Milk Money: PA farmer weighs in on the struggling dairy industry

"I don't know a farmer that hasn't struggled," said Wayne County dairy farmer Brian Smith.

Pennsylvania has the seventh largest dairy industry in the nation. In 2015, dairy farmers contributed more than $14-billion to the Commonwealth's economy.

USDA data shows there are about 6,570 dairy farms in Pennsylvania.

According to the Center for Dairy Excellence (CDE), that number is down about two percent from the previous year. Over the past ten years, numberse have been steadily declining.

"We have about 5,000 fewer cows in the state than we did three years ago," said Jayne Sebright, CDE's executive director. "We are also dropping in cows, but our milk production in the state is actually growing."

Sebright explains, every ten cows supports one job somewhere in the state.

"The dairy industry is struggling right now," said Sebright. "Unfortunately, dairy farmers have had about two years of breakeven or below breakeven prices, followed by the past four months of very low milk prices.

In the last year alone, more than 100 farmers have packed up and called it quits in Pennsylvania.

A Wayne county farmer sat down with FOX56 to share about the struggles facing the industry.

"I don't know a farmer that hasn't struggle," said Brian Smith. "If you were to go up on my hill and look out across the valley, this farm milked cows, this farm milked cows, the next farm milked cows, the next three farms all milked cows. There's probably now four or five miles to the next dairy that's actually running."

Brian Smith is a first generation dairy farmer in Wayne County. His wife grew up on a farm, so together they started their own, now milking 50 cows.

"When you're losing money per head per day, and everyone is losing dollars per head per day right now, the more cows you milk, the more money you're losing."

Fortunately for Smith, his operation is small, and he can pick up other work.

"You can't make a living just on your farm anymore. You have to have off-farm jobs, off-farm income to subsidize your loss.

After he's done with his chores in the morning, Smith heads to school.

"You can drive a school bus in the morning for a couple hours and then after your chores are done and the work is done during the day before you go to the barn at night you can drive for a couple more hours."

That's not the only extra hat he wears. Smith serves as chairman of the Wayne County Commissioners, giving a voice to farmers.

"I thought that needed representation, so I threw my hat in the ring and I got elected. I think I can do a fairly good job illustrating to people that their financial difficulties of agriculture are there, they are real, and they need to be corrected."

"The dairy industry in Pennsylvania will continue to be a very important part of our local, rural communities," said Sebright. "We need our dairy farmers to provide that local source of high-quality milk and dairy products."

Farmers say milk consumption goes down, on average, three percent each year.

"We can't continue to suffer because supply and demand has our price driven into the ground where none of us can make money," explained Smith. "We should all be able to make money. Let's manage our inventory. Let's do a good job of it, and let's keep supply and demand in check so we can all survive."

The Commonwealth has started an initiative to attract additional processors to the region.

"Right now, we are heavily invested in the fluid milk market for drinking milk. We need to see investment in other products because fluid milk on the whole is on a steady decline where products like cheese and yogurt and other products we don't process here in bulk are actually growing in demand. We are also trying to help local businesses look at reinventing their product base."

Another concern the industry is facing is the rising age of farmers.

"So many of our dairy farmers are aging and we need that next generation to continue to bring the innovative ideas, the skill sets, and the ability to transition our farms for the future," said Sebright.

"One thing that most people should understand about agriculture today is the average age of a farmer across this nation is 60 years old," explained Smith. "In the next 12 to 15 years, over 50% of the landmass of the United States will change hands. There needs to be an economic situation that's in place so the next generation of farmers can take over those farms so those farms are not just lost to development. If we ever lose all of our farms to development, and I know that would take a lot of years, but they don't blow up houses to plow up the ground and start farming crops again. So we really need to recognize right now that it's a critical time there is a huge implications of economic sustainability of farmers. Now is the time; we can't wait any longer."

Smith says this trend could actually affect national security. A large portion of our beef in the U.S. comes from the dairy herd. If those farms cease to exist, so does the meat.

"I've always said that our national security is directly linked to our ability to produce food. If we can't produce enough food for our own people we are vulnerable to take over some day."

The CDE started the Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow program offering dairy business and herd management certification to high school students to help prepare them to be future dairy farmers.

"These kids filled that classroom so fast because they're interested. Because they want to be farmers. Because they want to grow food," said Smith.

Smith says, as the market stands right now, the next generation can't afford it.

"The next generation will work very hard, but they have to be able to raise a family. They have to be able to build a house, buy a car, send their kids to college, create a retirement account. None of those things are available to people who are sitting on their farm trying to milk cows right now. That needs to change.

So how can you help?

One way, is to buy local dairy. You can find those products at a farmer's market and even your regular grocery store.

Look for the PA Preferred logo which certifies the product was produced and processed in Pennsylvania.

Also, when buying milk, check the Best If Used By date. Right after that is another set of numbers. If it starts with 42 that means it's from PA. Here's the list from the FDA.

You can watch a more in depth look at the industry. Brian Smith was featured in the Netflix documentary "Rotten." Episode five features the Wayne County farmer.

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