honor school nutrition personnel. In Titusville, Pa., cars had brightly colored signs of thanks for their every day food heroes at the school preparing meals for pickup, and for the milk heroes providing gallons of whole milk to their community.

‘Hearts full.’ Whole Milk Donation Drive-through tops 7400 gallons in New Holland

As stores raise prices and limit sales, while farmers are forced to dump milk and see their prices fall to historic lows, many respond with dairy purchases for donation drive-throughs. This example in New Holland provided whole milk from farm to table with love. It was a beautiful blessing to see…

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By Sherry Bunting, preview of Farmshine cover story for May 1, 2020

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — At a time like this, we all need good news. Brothers Mike and Karl Sensenig of Sensenig’s Feed Mill, New Holland, Pennsylvania started thinking about the concerns of farmers and people in their communities during this Coronavirus pandemic. They couldn’t understand why farmers were having to dump milk with nowhere for it to go, while stores had limits on purchases or empty shelves and higher prices.

So, they did the one thing they could do… They gave.

We wanted to give back to our community — and the shelters and missions and food pantries — while helping support our family farm customers at the same time,” the brothers said.Sensenig-4851The idea started coming together two weeks ago. Many of the feed mill’s dairy farm customers in eastern Lancaster County ship their milk to Clover Farms Dairy, a bottling plant in Reading. The Sensenigs spoke with Brian Ohlinger at Clover and put together a purchase order for a tractor trailer load of over 4000 gallons of whole milk for donation.

That number quickly grew to 5200 gallons as word of the plans for a Whole Milk Donation Drive-Through “From Farm to Table with Love” quickly spread through phone calls and social media.

Mike’s wife Nancy fielded over 150 calls with groups and individuals wanting to pre-order for families in need. The entire company — all of the employees — were involved. They amassed a list of over 25 outreach organizations pre-ordering hundreds of gallons to distribute from New Holland to Lancaster to Reading and Allentown, including notables like Water Street Mission, Blessings of Hope, Crossnet, Crossfire, Petra, Safehouse, Good Samaritan and other ministries, churches, shelters, town and company food banks, fire companies, nursing homes, youth centers — so many organizations.

The Sensenigs saw the need and desire for whole milk growing, and they quickly realized even this would not be enough. So, they worked with Clover to get a second single-axle truck of 1152 gallons.

Cars lined up early on the first day of the Whole Milk Donation Drive-through (Apr. 23), while trucks were loaded with bulk orders for charities. The drive-through lines were opened ahead of schedule, and within the first 30 minutes, they had already served around 100 cars.

If this pace kept up, the Sensenigs feared they would run out. So, they called Clover again, and within two hours, a third truck arrived on the premises with another 1100 to 1200 gallons. 

All told, Sensenig’s Feed Mill had purchased 7,476 gallons of milk for donation so supplies would last through both days of drive-through times.

Two generations of the family — Karl, Mike, and Mike’s sons Kyle and Kurt, along with employees Devin Shirk, Steve Morris, Greg Hill, Curtis Hershey, and Lee Stoltzfus loaded vans, trucks, and cars with fresh gallons of whole milk, while Mike’s wife Nancy and employee Dawn Wright directed cars through the M&T Bank parking lot into two lines on either side of the truck and tent.

Even Karl and Mike’s parents Ken and Sandy drove over to watch.

Sensenig-4914They are quick to point out that this would not have been possible without their employees. “This isn’t just us,” he said. “Everyone was excited to do this and to be involved.” The family’s feed mill is celebrating its 75th year in New Holland.

Also wanting to make an impact, a group of concerned citizens affiliated with M&T Bank joined their neighbors in the parking lot — bringing 150 dozen eggs and 50 fresh-baked loaves of bread from Achenbach’s Bakery, Leola.

Sensenig-4786Kurt Sensenig even donned an inflatable cow costume at the start, before he was called back to the feed mill.

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“We have been overwhelmed by the response since we first started taking pre-orders to gauge how much milk we would need. Then the steady stream of people just driving through was amazing. There is so much emotion,” said Mike.

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“This brings home the reality of how many people are struggling right now. And it shows how many people LOVE WHOLE MILK!” said Karl. “Some who drove through the line had tears in their eyes. It seems like something so little. Then you realize how it helps so much, and it shows us how much we can take for granted.”

