Dairy Farming On The Decline In Beaver County: “You have to have it in your blood” – BeaverCountian.com

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Shortly after his son was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate in November 2008, Elder Vogel Sr. dropped by Breeze Ridge Farms in Marion Township to see fellow dairy farmer Robert Guidice. He was sulking.

“Well, Bob,” Guidice remembers Vogel Sr. lamenting, “he won. He’s going to Harrisburg.”

Guidice shook his head and chuckled. Wasn’t this victory something to celebrate?

“Your son is a senator,” Guidice reminded his friend.

Vogel Sr. cracked a sheepish smile, but Guidice understood the consternation.

Dairy farming is a family business, both out of necessity and because few outsiders would ever dream of an occupation that requires such dogged dedication. Cows need to be milked twice a day, every day. Mornings began before dawn. There are no vacations, no sick days, no excuses.

“You crawl out of bed when you’re sick, when it’s Christmas morning, when it’s 20 below,” Sen. Elder Vogel Jr. said. “You have to be a little crazy, I guess. You have to have it in your blood.”

So Vogel Jr. knew what it meant when he decided to run for office. His family discussed it at length over Christmas dinner before he launched his campaign. Cows don’t wait for you, even if you’re off doing the important business of the state.

State Senator Elder Vogel Jr. milking a cow at an event in 2018 / photo via Senator Vogel’s official website

They decided that Vogel Jr. would milk on the weekends and on Monday mornings before heading off to Harrisburg, and they’d hire help for the rest of the week. If Vogel Jr. was still serving in the senate when Vogel Sr. was ready to retire, well, then they’d have to decide if the cows were worth keeping.

It wasn’t an easy call. The New Sewickley Township farm has been in the family since 1873, and Vogel Jr. is the fourth generation to work it. But, ultimately, he believed he could do more good drafting the legislation that impacts all Pennsylvania farmers rather than maintaining his family’s single herd.

Because Vogel Jr. anticipated then what has now become evident: Dairy farms are in the midst of a deadly decline. And the knot of problems facing the industry doesn’t come with easy solutions.

First, the would-be next generation of farmers are increasingly opting for less-taxing, off-the-farm work, leaving retiring farmers with no one to inherit the operation. Second, the world’s supply of milk continues to steadily outpace demand, keeping prices so low — about $3.27 per gallon of conventional whole milk — for so long that many farmers are dipping into savings or equity to sustain themselves.

And then there’s the politics. Cows have seemingly, and suddenly, come under bipartisan attack. The Democrats’ Green New Deal hinted that methane-producing livestock will need to be dealt with if the country is to achieve a goal of zero emissions. And President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue recently declared — at a meeting of independent Wisconsin dairy farmers no less — that small dairy farms will continue to die as the country takes a turn toward factory farms.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small get out,” Perdue told reporters.

In the last decade, that’s proven true. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the country has lost more than 17,000 dairy farms in that span. Pennsylvania has been hit particularly hard. Last year alone, the state lost 370 farms, milked 25,000 fewer cows and produced 5.5 % less milk.

Beaver County has not been immune. The family-owned farms that dotted the landscape for more than a century are slowly and quietly shuttering their gates. According to Marburger Dairy Farm Inspector Eric Grabman, the county was once home to 80 dairy farms. Today, there are just 17.

And many of those are fighting to survive, hoping to milk one more generation out of an industry going dry.

“What job can you do for 39 years and still wake up with a smile on your face?” Guidice asked.

A family affair

Several years ago, a velvet-coated Brown Swiss named Pearl escaped a grazing field at Breeze Ridge Farms and wandered onto Ridge Road, where she was hit by a passing car sometime before sunrise. The car sustained little damage given the size of its target and the driver was unscathed, but Pearl was in a bad way.

Guidice found her back in the field, “looking guilty” and bleeding from a wound that ran the length of her chin. He worried she had a broken jaw — a death sentence for an animal that chews cud. The insurance company offered to pay out if Guidice put her down, but Guidice wasn’t ready for that. She was a show cow about 30 days out from birthing a calf.

So he and his wife, Stephani, loaded Pearl into a trailer and drove her 200 miles west to the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, where clinicians took an X-ray that showed a chipped tooth, but an intact jaw. They stitched her up and, one week later, sent her home.

“She gave birth to a perfectly healthy little heifer,” Stephani Guidice said.

The Guidices tell that particular story because it illustrates a stark difference between the factory dairy farm and the family dairy farm. A factory farm, they say, would have taken the insurance money without hesitation and plugged a new cow into the empty milking slot. Factory cows live by their numbers, the ones clipped to their ears and the ones that document how much milk they produce.

Family farms can be more indulgent. When a cow gets sick, they can baby her. If she stops producing milk, they can wait on her.

“Each cow has a name and an attitude,” Robert Guidice said.

And, according to Grabman, each one also has an economic impact of $13,737. It’s not just the milk they produce. It’s the equipment that requires servicing, the driver who picks up the milk, the veterinarian who treats the animals. So when a cow starts to cost more money than she’s making, sometimes, she has to go.

It isn’t easy. At Wallace City Farms in New Sewickley, dairy farmer Alison Raybuck once kept a cow she was particularly attached to for 17 years, even though she didn’t produce any milk for the last three. And when Raybuck has to make the difficult decision to get rid of a cow, she refuses to load it onto the trailer. She makes her brother do it.

