Small Dairy Farmers In PA Forced To Adapt - Paycheck

Small Dairy Farmers In PA Forced To Adapt

A drive of an hour or less away from any of Pennsylvania’s big cities, a visitor can hardly miss how important agriculture remains in the state’s economy—and a very big chunk of agriculture in Pennsylvania is dairy farming.

         As with so many other parts of the economy, Covid-19 has done some damage to dairy farming.

         It is a hit some cannot afford.  Always at the mercy of wholesale process for milk to break even, dairy farmers here face the additional challenge of competing with much larger producers in nearby states—the average dairy farm here has only 85 cows, much smaller than many in Wisconsin and Michigan, where a farm with 500 cows is not unusual.

         That had taken a toll well before the pandemic began last year, with a significant jump in the number of farms closing down in the two years before then.

         With the arrival of the coronavirus came a near-shutdown of both the restaurant industry and schools.  Restaurants are major consumers of dairy products like cheese, butter, and ice cream, while the single largest consumer of liquid milk is school lunch programs.

         Paul, a third-generation dairy farmer in Lawrence County, minced no words in describing the last year “a lot of farmers were nervous enough about the future a year or two ago—and after this one, you may see people decide they’ve had enough.”

         A fortunate few, he said, have benefited from oil and gas leases on their property since the fracking boom began more than ten years ago, while others have moved to diversify their business by adding beef cattle or planting crops on land they do not need for grazing.

         Still, said a nearby county’s agent of Penn State’s Agricultural Extension Service, there is little question that the years ahead will see major changes to dairy farming in Pennsylvania and an increasing number of larger, more efficient farms.  “There’s just no way a farm will be able to survive on the milk from fifty cows and nothing else in a few years.”

         Farming, of course, is not only a business pursuit but a way of life, and with those changes there will be notably fewer people for whom that way of life is a daily reality.  That consolidation may be necessary for the industry to survive at all, but it will be a loss felt for a while by the families and communities shaped by farming.

Michael O'Connell

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