He tells of a grandmother who drove through with her two grandchildren she is raising. She tentatively asked if she could have two gallons. “I said, ‘you can have more if you need it,’” Karl reflected. “She wondered if it’s not too much trouble, she would use four gallons. I said, ‘sure!’ What she said next really got to me: ‘Now my grandkids can have milk with their cereal.’”

Cereal is a popular item for food bank distribution, but milk is hard to come by, especially whole milk.

One person drove through, saying they had stopped at their usual store to buy milk, but found no whole milk, so they came to Whole Milk Donation Drive-Through and took home four gallons.

Many veterans in the area came through and were grateful for the whole milk they accepted with smiles. Drive-through crews, in turn, thanked them for their service.

Sensenig-4903The bottom line for the Sensenigs and their employees was to bless others even as they believe they are blessed; to do something positive for their community; to help dairy farmers by connecting dots to get whole milk to missions, food banks and families; to bring smiles to young and old during uncertain times that have changed life as we know it.

“We have many dairy farm families as our customers, and we see the milk they have been forced to dump in the past few weeks due to supply chain disruptions while at the same time stores limiting purchases of milk or having little or no whole milk on the shelves,” said Mike. “Clover gave us a price for just the milk, and they packed the first two orders in boxes for us and provided the refrigerated trucks to stay here two days.”

“It takes teamwork,” said Karl. As part of the loading crew, he and his brother were busy all day in constant motion, unloading skids, opening boxes, loading trucks and trunks, and handing out gallons to appreciative people as they drove through.

“I’ll sleep good tonight,” said Karl.

Mike agreed: “Our minds and bodies are exhausted, but our hearts are full.”

The community of farmers and citizens thank all involved! This scene being repeated in other communities is a beautiful thing to see.

Sensenig-4869Others have stepped up doing similar milk donations. Some businesses have bought 500 gallons to give to employees and food banks; one couple in western Pennsylvania feeling blessed to still be working in agriculture are using their stimulus check to buy 500 gallons of whole milk to donate in a drive-through next week at their school; young farmer clubs and other organizations are working with milk cooperatives and processors to donate and raise funds for dairy donation drive-throughs in other parts of Pennsylvania, New York, the Southeast and elsewhere. Some are set up weekly, with people giving donations as they pick up milk and dairy products that are then used the next week to purchase more for donation.

Meanwhile, many store chains are raising prices and limiting purchases to shoppers for milk and dairy products on their sparsely stocked shelves, claiming a shortage, even as farmers are receiving letters that they must cut production because their product “has no demand,” and they are seeing the price they are paid for their milk fall by more than 35% in just four weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing how the centralized supply chain is broken — not making the shift from foodservice to retail. Drive-through donation deals like this one, connect the dots at a more localized level so families get access to the milk and dairy products — especially whole milk — that they need want, while helping outreach organizations distribute to the growing number of families facing unemployment and business closures.

On Friday, April 24th, as the New Holland Whole Milk Donation Drive-Through came to a close, 97 Milk LLC — a grassroots volunteer milk education effort — announced on facebook a fundraising collaboration with Blessings of Hope food pantry mission. The new campaign specifically raises funds to purchase whole milk gallons for the ongoing blessing boxes to families in a 200-mile radius of the Blessings of Hope warehouse in Leola, Pa.

Dozens of dairy-related agribusinesses already sponsor the grassroots farmers’ 97 Milk education effort, which began a little over a year ago with a round bale painted by Berks County, Pa. farmer Nelson Troutman with the words Drink Whole Milk (virtually) 97% Fat Free.  (Whole milk is standardized to 3.25% fat). Such ‘baleboards’ now dot the countryside, along with banners, vehicle signs, a website, facebook page and other social media platforms (97milk.com and @97milk on facebook and instagram; @97milk1 on twitter).

As for the new 97 Milk / Blessings of Hope Whole Milk fundraiser, the response has been immediate. Within the first hour of announcing it on facebook Friday — $4100 had already been raised to keep purchasing whole milk for blessing boxes. Check it out here.

