A two-month scramble involving state agriculture officials, cheesemakers and a Pittsburgh milk company has pulled off the improbable: a chance for several dozen dairy farms in Western Pennsylvania to survive beyond the end of the month.
But even though the dairy farms have found other places to sell their milk after losing a long-time buyer this week, no one seems to be celebrating.
Instead, farm operators are confronting deeper industry problems exposed by the contract terminations, leaving many to wonder how much longer can they keep going with a regimented, back-breaking labor of love that has become more taxing than rewarding.
The latest trouble started in March, when at least 42 dairy farms in Western Pennsylvania — and about 100 farms across eight states — were notified that that Dean Foods, a Dallas-based food distributor, would pull out of its contract on May 30.
Dean Foods’ pullout prompted the state’s dairy industry officials to coordinate widespread meetings between farmers and distributors.
Now, officials believe all but five farms have accepted or are considering offers.
The contract terminations also started something else.
The dairy industry has launched its most coordinated marketing campaign in recent memory to push consumers to drink more locally produced milk. Coinciding with June Dairy Month, the “Choose PA Dairy: Goodness That Matters” campaign will roll out billboards, public service announcements on radio and television, and farmers sharing their personal stories on social media and letters to the editor.
A new website, www.ChoosePADairy.com, features a map that plots milk distributors so consumers can find brands sell local milk.
“This is more pro-active than we’ve been in the past,” said Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence. The Harrisburg-based nonprofit, which has a budget of more than $1 million, provides a range of resources for the dairy industry.
“We’ve never collaborated on an image campaign like this before,” she added. “We pulled it together very quickly.”
Like campaigns before it, the new promotion highlights the economic contributions of the Pennsylvania dairy industry — which includes 6,500 family farms, 52,000 jobs and $15 billion in economic benefits — and lists nutritional benefits to drinking milk daily.
The promoters equate a customer’s decision to buy milk with the health of the surrounding community — noting that every 10 cows supports one job.
But there is a new sense of urgency, as several groups pulled the marketing campaign together within about two months.
The effort brought together sometimes disparate groups including: the American Dairy Association North East, the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association, the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania, PA Dairy Princesses Program, among others.
“With all of us joining together, Pennsylvania milk will continue to flow,” said Dave Smith, executive director of the PA Dairymen’s Association. “Making a conscious decision to buy Pennsylvania local milk is an important choice you can make for your health and for the health of your community.”
For some, it may end up being too little, too late.
The U.S. dairy industry finds itself in a crisis as farms produce too much milk and customers increasingly choose alternative liquids produced from almonds, soy and coconut.
In letters to farmers, Dean Foods partially blamed the contract terminations on a major customer, Walmart, for halting orders and deciding to build its own dairy processor in Indiana.
The company put greater emphasis on abundant milk supplies — a problem that is “bigger than all of us,” Dean wrote to farmers. “Quite simply, the diary industry is producing more milk than people are consuming.”
The Center for Dairy Excellence met with Pennsylvania farmers in April to coordinate new deals for all the farmers across the state. At least five farmers in eastern Pennsylvania couldn’t make the numbers work and exited the business for “financial reasons,” Ms. Sebright said.
For now, the rest have found alternatives.
Two cheese production plants in Middlefield have agreed to take milk from a few farms, and Schneider’s Dairy, a distributor based in Whitehall, is buying milk from eight farms.
One of the Schneider’s Dairy customers is a farm owned by Jim and Cathy Heim, who considered selling the operation when they got the Dean Foods notice. Instead of shipping milk 24 miles to a Dean Foods processing facility in Sharpsville, they are now paying more to ship it 79 miles south to Schneider’s, Mr. Heim said.
Schneider’s did not need more milk, but it felt an obligation to help, said Bill Schneider, the company’s president.
“You know how people get whenever other people’s livelihoods are on the line,” Mr. Schneider said. “I know what it feels like to be close to going out of business.”
Milk distributors like Schneider’s “are in the same predicament as the farmer,” he added. “People aren’t buying our milk, which makes it hard to buy their milk.”
He placed some blame on the lack of promotion from the industry groups.
Pennsylvania’s dairy promoters “need to get moving and spend a little bit of the money we’re paying to fund for advertising and put some better commercials on TV,” Mr. Schneider said. “The almond milk commercials are a … lot better than the milk commercials.”
Officials believe the “Choose PA Dairy” campaign will sway consumers.
“It’s not just about getting the bottle off the shelf, it’s that you made an intentional decision because of what you value,” said Russell Redding, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, in an interview last week.
In Pennsylvania, 32 percent of total farm revenue comes from dairy, Mr. Redding said, so “what happens in dairy will speak volumes to what happens in agriculture across the commonwealth.”
Meanwhile, dairy critics are digging in. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is planning to visit Pittsburgh cafes next month to distribute thousands of coffee cup sleeves that read, “De-Calf Your Coffee: Dairy Is Udder Cruelty. Choose Almond, Soy, or Coconut Milk.”
“Learning of the conditions under which cow’s milk is obtained leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” said Dan Mathews, PETA vice president, in a press release. “That’s why so many consumers are ditching the dairy variety for coconut, almond, oat, hazelnut, and soy milks.”
By: Daniel Moore
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette