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.

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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.

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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

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Dying ways of life and why we fight to hold on to them

When local farmer Scott Walrath recently told me farmers are stupidly in love with farming, I totally got it, maybe more than others who aren’t farmers would. For a long time I was in love with print journalism and now it, and farming, are two dying ways of life. I say ways of life because that is what both are. They are not occupations. They are something you live and breathe and that runs in your blood, dark like the ink in a press. .

DSC_8896DSC_5712-Edit_1In farming there is never a day off, always a cow to help birth or equipment to fix, or fields to work. In print journalism my brain was always working and thinking of the next story. Even if I was not at the office I seemed to always have my ears open to a tip or a feature story idea. Every person I met or place I visited had the potential of a news story or art for the front page. Art, in newspaper lingo, is essentially a main photo to anchor the front page and grab the readers attention so hopefully they will buy the paper.

More and more today, though, people aren’t buying the newspaper and even if they were, the paper to produce the newspaper is so expensive many papers are either raising prices or laying off employees.

New tarrifs on newsprint coming into the United States have raised prices more than 50 percent in some cases. The increase in expenses is leading some papers to drop the size of their papers down as they try to balance the decrease in demand, the rising prices and the difficulty with employing a staff. Small, privately owned newspapers, much like small, family owned farms, are being hit the hardest by the changes.

45bc5-lisar-howelerlisar-howeler58c50-lisar-howeler2ccopyrightlisar-howeler2ccopyrightI find myself trying hard not to think about a world without a physical newspaper to hold in my hand, one where scrolling on a computer or phone replaces the turning of the page. One where we no longer close our eyes and smell the ink, for me the smell of stories yet to be told. Similarly my brain often fights to silence the thoughts and frightening visions of empty barns dotting rural Pennsylvania’s landscapes of open fields, filled with corn or wheat or simply lush green.

Ah, those dying ways of life that a few of us still fight for, maybe because we are stupid, maybe because we are stuck in the “good ole’ days” or maybe because it runs in our blood and we can’t imagine doing anything else.

Tell me more about … Mark Bradley, dairy farmer, Sayre, Pa.

We were in the midst of an arctic cold snap back in January when a friend of mine shared a post on Facebook about farming written by a farmer friend of hers. The post ended up going a bit viral. I contacted  the author, second generation dairy farmer Mark Bradley, of Sayre, Pa., as soon as I saw the post and asked him if I could come photograph him at the farm one day. He kindly agreed.  This is the post that caught the attention of me and others:

I stepped outside this morning to be greeted by negative whatever it is, plus a vicious wind. I knew before even stepping in the barn that it was going to be a rough one. It was a nice 34 degrees in the middle of the barn, but colder along the northwest corner. We got the cows all fed, I thawed out a couple water bowls, then started milking.   As I was putting a milker on Hershey, this cow Candy turned around and put her soft warm muzzle alongside my cheek and in my neck. She loves to give kisses and get hugs, and she knew I needed a hug now more than ever.

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I wrapped my arms around her soft head and with tears in my eyes, gave her a big hug. Sometimes it just hits you…the reality of the responsibility of being a farmer. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, how crappy it is, how sick you are, or how tired you are.  Good day or bad, our cows count on us to take care of them, and we do whatever it takes to keep them happy. Dad and I milk around 50 cows, and have another 50 or so of youngstock. So over 100 animals ranging in age from a few hours old ( yes I had one born last night) to over 9 years old count on us everyday. Just dad and I. No hired hands, no substitutes…

I’m not complaining, I’m not looking for sympathy or a pat on the back… I’m just trying to help people understand the commitment that farmers have to the animals they love.  Buy milk, buy cheese, buy yogurt, buy anything dairy… if your kids don’t like white milk, buy chocolate. It’s still better for them than soda or sports drinks…stay warm. I’ll be outside thawing out the frost free waterer that is not supposed to freeze.”