“It’s too hard,” Raybuck said. “You put a cow on a truck and you just cry.”

Like most farms in Western Pennsylvania, Wallace City is family owned and small, milking just 46 cows and keeping a herd of about 90. Though their father, who purchased the farm from his mother, technically owns the operation, Raybuck and her sister, Laura Miles, operate the milking barn.

“We want our kids to be able to take over someday,” Miles said.

But they’re growing increasingly concerned that day will never come. Right now, their grown children have solid, off-the-farm jobs — bricklayer, welder, borough employee — and though they pitch in after work and on the weekends, the financial risks that come with milking full time are just too great. The price of milk is not keeping pace with operating costs (the electric bill alone is more than $900 per month). The open fields where they grow corn, beans, rye and hay (a cow can consume about 100 pounds of hay and 20 pounds of grain a day) are rapidly being sold off to developers. Some years, Marburger’s quality milk bonus (up to $36,000 for top farmers) is the thing that keeps the farm afloat.

“We’re lucky” Miles said. “We’re dedicated, and we have husbands who work and kids who help us.”

Without that family support and the seasonal, part-time work the women pick up at a local printing shop, they’d likely have to give up milking. And that’s something they don’t want to do. They’ve been milking since they were 12 years old. The sight of a newborn calf still awes them. There are still moments that make waking up at 5:30 and taking three showers a day just to get the smell out of their skin somehow worth it.

One of those moments happens on a crisp morning in October. After the morning milking is complete, Miles meanders through the Wallace City barn. As she turns a corner to check on the calves, Goody, a Holstein weighing in somewhere north of 1,000 pounds, noses her arm like a cat calling for attention. Miles absently rubs her head for a moment.

It is not enough.

Goody grunts, noses again and, when Miles finally turns to stare the cow in the eye, licks Miles’ sweatshirt.

Goody, a Wallace City Farms Holstein / photo by April Johnston

Making it work

Last fall, self-proclaimed chocolate milk connoisseur James Perry, who runs the blog Afoolzerrand.com, traveled to Pennsylvania to taste the wares at 70 dairy farms. When he had completed his cross-state tour, he declared Pennsylvania the chocolate milk capital of the world and Windy Ridge Farms the state’s second-best producer.

It caused something of a run at the Franklin County dairy and store, already known to locals as a prime spot for non-homogenized milk and homemade ice cream.

Chris Fischer opened the store 10 years ago with her husband and two children when milking their herd of Jerseys failed to pay the bills. The store was the dairy farmer’s version of a Hail Mary.

“Do you sell the cows or do you do something else to bring the income?” Fischer said.

Today, the store is thriving. Most weekends, there’s a line ten customers deep. Fischer’s husband and son still work off the farm and the dairy operation still struggles, but they’ve managed to save the farm.

Adaptation and side hustles have become a necessity of dairy farming. Many farms have taken advantage of the state’s loosening of restrictions on liability, allowing them to rent empty barns for weddings and other events. Others have authorized gas companies to build fracking well pads on their properties.

At Breeze Ridge, Robert Guidice created a lucrative side business of breeding, marketing and selling the calves of his Brown Swiss show cows. He recently sold nine bull calves, and a good female calf can bring in $5,000.

But Guidice says one of the biggest factors keeping county dairy farming afloat through these years of turmoil is the dairy buying the product.

“It it wasn’t for Marburger, I don’t know where we’d be,” Guidice said.

Not only does the dairy exclusively buy from local farmers, including 10 in Beaver County, but it goes out of its way to help those farmers thrive, paying the quality bonus and even buying the surplus from farms, like Windy Ridge, that bottle their own product.

Plus, Marburger has employed Grabman as its farm inspector for more than 18 years. Grabman has a lot of empathy for the plight of dairy farmers — he wanted to be one once — so he does what he can to ease strain. He’s not afraid to tangle with misinformed online trolls. (His current pet peeve is the claim that some milk is antibiotic free. “It’s all antibiotic free. Do you know how much we’d get fined if it wasn’t?). When he spots an issue he’d flag during inspection, he lets the the farmer know. Sometimes, he even drags tools out of his truck and fixes it himself, so they don’t have to pay for an expensive service call.

“I say farmers are the poorest millionaires in the world,” Grabman said. “They may have $2 million in assets, but they have a million in liabilities.”

Back in Harrisburg, Vogel Jr., the lone farmer in the state senate and the chair of the Agricultural and Rural Affairs committee, has been authoring legislation that helps with finances on a larger scale. In March, he introduced Senate Bill 478, which offers a tax credit to retiring farmers who lease or sell their land, building or equipment to first-time farmers.

It’s modeled on a piece of legislation from Minnesota and is being replicated across the country in the hope that, as baby boomers retire, the farms they leave behind will remain places of agriculture and not become housing subdivisions.

“Being here and having the farmer’s perspective gives me the power to implement change,” Vogel Jr. said. “Hopefully, the things I’ve done will help the farming industry for years to come.”

Elder Vogel Sr. died in 2016, and Vogel Jr. had to sell the milk cows, but he won’t sell the family farm. He’s carrying on, growing corn and soybeans. In the spring, he’s hoping to buy beef cows.

“I always wanted to farm,” Vogel Jr. said. “Every day was something different. I got to work with my dad and my grandfather every day for years. That’s a special thing.”

This content was originally published here.

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