WholeMilkDonationDriveThrough4834Postcript: Karl and Mike Sensenig wish to recognize the mill’s entire team of employees for making the April 23-24 Whole Milk Donation Drive-Through possible: In addition to Karl, Mike, Kurt, Kyle, Scott, Emily and Nancy Sensenig, employees Calvin Buckwalter, Dale Clymer Jr., Ryan Crowther, Raymond Geiter III, Ashley Gesswein, Jared Grosh, Tim Hall, Curtis Hershey, Greg Hill, Dr. Don Jaquette, Joshua Kenderdine, Gerald Martin, Lawrence Martin, Nathan Martin, Steve Morris, Todd Morris, Steven Oberholtzer, Ron Phippen Jr., Devin Shirk, Eugene Shirk, David Stauffer, Allen Steffy, Terry Tshudy, Dwayne Weaver, Elmer Weaver, John Weaver, Logan Weaver, Nelson Weaver, Thomas Weaver and Dawn Wright were all involved. Even the previous generation to run the feed mill — Ken and Sandy Sensenig — came out to watch.

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The Sensenigs and their employees are happy to be part of something that blesses others, to see it multiplied, to see people appreciate whole milk, and to know what their customer dairy farm families produce is in demand. These efforts are uplifting and make a difference.
More links to stories on this and other efforts:

 

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

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

By Sherry Bunting as published in July 20 Farmshine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Copacking helps Cedar Dream creamery get established

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gift of life, keeps giving

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Justin, Claire, Reese, 10, Brinkley, 8, and Tripp, the dog, by the Christmas tree on a December afternoon just 3 weeks after the kidney transplant that gives Reese a new lease on life. Tucked in under the tree is Reese’s beloved cat Jack. Reese is quite enthusiastic about her four-legged friends, be they Holstein dairy cattle or house pets. Photo by Sherry Bunting 

 

‘Reese shows us you can have tragedy in your life and still move on and be full of life and hope for the future.’

 By Sherry Bunting, reprinted from Farmshine, Friday, December 15, 2017

MERCERSBURG, Pa. — Cheese ball is back on the menu this Christmas at the Burdette house on Corner Road outside of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. It’s among the favorite foods that Reese Burdette has had to forgo for nearly four years to be easy on her damaged kidneys as she recovered from the May 2014 house fire.

That, along with hash brown casserole and all the yummy goodness of dairy foods, potatoes, orange juice and bananas — essentially nutritious foods high in vitamins such as potassium. In fact, so happy is Reese about bananas, Claire believes she’s eaten a tree full already.

Not only is Reese happy to be eating these foods again, “I hope to start growing again too!” the smiling 10-year-old said during my visit to Windy-Knoll View farm last Thursday.

While she has forged ahead on this journey on every front, it was the kidney transplant everyone knew Reese would eventually need that was hanging out there on the horizon. Justin and Claire Burdette learned in September that their daughter was in renal failure. She had been doing so well, so the timing was a bit of a shock.

Many people had already been tested as live donors — from friends and family members to colleagues in the dairy industry. But who would think that the “angel” sent into Reese’s life would be a friend of a cousin by marriage who had met Reese one time, a young, single woman with a heart of gold and willing to go through the surgery to donate a kidney to give Reese the vitality of life this ‘tuff girl’ has been fighting for.

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Ahead of the kidney transplant surgery, Reese’s aunt Laura Jackson updated on social media describing Alyssa as selfless, inspirational, courageous and beautiful with a giving spirit that is truly admirable. “Her love of children and animals led her right to us because right now, Reese does need some extra help,” wrote Laura. What many may not realize is that this gift of a new kidney comes from a woman “who loves her family and just wants to make a difference in this crazy world we live in… What this beautiful soul has offered up is a very different kind of life for Reese… the chance to be a normal 10-year-old with a chance to grow.”  Photo credit Bre Bogert Photography

Through the selfless generosity of Alyssa Hussey, 32, of Winchester, Virginia, a special education teacher with the Loudoun County Public Schools, the successful kidney transplant took place at Johns Hopkins on November 20. Not only are they both home and doing well, Reese was released just five days after the surgery, getting her home just after Thanksgiving and far sooner than imagined.

The two were expecting to have a visit at the farm this week, and Reese said she is anxious to show her hero around to see her growing little herd of 12 Holsteins, not to mention the five calves her sister Brinkley has accumulated among the Windy-Knoll View herd of top registered Holsteins.

Ahead of the transplant surgery, Reese’s aunt Laura Jackson updated on social media to say:

“What many may not realize is what this beautiful soul has offered up is a very different kind of life for Reese, a chance at a life with more quality and abundance, of water parks, river swimming, better health and the chance to be a normal 10-year-old with a chance to grow.”

Alyssa has given Reese the ultimate gift — the gift of life.

