Boondock Ramblings

My farming friend Mark Bradley was one of the inspirations behind The Farmer’s Daughter (the farming part of it) and one of the reason I have a soft spot for farmers in general. He’s one of the good ones, the backbone of our country, salt of the earth, you might say. He’s worked hard all his life and works even harder now in a economy that hasn’t been very friendly to farmers the past decade or so. He posted this beautiful status update a couple of years ago on Facebook that helped launch me into a documentary photo project to capture the life of farmer’s in my area. The project fell apart over time, but I’d love to start it back up again and keep capturing the real people behind the industry that puts food on our tables, telling their stories.

Mark wrote another one of those emotional posts this week. I’m not on Facebook anymore but my dad showed me and I emailed Mark and told him how much I enjoyed it, and asked if I could share it here on the blog. Luckily he said that would be fine.

I also once wrote about his son and the amazing work ethic is instilled in farm kids by their parents.




I watched him as he made his way around the empty barn taking it all in. I could see the sadness on his face and hear it in his voice in all the questions he asked. “Why did they sell their cows?” “Why are they just letting the barn fall down?” I watched him peer up through the hole in the ceiling toward the hay mow that once would have been stocked full of enough hay to feed the cows all winter. Now all it held was the roof that had collapsed into it this winter and the melting snow that had accumulated. This was once someone’s dream, their livelihood, their everything. Now it is a thing of the past. Soon to be demolished the rest of the way and be gone forever.

It is hard to explain what it feels like to walk through an empty barn. For me, it’s very emotional and I could see that in Parker as well. I can stand there and picture what it would have looked like full of cows. It’s kind of like the scenes in the movie Titanic where they are exploring the underwater shipwreck and keep flashing back to a time when the ship was full of people in all her glory. I can picture little kids growing up in this barn, learning life lessons. I can see them in my mind petting cows, watching calves be born, carrying around their favorite kitties. I can see it full of light, life, and warmth on the coldest winter day. I can smell the feed, hear the cows contently eating and the radio softly playing… then I come back to what it is now. Cold. Dark. Wet. Musty. Empty…. it is a heartbreaking scene that is played out in tens of thousands of barns all across this country. Our industry has evolved over the years, and in its wake lies empty barns like this one in ruin.

After awhile of silence as Parker and I wandered around, he turns to me and says “Well, at least our barn will never look like this.” With a giant lump in my throat, all I could muster up was “I hope you are right.”

I don’t know what the future holds. I know farms like ours are becoming fewer and further between every day.

When we got home I headed straight to the barn. I walked in the door to be greeted by the familiar sights and sounds of my cows contently eating their hay and lounging in their stalls. I walk up and down the aisles of the barn with a smile on my face taking it all in, stopping to pet and snuggle some of girls.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God for giving me this life. It’s a life that has its shares of ups and downs and constant challenges. A life that is definitely not the easy road. I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I can’t imagine raising my kids any other way than on this farm.

The passion I have for what I do is unexplainable, but is driven by my love of this land, my love for my cows, and most of all, my love for my two little farmers. Everything that I do, I do for them in hopes that they may one day be able to take over this farm if they choose to.

Looking back over my blog in the last few years, I can see that I’ve written a lot about farms. Even my latest “novel in progress” is called The Farmer’s Daughter. One might think I grew up on a farm, but I didn’t. I grew up around farms but not on one. Still, I have a huge soft spot for farms and farmers, especially the small, family-owned farms.

I thought I would link to some of my past blog posts about farming in today’s posts.

The State of Dairy Farming in Northeast Pennsylvania: Tangible struggles, palpable heartache, and immeasurable joy.

The Heartache is Real as Family Farms Start to Fade Away

A New Beginning for a Small Pennsylvania Farm.

The Farm

A Little Farm Making Special Milk in Pennsylvania


Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, Dairy Farmer, Sayre, Pa.

Tell Me More About . . . Engelbert Farms, Nichols, N.Y.

” Don’t worry,” the 14-year-old told me as he climbed in the driver seat of the doorless Ranger all-terrain vehicle. “I’m a better driver than my mom.”

He grinned.

I knew he was talking about the bumpy, high-speed trip his mom had taken my husband on about a week before when the family’s cows escaped the pasture while my husband was there to do a story for the local weekly newspaper. His mom, Eileen Warburton, assured my husband that the escape wasn’t his fault, but rather the fault of an exuberant family dog who had startled the cows .

