The heartache is real as family farms start to fade away

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.


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.



“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.


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.


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.


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

What made me smile this week

What made me smile this week is a weekly post inspired by Shane Burcaw of Laughing At My Nightmare. Shane has muscular dystrophy and operates an amazing non profit that raises money to help people with disabilities purchase much needed equipment to make life easier. Check out the original and best version of this weekly feature on Shane’s blog. ….

What made me smile this week:

Sunday: My son and dad played baseball in my parents’ side yard and dad built barriers to keep the ball from rolling down the long hill in front of their house. I hit a couple balls off my son, my daughter practiced her swing, and my dad laughed while he tried to get my son out a couple of times. Dad has been battling Lyme and it has wiped him out during many of our Sunday afternoons. Seeing him be able to run and laugh made me smile.

Monday: My daughter decided she had to carry four or five stuffed animals with her to my son’s karate class. I thought she was going to leave them in the van, but instead she insisted she carry them all into the building and then set up the chairs in the  play area in a circle for some kind of stuffed animal group session. “It’s OK,” she told one of the little stuffed puppies. “You’re safe inside the circle.” When I told my brother this he asked what I’ve been letting her watch. My answer was “just cartoons.” Apparently I need to keep a closer eye on the cartoons she and my son watch. Later in the day she also burst my bubble by telling me stuffed animals are “just toys” and don’t have feelings. It made me cry. But then it made me smile.

Tuesday:  I don’t remember much making me smile this day, other than I drank lemon balm tea.

Wednesday: I found an old sketchbook from five years ago. It reminded me of when I used to sketch to relax and not care if the sketches were perfect. The simple movements of creating was enough to help me forget my troubles. It made me smile.


Thursday: My son didn’t have school the next day so we stayed up late and didn’t even care. Late nights and no schedules make me smile.

Friday: I learned more about the power of prayer through a movie called War Room. And I started a prayer journal. The movie made me cry. The journal made me smile.

Saturday: I took some photos of the neighbor’s sweet family and enjoyed watching them interact and laugh and enjoy each other. It made me smile.

What made you smile this week?

Did you miss it? Catching up for the week…

In case you missed it, I had some fun posts this week and last, featuring a chef, a photographer and an author and some ramblings from me.

Last week I featured local chef Jason Wheeler for the Tell Me About feature. 

“We are changing the food culture and reminding people that the best food really is grown close to home.”


This week I featured photographer Mina Mimbu for the Tell Me About . . . feature. 

“Children are my biggest inspiration. I believe they see a world differently than us adults.
I think the world to them is much bigger, brighter and more colorful, and full of wonder and excitement.

On Monday, author Lisa Hurst wowed us with a column about being victory!

“God recently spoke to me when I was thinking about needing His breakthrough in several different areas of my life and He said, “You are victory!” In a flash, I saw that all the victory that I will ever need is already stored up inside my heart. Like a keg waiting to have a tap put into place, my heart is brimming full of His victory!

Tuesday I shared about our family day at my parents on Mother’s Day.

And Friday I featured our quest to build a garden in our backyard.

Enjoy poking around the blog and catching up for the week!

Sundays are for family

Sunday’s are family day and usually reserved for spending the afternoon at my parents, about an hour away. 

If we’re actually moving like we should, it’s church and then afternoon lunch and naps with mom and dad (grandma and grandpa). Well, it’s nap time for some members of the family because Sundays are when Miss G decides she doesn’t need a nap and would rather follow “pop pop” around to see what trouble he, she and J.G. can get in together. 

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and after a dinner of beef brisket cooked by Grandpa, J.G. was chased off digital devices and outside to play. He asked Grandpa to play catch so Grandpa went all out and actually found baseballs and gloves.

This left me with my Mommy Goggles on and chasing the two year old out of the way so one of the very hard baseballs wouldn’t hit her in the temple and leave her unconscious and on the way to the hospital. Yes, this is how a mommy’s brain often works.

Once Grandpa realized playing catch was irritating the wrist he recently had surgery on, Uncle Bryan took over and Grandpa walked Miss G to see the blueberry bush and apple trees that are starting to bloom.

Uncle Bryan and Aunt Kim visited this week, which happens mainly in special occasions because they live further away from our parents than than us in the big city of Wellsboro, Pa. Bryan is my brother but I try not to tell a lot of people. (Heh. Heh.)

Miss G used to be afraid of Uncle Bryan, but now he’s someone she likes to smile at and pretend she’s being shy with. This visit she peered at him around a corner on the front porch and said “you okay, Uncle Bryan?” After he assured he was and was simply enjoying reading a book on the front porch, she came back in the house and said, with a shake of her little head, “I hope uncle Bryan okay.”

Uncle Bryan said later that not only did the exchange with his niece impress him but his nephew also thanked him for playing catch with him and then stopped, turned around and said, “I love you.” It was apparently a heart melting moment and I wish I had witnessed it, but if I had I probably would have just cried.

Miss G was too excited that day to take a nap and instead burst into tears halfway home and begged me to hold her, which I couldn’t do since I was driving. She passed out hard about ten minutes from home and stayed asleep when her daddy carried her into the house, which is a rare occurrence.
We ended the evening curled up in bed and I fell asleep at 9:30 , the earliest I’ve fallen asleep in probably a year. It was a nice ending to a day that didn’t start out very nice after Miss G decided she didn’t need to sit in her car seat. That exchange is a story for another day.



Waiting for Spring

Spring is finally showing up and it’s welcome in this family, even though our entire family deals with the allergies that come with it, my son the worst. This year we seem to be doing well as the trees and flowers bloom, however. And the nice weather helps make it all better.

Winter seemed long in some ways, and not in others. Some health issues for me, the passing of our 13 year old dog, and the normal depression I seem to deal with each year when we receive less sunlight made the last part of winter a blur.  Then  there was that winter snow storm that came just when we thought spring was about to arrive.

Miss G is growing fast physically and mentally. She’s full of spunk and makes us laugh and pull our hair out at the same time most days. 

During a trip to the playground the other day she pushed me out of her way to get to the ladder for the slide and shouted “Get out of my way!”

I corrected her and said “we say, excuse me, not, ‘get out of my way.'”

She didn’t look at me but instead shoved at me again, gently, and said “excuse me, get out of my way!!”


J.G. is growing more mentally than physically, as he’s still small for his age, just like I was and his grandfather was. We’re not a family of giants, on either side.


We added a family member to the house before our Copper passed away, but she and he didn’t get a long and we had to return her to where she’d been living, outside my friend’s house, where someone had dropped her off.

After Copper passed away we welcomed her back to try to fill some of the void from Copper’s loss. It worked in some ways, and didn’t in many others. The first week here she followed us to bed each night, just as Copper had, and curled up at the foot of my son’s bed, just as Copper had, as we listened to a comedian before bed.

She’s a crazy addition and spends part of the night knocking my son’s Legos, pen lids, and pretty much anything she can find across our laminate.

Her tendency to try to crawl all over me and eat my hair at night has led me to close our bedroom door at night and then listen to her scream outside in the morning to be let in.

Despite some of her annoying behavior, it’s nice to listen to Pixel (the name we bestowed on the rescue kitten) purr when she curls up next to us on the rare occasions she lays down or stops trying to tackle our 18 year old cat, who has been glaring at us since we brought Pixel home.

Pixel likes to sit on the edge of the tub when the kids' bathe, but one day she's going to end up in there when Miss G pulls her in.

Pixel likes to sit on the edge of the tub when the kids’ bathe, but one day she’s going to end up in there when Miss G pulls her in.

Some day we will probably add another dog to this chaos that is our life, but for now, the house is Ok without one. It’s quiet. The old cat is enjoying her golden years, the kitten is getting used to life in a home with a family, and our hearts are still warm with the memories of our little Copper.



What to capture: family reunions | Athens, PA photographer

This is part of my feature What to Capture, where I give you ideas what photographs you will want to capture at an event or family gathering to be sure you document the day for your memories.

Family reunions: The butt of many sitcoms jokes but actually a gathering many families look forward to. It’s a chance to catch up on the lives of your family members, especially extended family members you don’t have a chance to see throughout the year.
My family is small with mostly older members and family reunions don’t happen often, or really ever. But for many a family reunion is an annual event where members of their extended family gather, catch up and reminisce about each other, their childhoods and crazy Uncle Bob.
For the most part what to capture with your camera at a family reunion is pretty straight forward. You photograph the family all together in one shot.  The big, combined family photo is one of the most important photograph of the day but it isn’t the only photograph you should snap.

Here are a list of suggestions of what you should capture through your lens during your family’s reunion, or any family reunion for that matter.

First, a little advice on that big family photo:
1) Make sure you don’t let anyone leave the reunion early, before that group photo is taken. The timing of the photograph should be somewhere near the middle of the event so enough people have arrived but also so not too many have left. If someone does announce that they need to leave then that’s your cue to stop what you’re doing and announce that it’s time to gather for the family photograph.
2) Push for that photo. Having a combined, large family photograph will be important to your family’s history and future memories. This is your chance to be bold and a bit forceful (in a polite way) because you know at least one family member is going to try to duck out, hide behind a plant or whine that their hair looks horrible. Don’t get into a family brawl over it because that’s not great for family bonding, but do what you can to convince that family member that their presence in the photo is needed to show a true representation of the entire family. Remind the reluctant subject the photograph isn’t about them but about future generations knowing who their ancestors were.