“We are relieved to have faced this. We knew it was coming. We just didn’t think it would be now. But what a blessing,” Justin reflects. “This kidney transplant would not be possible without someone like Alyssa. It’s proof that living donors are out there and we found one that we had ties to and never knew.”

Claire says that, “It’s hard to fathom someone willing to give our child their kidney and we barely knew her. But she didn’t think twice. We are beyond grateful.”

Burdettes_Dec2017-14 (1)It was a regular day on the farm when I arrived just as Reese was finishing school via the virtual robot — a necessity as she avoids large indoor crowds for the next 100 days since the transplant. Her younger sister Brinkley was just getting off the school bus. We had an hour to talk before Justin headed out to milk, driving down Brinkley and Reese Way, the dirt roads across the field between their house and the farm. The late afternoon sun, as the farm’s name suggests, broke through cold windswept clouds in the gap of the south mountains.

 

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Three weeks after her kidney transplant, Reese looked forward to the annual sleigh ride in Greencastle last Friday evening with grandparents Jim and Nina Burdette. While she must avoid indoor crowds for 100 days, the outdoor Christmas festivity was high on her list of things to look forward to. Facebook photo.

At the kitchen table, the topic of conversation centered on the many things Reese was already reintroducing into her life since the transplant, the goals she and her mother Claire have set, and the activities she is looking forward to – not the least of which was a trip to Greencastle Friday evening for the annual horse-drawn sleigh ride with her Momo and Papap (Jim and Nina Burdette).

What is it about Reese’s story that has inspired such a far-reaching interest and impact? People write and call and follow her progress from near and far. It’s a story of faith, hope and the determination to live life to the fullest, to overcome challenges and setbacks, to never give up, never let go of the rope and to keep moving forward in a matter-of-fact way with fierce strength, raw honesty, family love and accountability filtered by the wisdom of a 10-year-old’s keen sense of humor.

Justin notes that they had a visit not long ago from a Canadian couple who keep in touch often to see how Reese is doing. They traveled to Pennsylvania just to visit her, amazed by her journey after nearly two years at Johns Hopkins recovering from the fire. This dairy farming couple had been through a barn fire and had dealt with animal losses that were depressing. Knowing Reese, seeing her, has made a difference in their world.

They are but one example of hearts Reese has helped to heal through her own example.

They are among the many who have written the Burdettes about what Reese’s story means to them, and what her journey has done for them in their own circumstances. Claire explains that, at first, these responses were hard to realize and digest because so many have done so much for Reese and their family that they felt they were leaning on others only to learn that others were finding support also in them.

Reese-Brinkley-Sleigh(FacebookPhotoProvided)“I think what Reese shows us is that you can have tragedy in your life and still move on and be full of life and hope for the future. I think that is what Reese has done for people,” Claire explains.

Healing and support going both ways – a lifeline — gifts that keep giving.

In like manner, the kidney donated by Alyssa Hussey is new hope transplanted, a gift that keeps giving in a young girl with a second chance.

Justin and Claire also had high praise for their summer intern who came back to help at the farm so they could be with Reese, worry-free, in the hospital for the transplant. Mikey Barton is the grandson of Ken Main of Elite Dairy and Cutting-Edge Genetics in Copake, New York. He had served as an intern last summer at Windy-Knoll View, and when he heard about the upcoming kidney transplant for Reese, he came down to help take care of things.

“We are so blessed,” the Burdettes said, describing the bond Mikey has made with their family. “Blessed that he comes back to see us and that he would take his time off to come down here so we could focus on Reese.”

 

Justin was quick to point out that he got back to the farm Wednesday to be sure to have Mikey home with his family for Thanksgiving, and that Mikey made time to drive the two hours south to see Reese in the hospital before heading north back to New York.

“We felt we have learned as much from Mikey as he has learned from us through this internship experience,” said Claire. “It has been a neat connection. He knows our routine and we didn’t have to worry about things at home for those few days.”

The Burdettes also credit the support of their local community and the dairy community from the beginning. Flannery’s Tavern on the Square in Mercersburg hosted a Team Reese fundraiser a week before the kidney transplant to help with medical and related expenses with the restaurant donating 15% of the days sales and providing a room for 75 silent-auction items donated and bid on by the greater community.

For the Burdettes, it has been the physical outpouring that accompanies the financial support of others that has lifted them up. To see a Team Reese fundraiser pack the local restaurant from open to close shows how much Reese has lived up to her nickname as “Mercersburg’s daughter.” When she and Brinkley walk into Flannerys, as they do once a week, people cheer. No price can be put on that physical show of support.

Every effort to this point has come together toward a life that will be much different for Reese now. No lines to tether her. No long trips for dialysis.

Clair confirms the doctors are very happy with her progress and her bloodwork looks good. Her main job in the next 100 days is to stay healthy and drink lots of fluids for that new kidney.

High on Reese’s list of “new” is fewer shots, fewer medicines, and working on giving up the tracheotomy for supplemental oxygen.

She is pretty excited about her Dad’s promise of a trip to Great Wolf Lodge where a waterpark is in her future.

“I can’t wait to bathe in that waterpark and get Brinkley soaked!” she says with a laugh.

But first she needs to reach the point in her journey where the trach is no longer needed. Now that the kidney transplant has occurred, there will be sleep studies and trials to be sure the timing is right to close the trach, and then the watersports and other activities will beckon. Reese already gave up the constant companion of traveling oxygen last Easter when she wanted to be outside with the other kids for a longer period of time, and decided on her own, she didn’t need it.

Reese has set a goal to attend the Pennsylvania Junior Holstein Convention in Lancaster in February. Mom’s goal is to get her through the next three months away from crowds to be strong and healthy into this next chapter of her journey.

Because we all know what comes next. There are calves to work with and cows to care for and in addition to a new calf Cream Cheese from her Carrie cow, named after the child life specialist who has been inspirational on this journey, there are the new gals from her Pantene line, like Potato Chip and Pretzel.

Reese and Brinkley talk excitedly about their cattle as they rattle off names and pedigrees.

But the cow work will have to wait, except for drive-throughs this winter. Instead, Reese is happy to be making and eating some of her favorite dishes. This week she made sticky buns with her Momo and a repeat favorite meal – sloppy joes.

She says, “No more driving to dialysis and getting home late at night!” That all ended on November 21 along with the line in her belly and the constant hemoglobin shots.

The people who have stuck with Reese from the beginning continue to be there in large ways and small. A woman in town still sends Reese a card every week, just as she has since May 2014.

As for the Christmas celebration, her second at home since the fire, Reese has big plans. She shared her small, but typical 10-year-old’s list for Santa and the family traditions she looks forward to. To avoid contact with crowds, she’s shopping by internet, and she’s pretty excited that on Christmas Eve, she will be helping her Momo prepare the dinner.

For Claire and Justin, having their daughter home with her new kidney for Christmas is the greatest gift of all.

“There is so much good in this world,” Justin affirms. “We just have to look for it.”

One place to look is the inspiration of little Reese Burdette.

Correspondence can be sent to Reese Burdette, 8656 Corner Road, Mercersburg, PA 17236. Financial contributions or fundraisers for Reese and her family, can be sent to “We Love Reese” First Community Bank, 12 S. Main St., Mercersburg, PA 17236.

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Love and hope, transplanted. Hearts full of thanks for gift of life

Reese and kidney donor Alyssa are recovering from Monday’s transplant

Reese&AlyssaBy Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, November 24, 2017, Photo courtesy Bre Bogert Photography

BALTIMORE, Md. — At this season of Thanksgiving and gift-giving, it is a precious gift for Reese Burdette that has her and her family, friends — and all who have followed her journey back from the fire — especially thankful for the selfless generosity of another.

After nearly two years at Johns Hopkins from the May 2014 fire, Reese returned home to the family’s Windy Knoll View dairy farm, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, in March of 2016. Since then, she has accomplished goals she set for herself, such as getting back to school with her friends and showing her cattle at the All-American. She had returned to an active life this year, improving every day.

But just before the All-American in September, her journey hit a rough spot. She was admitted to Johns Hopkins, where she and her family learned that Reese was in the final stages of renal failure and would need a kidney transplant.

The news was a shock. It seemed impossible. She was doing so well.

Reese returned home. Put her game face on. Showed her cattle at the All-American in Harrisburg. And everyone prayed for a miracle. Finding a match for Reese would be difficult, the doctors had said.

Enter Alyssa Hussey, 32, of Winchester, Virginia, a special education teacher with the Loudoun County Public Schools.

She is a friend of a cousin by marriage to sisters Claire Burdette, Reese’s mother, and Laura Jackson of Waverly Farm Jerseys. She had been among the friends and family tested to find a match. Alyssa had met Reese a few times before the fire and had followed her recovery after.