She didn’t normally drive so fast, she told me, but it was important to get ahead of the cows to try to herd them back into the fenced-in pasture. I couldn’t help wishing I had been there to see my semi-city slicker husband holding on to the grab handle of the Ranger for dear life, a look of sheer terror in his eyes as they careened over the dirt roads and muddy cow pasture.

I know, I have a warped, slightly sadistic sense of humor.

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More than once since visiting farms in our area I have been amazed by the knowledge, politeness, and efficiency shown by children who grow up on a farm. They are well spoken, mature and handle themselves better than many adults. They engage visitors to their farm with wisdom and a sense of professionalism that most businesses don’t even possess. Children who grow up on a farm are eager to tell you how the farm works, what the livestock eat, how they herd the cows, milk to the cows, feed the cows or pigs or any other variety of aspects of a working farm.

They are also almost always confident and not in the least bit intimidated to talk to adults. I’d have to say that most of the credit for the demeanor of a child or children who grow up on a farm goes to their parents and grandparents or whomever else they work with, and live with, on the farm. They are taught, first of all, hard work and with that hard work often comes a love for God, family, country, the land, and their livestock. For families who farm, especially on a small family farm, farming isn’t only a source of income, it’s an entire lifestyle.

“Is that mud on her side?” Eileen asked when the 14-year old, Blaine, walked their prize Jersey cow Cardinal out of the barn that day. “I guess we’ll have to wash her again.”

I don’t live a very exciting life so the idea of watching a cow being washed was exciting. I trailed along behind the boy and the cow somewhat like a giddy child who has been promised a trip to the playground. I’ve visited a few farms in the last couple of years while taking photos for a personal photo project focusing on the joys and trials of family farming. I’ve apparently grown accustomed to the smells of barns because I barely noticed when Cardinal decided to deposit a large amount of fresh manure while patiently waiting for Blaine to finish brushing and spraying her down. I am either accustomed to the smell or my clogged sinuses, courtesy of spring allergies blocked it from me.

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DSC_7812DSC_7816DSC_7820DSC_7823Off to one side of where the cleaning was happening, and behind the main barn, was a pile of stone and the future site of the family’s bottling facility for a future-planned business in processing A2 milk. According to the A2 Milk Company, all milk contains two different kinds of proteins – A1 and A2. A2 milk comes from cows who only produce the A2 protein.

Some dairy farmers say A2 milk is more easily digested by people who otherwise have difficulty digesting milk with both proteins. Those with lactose intolerance may be able to digest the A2 milk easier, but because their intolerance is to the sugar (lactose) in the milk, they would still need to consume the A2 milk with caution and maybe special enzymes, Eileen told me. Most people with lactose intolerance are able to drink lactose-free milk, such as the brand name Lactaid milk.

A quick search online will show you there is a quite a bit of controversy about the benefits of A2 milk for those who otherwise have difficulty digesting milk. Consumers seemed thrilled with the prospect of having access to milk that is potentially easier  to digest, but there are those in the dairy industry who are skeptical that there is any superior benefit of A2 milk. Some a market to promote it as a threat to the overall dairy industry.

“It’s just a theory at this point in time,” Greg Miller, National Dairy Council Chief Science Officer recently told CBS news. “There is no science that really says that there is any value in a2 protein milk relative to conventional milk. The two studies that were done were with a small number of subjects with different variables that don’t give us the answers we need to tell whether this is really true or not.”

For the Warburton family, scientific research wasn’t necessary. Anecdotal evidence was enough for them. Eileen’s 4-year-old son Marshal has been unable to digest milk or soy since birth, which presented a unique challenge for a child living on a dairy farm. When Eileen read about A2 milk being used in New Zealand she decided to explore the benefits of it further. She tried to order some of the milk for Marshal but the fees to ship it overseas was astronomical. That’s when she began to wonder if any of their own Jersey cows could be producers of A2 milk.

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She pulled hair from the tails of the cows, sent it to be tested and was told that out 10 of the 14 cows tested were A2 milk only producers. The proof would be in the chocolate milk, so to speak, something Marshal had always wanted to be able to consume like his older brother. When Marshal didn’t react to the special treat made with the A2 milk from Cardinal Eileen knew they were on to something. Her family began exploring options of bringing the milk to the area to benefit those with similar digestion issues as Marshal.

