‘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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community recovers, rebuilds in week after Lancaster County tornado

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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