Soft rock, cool jazz, artisan cheeses, Miss Pennsylvania and fine wines may not sound like a typical farmer’s night out, but the future of the state’s dairy industry may lie in promotion. By: Marylouise Sholly
So, why not?
The Center for Dairy Excellence Foundation of Pennsylvania recently hosted Divine Dairy Affair, a farm-to-fork gala at the Harvest View Barn in Elizabethtown to raise money for the next generation of Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers.
The gala was geared to supporters of the state’s dairy industry, as well as those interested in art and gourmet foods, said Mary Foote, dairy education program manager with the foundation.
Guests mingled with farmers and dairy producers, sampled dishes prepared with locally grown foods and bid on paintings by Pennsylvania artists in a silent auction.
Organized in 2010, the gala was the first major fundraising event for the foundation, with tickets priced at $100. The money raised goes to support youth dairy education, Foote said.
“Our foundation supports young people through scholarships and internships,” said Jayne Sebright, executive director of the foundation. “We’re trying to inspire the next generation of farmers and this event is a nice way to connect people to dairy farming.”
A complex industry
In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association, the foundation has given $36,000 in scholarships to students who are in agricultural programs, Foote said.
“Dairy farming is increasingly more complex,” Sebright said. “It’s more challenging to farm today; there are tighter financial margins, smaller profits, and farmers are using more complex technology. There are more aspects of farming to manage.”
The foundation board of directors includes farmers and business owners, including representatives from Harrisburg Dairies and The Hershey Company.
Dairy farming is the leading farm focus in Pennsylvania, Foote said.
“It’s a very important industry in the state,” Foote said. “Here in Pennsylvania, we have a lot more farmland than many other states, and we have especially good soil.”
For high school students, the foundation offers its Dairy Leader program, which teaches farming skills to students who want to pursue a career in agriculture.
Its Discover Dairy presentation for elementary school children explains where milk comes from, how cows are cared for, and the importance of good nutrition.
Greg Kowalewski, 21, and Zane Itle, 20, students at Penn State majoring in animal science, received scholarships and participated in internships from the foundation.
Kowalewski grew up working on an uncle’s farm in Susquehanna County. His internship on a New York state farm with a herd of 2,000 dairy cows solidified his plans of becoming a herd manager.
“Working on my uncle’s farm, I found I had a passion for this,” he said. “They (the internship farm) offered me a job as herd manager after school.”
Itle grew up on a dairy farm in Cambria County that also runs a processing operation known as Vale Wood Farms.
“We process and package dairy products and I think we’re the last ones in Pennsylvania that deliver milk door-to-door,” he said.
The foundation’s internship program gave him more dairy experience. “It’s just a better learning environment, seeing what else is out there in the dairy industry,” Itle said.
William Lesher of Way-Har Farms near Bernville was one of the featured speakers at the event. A third-generation farmer, Lesher and his wife, Lolly, milk 250 cows on a 350-acre farm.
The “foodie” movement has pushed public interest in what farmers do, he said. Consumers are paying more attention to where their food comes from and how it is produced.
“We do a lot of consumer education, so this (event) is cool,” he said.
Today’s foodies are a group eager for more information, Lesher added.
Reid and Diane Hoover, are dairy farmers near Annville, Lebanon County. The couple’s sons help in the farming business, and one, Brad, is a partner.
“It’s changed quite a lot,” Reid Hoover said. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing, but it’s a business and prices haven’t been too good, so you have to make some tough decisions.”
“You have to watch how you operate every day, or it will be a failing business,” Hoover said. “I don’t want to sound negative, I do enjoy it, but the current economics make it difficult for that to happen.”
Reid Hoover has been farming all his life, and the couple are members of the Center for Dairy Excellence Foundation.
Without help from their families, it’s difficult for young people to enter the dairy industry, Hoover said.
The big picture
Crop and beef farmer Darwin Nissley of Mount Joy, Lancaster County, also shared concerns.
“We’re trying to educate because it’s really disheartening that kids don’t know where their food is coming from,” Nissley said. “We have the safest food in the world. But people think we’re dumping antibiotics into our cattle all the time.”
Profit margins are too tight to waste money by overmedicating, Nissley added.
He’s also concerned about farmland being lost to development,
“I just hope that someday I don’t eat something that says ‘made in China.’ ”
Farmer Bryan Beck of Clarion County said agriculture is making great strides, largely though technology.
“It’s not about lifting heavy bags or throwing hay bales anymore. Farming is about how many things you can do at once; it’s multitasking,” Beck said.
Consumers can help farmers by buying local, Beck said.
“There’s a disconnection between producers, agriculture and consumers,” Beck said.
“Every day is Earth Day to me; I want the Earth to be better.”
Source: Reading Eagle