I was standing in the Warburton’s cow pasture on a warm May day to photograph the boys with their first A2 cow, Cardinal. Photographing Cardinal alone was also on the agenda. Like I’ve said before, it doesn’t take much to excite me so when we headed to the upper pasture with the boys and a wooden bench I was giddy once again but this time to see all the cows gathering around us like five-ton, manure covered and smelly, curious children.

Big brown eyes looked at us and broad noses sniffed and nuzzled to see if we’d brought any hay or grain. Once Blaine sat on the bench the ladies gathered around him in a semi-circle to see what their boy was doing.

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Standing on the hill, overlooking the rest of Forks and Overton Township and the Warburton’s farm, I thought about how blessed my family is to live in an area where children are taught from a very early age about hard work and respect for the land, animals, and nature. We are blessed to have people living around us who have personal knowledge of, and a part in, where our food comes from.

I’ve learned in the last couple of years that working and living on a small family farm is not easy, but it is worth it in ways that have nothing to do with money.

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To learn more about A2 milk, visit A2 Milk Company’s site HERE or check out the story below that CBS Morning featured in 2017. The Rocket-Courier also published a story about the farm on their site today and that story can be found via their website HERE. 

 

 

To read more of the posts I’ve featured about farming or farms in our area, click on the following links:

Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, dairy farmer

The Heartache is Real as Family Farms Start to Fade Away

The Farm

The State of Dairy Farming in Pennsylvania

Tell Me More About . .  . Engelbert Farms, Nichols, N.Y.

 

 

It was a humid August night and the field next to the now defunct dairy barn was full of equipment and maybe a couple hundred people. An auction trailer was set up off to one side and to anyone driving by it might have looked like some sort of community festival, complete with hot dogs and drinks and baked goods. But this wasn’t a party or celebration; it was the end of an era.

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The Robbins family had been farming this land and milking cows here for more than 40 years but debt and the inability to survive financially forced them to make the hardest decision in their lives – sell the farm equipment and the livestock. If that sale didn’t cover the debt they’d sell the barn, house and property too, Billie Jo Robbins said, admitting she was unsure what the future held for her family but that her faith in God’s plan for their lives was helping to lessen some of the anxiety.

She had taken a job at the local bank the year before to try to help the farm stay in business, but as milk prices dropped and operation costs rose, the family couldn’t plug the holes fast enough. Her husband, Paul, recently took a job at the local cheese making factory and the dream of passing the farm on to their two sons, Matthew and Kevin, is now gone.

The loss of a family identity and business is heartbreaking but even more heartbreaking is that the Robbins aren’t alone in their struggle and forced life changes.

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“Local dairy farmers forced to auction off farm.”

It’s a headline that should be in more newspapers and on more news sites than it is because it is real and it is happening in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the Robbins live, but also all across the country.

It isn’t only dairy farmers being forced to close their doors. Farmers of all types are being crushed under the blow of low product pricing, but dairy farms are being hit the hardest and according to various media outlets the hard hits are coming for a variety of reasons, one of those an oversupply of milk. Some question if the push for people to drink less dairy and more plant-based proteins is one reason the dairy industry is suffering, but this seems unlikely with Americans love of ice cream, pizza and milkshakes still going strong.

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And even worse than the farms closing down are the suicides of farmers who collapsed mentally and emotionally under the weight of the pressure and the feeling of failure.

According to an article on the National Public Radio (NPR) site, one co-op had three out of 1,000 farmers commit suicide in three years, and while those stats might not seem alarming by quantity the fact they are happening at all when at one time they weren’t, is frightening.

Even here in Bradford County farmers are receiving letters from their co-ops, first with dismal news about the future of dairy prices and the information for suicide hotlines and how to find counselors.

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DSC_9324_1DSC_9268Standing in that field the day of the Robbins’ auction one has to wonder who these buyers are. Local farmers? Corporate farmers? Farmers barely getting by themselves? Billie Jo wondered too and admitted it felt awkward selling their equipment to farmers who may be struggling the same way they were. She didn’t recognize many of the people there but others she knew because they were there for something more important than buying.

“Many came here simply to support us and that means so much,” Billie Jo said.

Farmers support each other, which is one reason many farms in this area of Pennsylvania are surviving at all.

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Sitting in a truck, waiting for her husband, a farmer from Troy says she doesn’t know what the main reason for milk prices dropping so low is but she feels before long the Bradford County landscape won’t be dotted with very many family farms anymore. She and her husband, now in their 70s, own a dairy farm and can’t imagine doing anything else. They’ll keep farming as long as they can.