3) Once you have convinced everyone to be in the group photo, I would suggest chairs for the older generation to sit in and that young children sit on the ground in front of the chairs, if that’s possible. File the teenagers and adults in a standing position behind the younger and older generations and try to group immediate family members together when possible. Do your best to layer the groups so that they don’t spread out to the sides too far. Six to eight people in a row is a good number  to avoid the photograph being taken too far back and leaving you squinting to see faces because you, or the photographer, had to stand so far away to get everyone in.
If you have risers to place the teens and adults on to keep the rows short, and make sure you can see everyone’s face, then use them but chances are most people won’t be that prepared, so improvise with picnic tables, rock walls, chairs, or benches. Just be sure all the items you stand a person on are stable because you don’t want to have an ambulance trip ruin all the fun. Should an ambulance have to be called, though, be sure to take photographs because that’s going to be an awesome story for next year’s family reunion as long as there are only broken bones and no serious injuries *wink*.

4) When you look through the viewfinder make sure you can see everyone’s face. Tell cousin Steve to come from behind the tree and Grandma to stop hiding her face behind her fan. Make sure to take more than one photograph in case someone blinks or moves or a child spits up. Ask everyone to look your way for the final image but don’t be afraid to snap a few shots while everyone is getting set up because sometimes those in between moments are the most memorable. If you have two people photographing, have one person focus on the people as they line up for the photograph. Some of the most special interactions can come while setting up for the photograph.
In addition to the family photo here are a list of four other suggested posed photographs you will want to make sure you take in between taking candids.

Immediate family units
If you have a large family, gathering immediate family members from each branch of the tree for individual images is a good idea. This would include, for example, a husband and wife and their children. If you then want to add in the parents and siblings of the spouses you can do that too, but don’t get too crazy or you’ll be taking the entire group family photo again. You don’t have to be too fancy with these photos but try to make sure everyone is looking at you and nothing appears to be sticking out of the top of their head when you snap the shutter. Pay attention to your backgrounds. Be aware that if you place dad in front of a certain background, he could end up looking like he has deer antlers unless you either move him or yourself before pressing the shutter.

Grandparents, grandchildren or great grandparents and great grandchildren
Gathering the grandparents and great grandparents together for their own photograph is a good idea. Add in the great grandchildren with the great-grandparents and the grandchildren with their grandparents as well. Depending on how large your family is this could be quite an undertaking so you will need to decide if you want to do just one large group photo or the individual photos.

New additions
Each year can bring new additions to the family whether by birth or adoption or by marriage. Be sure to grab either a standalone photo with these new members or a group photo with them and their immediate family. And of course they will be included in the larger group family photo if you don’t get the opportunity for individual photos.
Generation photos
Family reunions are a great opportunity to capture a four or five or whatever number generation photograph. This is usually a great grandparent, grandparent, parent, child and grandchild all together in one photograph. It’s important to capture these images whenever you are all together because, not to be morbid or a downer, you may not have the chance again if a member of the older generation passes away before the next reunion.
I usually have the older members of the family sit in a chair or on a couch and place the other members around them or behind them. If there are young grandchildren or great grandchildren involved placing them on the lap of their great grandparent or grandparent not only creates a nice photograph but a nice moment for the older and younger generations. Never be afraid to snap the shutter during those in between moments before you ask everyone to look at the camera. You might capture a special glance between grandpa and grandchild that will mean more to you than the photo where everyone is looking at the camera at the same time.
Don’t be upset if every child isn’t looking at the camera at the same time either. Their expression or where they are looking instead may make a more memorable photograph in the long run.  Repeatedly telling a child to look at the camera can not only create stress  for you but for them as well.
Be sure to capture candid photographs of the day. If Dad is playing a trick on his younger brother, take the photo. Capture laughter, expressions of delight as family members arrive and see each other again, grandchildren running to their grandparents, cousins talking to each other, siblings wrestling each other and any family reunion traditions that might be held.
Bonus tips:

One, don’t photograph people in mid-bite and two, limit how many photographs of the food you take. No one really needs to look back and see Aunt Ruth with a cheek full of hamburger or cousin Frank with ketchup trickling down his chin. The future generation will probably not be interested in Instagram like photos of the food either, unless someone made an amazing cake that everyone will marvel at for years to come or the dish is a special family recipe. As much as possible, try to include a person with each image you take because, obviously, a family reunion is about people and about capturing the memories for those people and the future generation.
If you take the photographs yourself don’t forget to put the camera down part of the time and enjoy yourself, living in the moments of the event without looking through the viewfinder. And don’t overthink the photographs too much and cause unnecessary anxiety for a day that is meant to be fun and memorable.

In closing, here is a short checklist of what to capture at your next family reunion:

Group family photo
Immediate family members
Great grandparents alone
Grandparents alone
Great grandparents and grandparents together
Great-grandparents with their great grandchildren
Grandparents with their grandchildren
New family members (by marriage or new babies)
Generation photograph
Candid images from the day