“Being around her and seeing that she’s such a sweet little girl just made me want to try and help,” a humble Alyssa told the Chambersburg Public Opinion in a story published over the weekend before the transplant surgery on Monday, November 20.

The seven-hour surgery to remove one of Alyssa’s kidneys and do the transplant Reese desperately needed began at 7 a.m. at Johns Hopkins after a celebratory time between family and friends and medical staff, Sunday evening.

“What a blessed day it has been,” wrote Laura Jackson, Reese’s aunt, in an update Monday afternoon. “It has been a long day, but a good day. Donor Alyssa is now recovering in her room. Bless her for all she has been through. From what we are told, Alyssa’s kidney is large and healthy.

“Reese is in recovery. Her surgeon was very pleased with how the surgery went. As always, Reese rocked her surgery and handled it very well. Now we wait to see if the new kidney kicks in. Pray that this new healthy kidney takes over and learns to love its new home,” Laura said further.

Reese will spend the next 100 days recovering at home and will attend her school class via the video robot she used when she first came home in March of 2016.

For her part, Alyssa told the Public Opinion: “I grew up (and) I didn’t have any issues or problems when I was a kid, so I knew what it was like to do all those normal kid things.

“I can only imagine how it would feel to have those taken away, still being so young and not being able to experience some of those things that (Reese is) not able to do right now. So, it’s a great feeling to know that she’s going to get those things back,” Alyssa said.

As she has from the beginning, Laura posted on Facebook about this rough spot in Reese’s journey. She observed that Reese “just wants to be a normal kid.”

But as all know who love and are inspired by her, Reese is an extraordinary 10-year-old. She is wise beyond her years — a ‘tuff girl’ with a big heart and a strong spirit and a determination and sense of humor that gives strength, focus and hope to those around her.

And they give back to her, and the circle continues. So many from across the country and around the world have reached out since May of 2014 to encircle Reese and the Burdette family with prayers, cards, gifts, and financial assistance.

This season, it is the kind and considered offering by someone willing to give a part of themselves — and all that goes with it — that is the gift invoking pure thanks-giving.

“We had a tremendous evening celebrating Reese, Alyssa and many doctors and staff,” wrote Laura in an update Sunday evening before Monday’s surgery. “Tonight, we celebrated life and all that Alyssa is offering to Reese. Pray big tomorrow. Bless these two and all involved.”

As they recover from Monday’s surgery, Reese is prepared to take a step back and build herself back up. She told the Winchester Star in a story published ahead of the surgery that she is looking forward to doing inside things during her recovery, that she loves cooking and baking for her family… but the cows that have inspired her fight to always get back are still inspiring her. This time, the calf a-callin’ is Cream Cheese (so named because she is mostly white).

We at Farmshine offer our heartfelt prayers and thoughts for Reese and her giver Alyssa as they recover. (Laura reports the recovery is going well!)

Correspondence can be sent to Reese Burdette, 8656 Corner Road, Mercersburg, PA 17236. Financial contributions to Reese and her family, can be sent to First Community Bank, 12 S. Main St., Mercersburg, PA 17236. Checks should be made out to “We Love Reese.”

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CAPTION and CREDIT for photo

Photographer Bre Bogert captured this image of giver and receiver ahead of transplant surgery. Alyssa Hussey, 32, is the donor match for the kidney Reese Burdette, 10, needs. Both are recovering at Johns Hopkins where the 7-hour surgeries took place on Monday, November 20. Photo courtesy Bre Bogert Photography

 

Road to recovery

KansasFire4.jpgBy Sherry Bunting April 7, 2017

If there is one thing to come down the road of recovery from a tragedy in agriculture, it is the sense of community that agriculturalists make business-as-usual. It is the matter-of-fact way in which people are prompted to help each other, and the humility with which help is offered that allows proud and self-reliant fellow farmers and ranchers to accept.

All know that livelihoods and legacies are on the line, pending the external forces that cannot be controlled, and that, in an instant, a storm, fire, or other natural disaster could change everything.

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While driving through Ashland and Englewood, Kansas on Saturday heading back to Pennsylvania from other work in the Midwest, the post-wildfire realities stretched for miles.

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Intermittent wheat pasture is credited with saving hundreds of lives.