Knowing they aren’t alone in their heartache or their struggle helps the Robbins deal with their situation easier than some might. Their faith in God keeps them trusting that beauty will come from ashes.

——

To read more about the struggles of dairy farms in Pennsylvania you can visit my posts on The state of dairy farming in Northeast Pennsylvania: tangible struggles, palpable heartache and immeasurable joy and The Farm and Tell Me More About . . . Mark Bradley, Sayre Pa Dairy Farmer

DSC_1669Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

This post is part of a continuing project about the changes in farming in America. The project is both a photo series and a blog series. For more about this series please visit my page about the project, or see the other posts, Tell Me More About: Mark Bradly, Dairy Farmer and The Farm.


Even though he was using a smile to greet his visitors when he came out from the back of the barn his face showed the stress of the morning.

“Is it broken again?” his sister Melissa asked and he nodded, and shrugged.

It wasn’t anything new. Equipment had been breaking down at the Walrath family’s dairy farm for months. Scott, owner and main operator of the farm can’t seem to keep up. He is the farms mechanic, vet, accountant, milks the cows, cleans the barn and plows and plants the fields.

Scott’s shoulders dipped slightly, revealing much more than physical exhaustion.

Days off don’t exist when you’re running a family farm and most people would have given up years ago based on the pay alone.

Melissa and Scott Walrath are no strangers to the challenges farming brings. They grew up on the farm, with their father David, now retired, and their mother Gail, who passed away a few years ago.

The main farm, called Snowcrest Farm, started as one barn and several silos and has now been extended to include David’s property, Melissa and her husband Wayne’s  property, and Scott and his wife Lydia’s property, located in succession about a mile apart from each other on Ballentine Road in East Smithfield.  All together, the three farms, all under the umbrella name of Scowcrest, includes 542 acres and 265 head of cattle on the three properties. Out of the 265 cows, 120 are milking cows and are milked twice a day.

DSC_9036DSC_9040Scott and Melissa have been fighting to keep the family tradition alive their entire lives and they aren’t ready to give up, even though many others would have. The farm was started in 1951 with Scott and Melissa’s grandfather Albert Walrath, who was a full-time school teacher and part time farmer. David took the farm over after graduating from SRU and the farm became Snowcrest Farm in 1973 when he married Gail.

The piece of equipment that broke this day is used to feed the cows their silage of corn and hay. The feeder has been breaking down a lot lately, Melissa says. In fact, a lot of equipment has.

The siblings looked at each other thoughtfully for a few moments, both too worn to even suggest a remedy. Finally Melissa asked if Scott has called someone who has helped in the past. He said he did and the man  would stop by the farm at some point that day. In most cases it’s Scott who fixes the farm equipment, but sometimes extra help is needed.

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Farmer Scott Walrath works on farm equipment at Snowcrest Family Farms, which his family has owned and operated since 1951.

“We are stupid – Stupidly in love with farming,” Scott says with a tired grin when asked why he continues to work the farm even as the challenges grow each day. “Pride, passion, stubbornness and stupidity all play a part of why I am still farming. I have pride in my craft and ability to still make this life work even with everything working against me. I have passion for my animals and my crops.”

“Getting a heifer calf, a litter of pigs, watching my corn come up, or even at 11 at night after being up for 20 hours and stacking the last round bale in the shed before rain comes,” he continues. “The smile on my face should say it all. I have stubbornness to make this life style work for my family as well as my community. I want my family to be able to grow up on this farm and I want my community to be able to drive by and see my farm prosper. Nothing makes me sadder than to see fields that used to be in production and growing wonderful crops turn into weeds because there is no one left to tend to them.”

Scott knows other farmers are giving up, selling, and in worst cases, ending their lives from all the pressure.

“I don’t know what else I’d want to do. There is nothing else I’d want to do,” he says.
“I want to be able to provide for my family doing this but right now I’ve got Kelsey (a young girl from the local Future Farmers of America) I’ve got two other high school boys who will be here later. I don’t have any full time help. It’s me and Melissa is working herself to the bone helping out right now.”

Ten years ago the Walraths had two full time helpers, both parents and Scott.

“That was a lot of help and it still seemed like a lot of work,” Scott says.

Now Scott does the job of four people and recently when a back injury flared up the tasks on the farm fell to the rest of the family. Melissa and Wayne also work full time as elementary teachers in the Troy Area School District.

