SHENANGO TOWNSHIP – The owners of Canon Dairy can rightfully say their land can be traced back to Benjamin Franklin.
A founding father of the United States and legendary inventor, Franklin never set foot on the farm’s 300 acres in what is now southwestern Mercer County.
But he did sign a sheepskin document concerning the land in 1786, a year before the U.S. Constitution was written. The document officially gave the land to Capt. John Jordan, an artillery officer in the American Revolution, for his service in the war of independence.
Awarding tracts of land was a common way for the government to pay Revolutionary War veterans for their services.
Franklin’s signature was necessary at the time because he was president of the Supreme Executive Council of the Commonwealth. The council served as the executive branch for Pennsylvania from 1777 to 1790.
Canon Dairy’s current owners are the husband-and-wife team of Mark and Marie Canon.
Methods for setting boundaries of local properties at the time weren’t the kind of science Franklin would use.
“You see where the document says the boundaries are the gum here and the white oak tree there,’’ Mark said with a chuckle.
Located on Fetsko Road, the farm is just a few miles from the Ohio border. The couple are the fourth generation of farmers that can be traced to Mark’s ancestry.
The farm was started in 1909 by his great-grandfather – who, in an interesting coincidence, was named Benjamin Franklin Canon. He eventually went into partnership with Mark’s grandfather, Russell Benjamin Canon. Russell took over the operation in 1955.
In 1962 Mark’s father, Leroy, joined Russell, and in 1986 Mark became partners with his father. The farm is now a partnership with Mark and Marie.
Canon is a classic family dairy farm. Of all U.S. dairy farms, 97 percent are family-owned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Pennsylvania that percentage is 99 percent because dairy farms are often passed from one generation to the next.
The family follows one of Franklin’s most famous principles, “Early to bed and early to rise.” Mark typically awakens at 5 a.m. – literally before the chickens.
But his work style has undergone a change due to robotic milking technology. The Canons say they are the first Mercer County dairy farm using this technology. These robots milk cows without the need for human intervention, which would have been an unthinkable notion 50 years ago.
“In the old days it took one person to milk 10 to 12 cows.’’ Mark said. “You would need at least a dozen people to milk the 102 cows we have now.’’
The technology has eliminated the need for hired hands. But make no mistake, humans still must get involved in the process. Cows still must be fed, so Mark has to get the feed to his herd. Also, like other machines, there are times when the computerized system needs to be repaired.
“When a problem happens the system gives me a phone call, day or night,’’ he said. “You learn how to take care of these problems real fast.’’
Despite the improvements in technology, dairy farmers nationwide have been taking it on the chin during the past three years. The price of milk is expected to fall below $16 per hundredweight in the upcoming months, down from an average of $25.49 in 2014 – a drop of more than 37 percent.
It’s become so stressful that Agri-Mark, a New England dairy cooperative, created a suicide-prevention hotline for dairy farmers.
This comes down to basic economics – there’s lots of milk out there.
From 2004 to 2014, the value of U.S. dairy product exports more than quadrupled, and the U.S. became the world’s third-largest dairy product exporter, behind New Zealand and the European Union.
In 2015, as global conditions changed, the value of U.S. dairy exports fell by almost 30 percent. That has resulted in a milk surplus. And farmers such as the Canons aren’t sure when markets will improve.
Still, there are segments of the business that are growing, by small amounts. The clamoring for natural products has given rise to more raw milk being sold.
But there are worries behind this.
Almost all milk pasteurizing is done by heating, which helps kill off dangerous food-borne bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. The Centers for Disease Control has found the likelihood of germs in raw milk is unpredictable. And that’s why the Canons opted not to get into that business.
“We regularly drink raw milk,’’ said Marie. “But the risk of selling it isn’t worth it.’’
All of the farm’s milking cows are holsteins – which are easily recognizable by their distinctive black and white markings. Holsteins are the workhorse of the industry, with more than 90 percent of U.S. milk production coming from that breed, according to the Holstein Association, a trade group.
In spite of the challenges, the Canons plan to keep their farm. And the cherished original deed signed by Benjamin Franklin.
“There isn’t enough money to buy it,’’ Marie said.
By: MICHAEL ROKNICK
Source: Sharon Herald