It was a rain-soaked day, just what the land needs to recover. New life was springing forth, adding lushness to the intermittent wheat pastures that had provided refuge – credited with saving hundreds of human and animal lives as they interrupted the fires that spread rapidly through the dry grasslands and provided a safe haven for evacuees when roads were blocked during the fire.

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Timely rains are softening the charred lands with emerging hints of green, red and gold, framing the wildfire zones as the Painter slowly re-fills this empty palette. Residents say that the rain has helped a lot, and the grasses will explode within the next two weeks in some areas. The hay being sent has been a godsend. And the move by the Trump administration to authorize emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands located in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas – the three states which were most heavily impacted by ongoing wildfires – will help.

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But it is the Sandhills of southwest Kansas that catch your breath. The Starbuck fire — that claimed over 500,000 of the total 711,000 acres burned in Kansas the first week of March — had burned so hot, sinking down through the sandy soil like a sponge, that many wonder if the grasslands will come back more than spotty at best in areas where windswept sand dunes present a desert-like appearance. There are areas with nothing on top, leading to lingering concerns about feeding surviving cattle.

Firefighters noted this was unlike anything they had seen in their 20 to 30 years. They described driving 60 to 70 mph, and being outrun by the fast-moving fire, seeing it move right past them.

Only time will tell how some of the acres will respond to the timely rains.

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One thing is for certain, the help of fellow farmers and ranchers via donations of hay, fencing supplies, work crews, orphaned calf care, and fundraising — all of it represent blessings beyond measure.

As Ashland resident Rick Preisner put it: “Everyone here was shell-shocked at first. Everything changed in an instant. It was difficult to know where to start. Then the help came pouring in and it lifted this community up.”

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Ashland is ‘home’ for Roddy Strang with sister Rhonda at Gardiner Angus, where their father worked 26 years.

“No one here is saying no to the hay that’s been coming,” said Roddy Strang. “They know they will need feed for a while here.” Strang trains horses and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania with his wife and children, but he grew up in Ashland around the Gardiner Angus Ranch, where his father worked for 26 years.

Not only did he fill his livestock trailer with 250 compact alfalfa bales and some fencing for the trip “home” to the annual Gardiner Angus production sale Saturday (April 1), he helped connect the dots for Lancaster County dairy farmer Aaron Hess of Hess Dairy in Mount Joy and his neighbor Arlyn Martin. Martin drove the 1500 miles last week with a load of 36 large square bales from Hess, along with 1800 fence posts and 91 rolls of barbed wire the men procured with funds they had raised and with many companies offering equipment and supplies free or with discounts.

They worked with Kevin Harrop, of Harrop Hay and Bale, Exton. Harrop grew up on a dairy farm and today runs a hay brokering and custom harvesting business in southeast Pennsylvania. Between Harrop and James Hicks of Meadow Springs Farm, they filled another truck with 42 large square bales. Harrop and Martin set out for Kansas early last week, delivered the hay and fencing to Ashland Cooperative Feed and Seed by Wednesday, and were home by Saturday.

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For Strang, the mission was personal. He stayed for the Gardiner Angus sale Saturday, where a few cows were purchased for the return trip to Virginia.

For those involved with the donations from southeast Pennsylvania — as for the numerous others organizing convoys over the past three weeks from Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, northwest Pennsylvania, and more — the mission to bring hay to fire-torn regions in four states was something they didn’t really think twice about. And it is something they don’t want recognition for.

The only fanfare being given to these hay donations is the sentiment of “God Bless America.” As Harrop explains it: “We saw it the Facebook posts, and we knew people out there, so we called to see what was going on and to figure out exactly what they would need,” he said in a phone call from the road last week.

Harrop put it best when he explained that people helping out do not want publicity or pats on the back for their own sakes, but they sure don’t mind if others share and publicize what they are doing for the sake of showing the world how farmers and ranchers network and move forward to get things done.

“In a small way, we just want to help keep this network going,” said Harrop. “The need is great in the wildfire zone. The mainstream media and the government are ignoring this. Farmers all over the country have responded.”