In addition to the cows, Scott houses pigs, a horse, goats, chickens and a turkey in his recently rebuilt barn at the top of the hill. The barn located at the house, where he lives with his three children and Lydia burned two years ago and took 100 animals with it. All six of the breeding pigs, all of which had just had piglets, and the family dog also died.

Although we got insurance money it was not enough for the rebuilding, so we had to take out a loan“, Melissa says. “When we tried rebuilding the first time the barn collapsed and we had to start all over for the second time. Luckily it was summer by then and cattle could be in the pasture because we were running out of room without the barn.  I think rebuilding was more of a new beginning. Scott designed the barn just the way he wanted it.”

The new barn became a more friendly place for a more modern farm. It’s available for tours by local 4-H groups or local schools and it’s also a great location for meetings and the small office even provides a place for Scott to crash when his pigs are in labor and he needs to keep an eye on mom.

Scott appreciates those who encourage people to go out and buy a gallon of milk or a block of cheese to support the dairy farmer but in the long run that won’t help much, he feels. The people who are actually benefiting from the sale of dairy are the middle men or larger corporations. The profit isn’t trickling down to the farmer.

“The biggest challenges in farming today are the big farms pushing out the little farms,” he says. “I call it the Walmart effect. There used to be a lot of little mom and pop stores especially here in the Valley. Now you go to Walmart. Same in farming. There are more 1,000-40,000 cow farms and they can make more milk, cheaper that we can at 100 cows or less.”

Dairy farming is not regulated in the United States and that lack of regulation means the people doing the hardest work are getting the least benefit, Scott feels.

DSC_9020“We are at the bottom of the food chain so we don’t get it. It’s always the middle man,” he said. “So if you want to go out and buy a gallon of milk I’m sure they appreciate it but it’s not helping me.”

Nothing is helping at this point, he said.

“As far as I am concerned, the dairy industry is not regulated – like, for example, Bill Gates goes out with Microsoft, they let him get so big but they don’t let him corner the market you know..he’s got to sell off or whatever,” Scott said. “The Dairy Farmers of America controls 80 percent of the farms and a couple other small farms are co-ops but Maryland and Virginia right now they are losing money because they’ve got too much milk. They’re trying to sell it at lower costs but then they don’t have operating capital. I was forced last October to sign with DFA or [I] don’t have a market. I didn’t have a choice.  So they say ‘you want to sell all your cows and your livelihood or do you want to join with the DFA?'”

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Scott gets some help on the farm from members of the Athens Area Future Farmers of America and his nephew, Simon. 

DSC_8980Scott credits the Athens Area High School Future Farmers of America with helping to not only keep area farms in the area running but keeping young people interested and up to date on the changing face of farming. In addition to learning about farming, these students are also learning a work ethic that has already shown to benefit them in future jobs. When a potential employer looks at a resume and reads that a young person has worked on a farm, they know they are a hard worker, Scott said.

“Every one of the kids that have used me as a reference has been hired at the post high school job choice,” he said.

“Pride, passion, stubbornness and stupidity all play a part of why I am still farming. I have pride in my craft and ability to still make this life work even with everything working against me. I have passion for my animals and my crops.”
– Scott Walrath, farmer, East Smithfield, Pa.

Scott doesn’t want to give up on farming. He wants his children to grow up the same way he did – getting much of their food from their backyard, climbing tress and milking cows and splashing through the mud and catching fireflies in the summer.

“I want to raise my kids here ,” he said, as he turns his tractor into an empty field to spread manure and prepare the soil for planing later in the season. “The joys of raising a family on the farm is the closeness we have. The kids can ride in the tractor with me, go to the barn with me and when there is hay or other work to be done there is nothing like all of us pitching in and getting the job done, even if it’s until the middle of the night.”

His children, like many children who grow up on a farm, will always know the value of a dollar and what hard work really is, he said.

DSC_8965-2“They get to experience so many of God’s wonders from the birth of the animals, to animal husbandry, to building things, to growing our own food,” Scott said. “My kids never say that they are bored and don’t need video games to keep them entertained. One of the biggest things I  teach them is common sense, which is very lacking in society today.”

Scott knows continuing to farm doesn’t look like the wisest choice to some.

“Stupidity also plays a role – a big role,” he says about his determination to continue the farm. “My body is breaking down early, I rarely get time off, and my stress level is at an all time high. I am sure a 40 hour a week job would be better for my sanity and my health, but I am not made that way. I don’t think I would know what to do with myself if I didn’t have something to pour my mind, body and soul into.”

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