LEBANON – About two dozen Lebanon and Lancaster county dairy farmers facing the loss of a major sales contract threw their collective weight Monday into a collective, public appeal aimed at saving their farms.
Their call, springing from a crowded “town hall” meeting at the Lebanon Valley Exposition and Fairgrounds, is for a public letter writing campaign to Dallas-based Dean Foods seeking an extension of the local producers’ sales contract through the end of the year.
Letters can be sent, campaign leaders said, either to Dean’s corporate headquarters in Dallas, or via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Extensions would, the farmers said Monday, give them a fairer chance to either find new buyers for their milk, or evaluate other alternatives for their farms.
The 26 farms were all noticed earlier this month that Dean will be terminating their contracts as of May 31.
Dean, in a statement on the situation, noted it is ending contracts with more than 100 farms in eight states, including Pennsylvania.
The statement blamed a variety of market conditions, including declining milk consumption in the United States and other firms’ entry into the milk processing business – including some leading national retailers – that are depressing its business.
Company spokeswoman Reace Smith was unable to provide specific criteria for how the farms involved in Pennsylvania were selected for termination. (Dean, which processes milk in Lebanon under the Swiss Premium label, will still be working with about 40 South Central Pennsylvania farms after May.)
But Smith added that since the company explored all options before sending its letters, it is highly unlikely any extensions will be granted. “We can’t continue to purchase milk for which there is no demand,” she said.
The Lebanon / Lancaster farmers aren’t giving up.
At a time when Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers generally find themselves on the wrong end of that upside-down market, this feels to them like the worst of worst-case scenarios.
Even if he wanted to leave the business, which he does not, farmer Brent Hostetter of East Hanover Township noted Monday, in the current market he would likely not get good prices for his herd, his equipment or his land.
Hostetter bought his farm in 2010, and is saddled with debt from a series of capital investments.
“With cow prices the way they are, and the milk price the way it is, nothing’s going to sell the way it should,” Hostetter said.
“I can’t imagine being in that situation with our farm,” said Jayne Sebright, executive director of the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence and the operator with her husband of a farm in East Berlin, Adams County.
“Because you can’t turn a business (into a new direction) that quickly.”
There are early indications a few of the affected farms may be picked up by another regional processor, state Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon County, told the group.
A handful of others – especially farms run by older operators – may decide this is the right time to retire.
But the vast majority of the operators are facing what amounts to a direct threat to their livelihoods in the midst of their careers, or on the cusp of passing family farms onto a new generation.
Extensions of the current contracts may or may not help.
But, farmers like Hostetter and other believe, if they can just stay in the game at least until the new 2018-19 school year begins – a point when demand for fluid milk recovers after a traditional summer dip – they will have a better shot.
“This is probably the worst time of year, in spring, you get the spring flush of milk, that other companies are just not looking for milk right now,” said Kirby Horst, another of the affected farmers.
“A lot of these companies are saying that things will probably look a lot different and give us an opportunity to get that contract with someone else, if we have a little more time,” Horst, of Newmanstown, Lebanon County, said.
Without some kind of life-line after May 31, however, these Lebanon and Lancaster farm families are worried they’ll never get that chance.
“I have no idea what the future look like right now for our familiy or our farm,” said Alisha Risser, of South Lebanon Township.
Horst, 58, noted Monday that he has been directly involved in the development of his 55-cow herd for 45 years.
“The thought of all of a sudden in 90 days, if there’s no market for that milk those cows are going to have to go… I’m not sure I’m going to be able to handle that.”
The other clear appeal from the affected farms was not to expose Dean to a boycott. If anything, the farmers said, this is a time to get more people to use more dairy products and “empty the shelves,” so demand for milk starts back up.
By: Charles Thompson