In fact, hundreds of trucks with hay and fencing and other needed supplies have poured into the affected areas of southwest Kansas, eastern Colorado and the Texas-Oklahoma Panhandle region. While some areas are saying they have enough hay, for now, southwest Kansas is particularly hard hit in this regard, and people are thankful for the trucks that continue to come – 200 of them, in fact, last Saturday, alone. The list of states represented is too numerous to be sure to acknowledge them all. Relief organizers say they have received calls from over 20 states. Plans are also underway for moving 1000 large bales that have been donated in Greene and Washington counties, Pennsylvania in the near future.
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“That is their lives out there. That’s what they do, and it’s not like they have a lot to fall back on,” said Aaron Hess after securing a load of large bale hay from his dairy onto Arlyn Martin’s truck. “I was just seeing the posts on Facebook, so I called up the Ashland co-op and they put me in touch with the guy in charge. I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

Teams of volunteers have helped remove damaged fencing. Crews, tools and materials to re-fence perimeters are the priority now.

Strang notes that the recipients are amazed by the outpouring of people wanting to come out to the middle of nowhere and help. “It is emotional,” he admitted. “There are some good people in a bad way. They aren’t going to ask for the help, but we see the need and we know if it were us, they would help.”

Even in this time when agriculture is taking such a severe economic hit, people step up. That’s how agriculture rolls.

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(Above) “From the Ashes” artwork displayed Saturday by Joel Milford of Fowler, Kansas from a photo captured by Cole Gardiner as he found this cow and her newborn calf a day or two after the fire. Milford’s painting was auctioned Saturday during the Gardiner Angus production sale, raising $35,000 and prints are still being sold for $200 each to benefit the wildfire relief efforts of the Ashland Community Foundation. Nearly 100 prints have been sold thus far. To purchase a print for wildfire relief, contact Jan Endicott, at the Stockgrowers Bank in Ashland, Kansas at jan@stockgrowersbank.com or 620-635-4032. Prints are $200 plus $15 shipping and 6.5% Kansas state sales tax. 

How you can help

Wildfire relief organizers are indicating that the best way for distant donors to help is to provide monetary donations for transporting nearby hay and resources to the areas affected by the wildfires.

Supplies and funding for the volunteer care of orphaned calves is also requested. Follow the progress of 4-Hers and other volunteers caring for these calves at Orphaned Calf Relief of SW Kansas.

In addition, auctions are being organized to benefit wildfire funds. For example, a heifer donated by Oklahoma West Livestock Market was auctioned 105 times on March 8 to garner $115,449 with proceeds going to the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief Fund. Similar ideas are creating a ripple response throughout the agriculture community and can be replicated anywhere. Visit Livestock Marketing Association  for these auction notes and efforts.

Trent Loos at Rural Route Radio is helping to organize this idea to fund the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the fire-ravaged areas of the High Plains through means of raising cash. For information about how to participate in this and to find a list of upcoming auctions, as well as how to set one up, contact Trent Loos at (515) 418-8185.

To give supplies and trucking or to donate funds to foundations for direct wildfire relief, contact the state-by-state resources below.

Kansas

Monetary donations: Ashland Community Foundation/Wildfire Relief Fund at www.ashlandcf.com or P.O. Box 276, Ashland, KS 67831. The Kansas Livestock Association/Wildfire Relief Fund at 6031 SW 37th St., Topeka, KS 66614.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Call Ashland Feed and Seed at (620) 635-2856. (Ashland Feed and Seed is also taking credit card orders over the phone for feed and milk replacer or other supplies for ranchers in the area.)

Texas

Monetary donations: Texas Department of Agriculture STAR Fund.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Ample hay has been received for two to three weeks, so call to see if and when more is needed. Fencing supplies are needed, which can go to the Agrilife supply points. Contacts are J.R. Sprague at (806) 202-5288 for Lipscomb, Mike Jeffcoat at (580) 467-0753 for Pampa, and Andy Holloway at (806) 823-9114 for Canadian.

For questions about donations or relief efforts, contact Texas A&M Extension at (806) 677-5628.

Colorado

Monetary donations: Colorado Farm Bureau Foundation Disaster Fund at 9177 E. Mineral Circle, Centennial, CO 80112 and visit http://coloradofarmbureau.com/disasterfund/

Hay, trucking and fencing: Contact Kent Kokes (970) 580-8108, John Michal (970) 522-2330, or Justin Price (970) 580-6315.

Oklahoma

Monetary donations: Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Foundation Fire Relief at P.O. Box 82395, Oklahoma City, OK 73148 or www.okcattlemen.org.

Hay, trucking and fencing donations: Contact Harper County Extension at (580) 735-2252 or Buffalo Feeders at (580) 727-5530.

Other states organizing deliveries

Several states outside of the wildfire area are organizing assistance and deliveries. Find those resources at http://www.beefusa.org/firereliefresources.aspx