Nearly 200 people attended an emotional rally at the Lebanon Valley Expo Center Monday in hopes that Dean Foods would give local dairy farmers more time to find a new milk buyer – a request Dean Foods indicated is unlikely to succeed.
Dean Foods, which owns Wengert’s Swiss Premium Dairy in North Cornwall Township, notified 26 farms in the region that the company would end its milk contract with them on May 31. About 40 other farms in the area that also supply milk to the dairy are terrified the same fate eventually awaits them, according to farmer Alisha Risser.
Farmers are asking people to contact Dean Foods and request that the company extend the cancelled contracts until the end of the year, buying more time for them to find a new purchaser or transition out of the business.
Kirby Horst, who owns a 55-cow farm in Millcreek Township, planned to eventually pass his dairy operation on to his son. Without income coming in however, there would be no choice but to sell, Horst said.
“The thought of looking out at my pasture and not seeing those cows grazing is going to be something that – I’m not sure I’m going to be able to handle that,” he said.
If there is no milk buyer, the cows would still have to be milked but the milk would be thrown away, he explained. (The average dairy cow produces six to seven gallons of milk per day, and most dairies milk twice per day.) The daily expenses of operating a dairy farm are too steep to continue owning cows for long without a revenue stream, he said. A milk-producing cow eats 50 to 100 pounds of food per day.
Part of the problem in finding a new milk buyer, farmers said, is that purchasers are more likely to look for new suppliers in the fall and winter than in the spring.
The farmers encouraged people to contact Deans at 214-303-3767, [email protected], or 2711 North Haskell Avenue, Suite 3400, Dallas, TX, 75204 to request the company extend the contracts.
“Their request is reasonable,” said Bruck Keck, an Annville veterinarian who treats many of the county’s dairy cows. “These farms may have to sell their cows, their equipment or even their farms for a fraction of what they’re worth.”
Dean spokeswoman Reace Smith said the company cannot do what the farmers are asking.
“We recognize the difficulty farmers are facing as a result of the decision, but we are unable to continue to purchase milk we can’t sell. We explored all our options before we made this decision,” Smith said in a written statement. “The need for the current volume decreases in April, meaning we’ll be taking milk for longer than needed already. At this time, we can’t extend the contracts. As a fluid milk processing company, we are unable to store milk long-term.”
State representatives Frank Ryan, Russ Diamond and Sue Helm all attended Monday’s rally and said they would send letters to Dean in support of the farmers. A letter will also be forthcoming from Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, according to Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence.
People supporting the farms should not boycott Dean products, the farmers emphasized. “That is the worst thing you can do,” Horst said.
The milk market is struggling nationwide as people drink less milk and large suppliers like Walmart bring down prices. Some industry leaders contend the minimum purchasing prices set by the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board – designed to protect farmers – are actually preventing Pennsylvania farmers from being competitive.