Thank you to Mark for letting my kids and I visit his farm and for answering some questions about his lifestyle and dairy farming in Bradford County, Pa.  He has also been gracious enough to agree to be part of my personal photo project focusing on dairy farms in Bradford County. If you are a farmer, or know someone who is, and would like to be part of this series, aimed at bringing awareness and appreciative attention to farmers in our communities, please contact me via my contact form on this site or at lisahoweler@gmail.com


Tell us a little about yourself… where your from originally, your family, hobbies, etc.

“I was born in Sayre and raised on the farm that my father and I operate. My parents bought the farm in 1979 (a year before I was born), so I am the second generation to run the farm. My father’s grandfather had a small dairy farm just up the road from where he grew up a few miles from our farm, so his interest in farming was gained at a young age. My wife Nichole and I have been married 12 years, and together we have a 6 year old son (Parker) and 3 year old daughter (Lexi) who both love the farm. In my spare time I enjoy taking Parker hunting, fishing, woodworking, and fixing old tractors. “

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DSC_5843-Edit-2How long have you been farming? How did you become involved in it?

“I’ve been involved with the farm my whole life. From a young age I would help out with whatever chores I could. I’ve always loved being around the cows, and as I got a little older I was able to drive tractors and run the machinery helping out with the field work. I didn’t always see myself coming back to the farm… after high school I went to college with the intention of becoming a teacher. It was the first time I had ever really been away from the farm.

I came home every weekend to work on the farm, and I dreaded going back to college every Sunday night. Just over a year into college I began to realize that my heart was in farming, and that’s what I wanted to do. I changed my major from secondary education and finished in 4 years with degrees in physics and geology. After graduating, Dad and I formed a formal partnership, and this spring will be 15 years operating together.

What is the main focus of your farm?  

Dairy is the main focus of our farm. We milk around 50 cows which produce about 200 gallons of milk a day. We raise all our heifer (female) calves, so we have around 100 total. We grow and harvest almost all our feed on 225 owned and rented acres.

Considering the hardships farmers face in the United States especially, what keeps you from giving up on farming?

Honestly, it is a labor of love. I love working with the cows, and I love working the land.  It is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. There are always bad days, but I can’t see myself doing anything else.

 

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What do you think the future holds for farming in the United States? 

The future of dairy farming in this country is worrisome.  Small family farms like ours are disappearing at an alarming rate. Farms are becoming bigger with more cows, and are run like a factory with many employees and shifts. They are still producing good quality milk, but the cozy small farm where the cows have names and the farmers care for them and know them like pets is going by the wayside.

What is the best part of your farming life? 

The absolute best part is sharing the farm life with my kids. They see what I do and are eager to help. They understand where their milk and meat come from and they know how hard we work to put it on the table. My heart melts when they go on and on at the dinner table about how good their milk is, and talk about which cow it might have come from.
Aside from raising our kids on the farm, my other favorite thing is working so closely with nature. There is something so amazing about helping a calf to be born, then raising that calf into mature milking cow. The same can be said for planting seeds and harvesting the crops.

What is the hardest part of your farming life? 

This is a tough one to answer… I would have to say the disappointments.  I had an old farmer tell me one time that it’s human nature to want to be in control, but it’s God that is in control, and we have to trust in him. I tell myself that whenever something happens that is out of my control.

You can put your heart and soul into getting a crop planted, only to have a drought or have a torrential rain that ruins it. Your favorite cow can get sick and despite your best efforts you may lose her. Machinery breaks at times when you need it the most. Cows go into labor at the most inconvenient times.  Dinners are missed because something requires immediate attention. When I get sick, no matter how bad I feel, I still have to get up and get the work done because all the cows are counting on me.

Anything you would like to add?

When I tell people I’m a farmer, most will respond with “that’s a hard life”.  They are right. But it’s a good life. There is nothing more satisfying to me than being able to do what I love day in and day out.  At the end of the road, it’s not about how much money you made, but about the quality of life you lived. I am so blessed.

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