SALEM, Ohio – A proposed project to keep agriculture strong in northwestern Pennsylvania is drawing backlash across the region.
Proposed is a 680-cow incubator dairy farm in Erie County, according to Linda Field, a regional director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
The PDA issued a $90,000 grant from the state’s First Industries Fund to conduct a feasibility study for the project, according to Rick Novotny, executive director of the Erie County Redevelopment Authority.
That study, which is just wrapping up, will tell if the public-private partnership – the brainchild of the state’s dairy task force – is a go.
Ownership. If it is a go, the Erie County Redevelopment Authority will own the prospective dairy’s property and facilities.
A private producer will lease the facilities at fair market value and own all the cows, according to Novotny.
“This is looked at as an economic development project, not necessarily a farm project,” Novotny said. “It’s similar to other redevelopment projects in northwestern Pennsylvania in manufacturing, metals and plastics, except this one deals with cows.”
After five years, the farmer has the choice to buy the property outright or move on, taking his cows and equity with him.
The lease payments he or she has made through the years will be pooled to fund the next facility in the area.
Gary Heckman, executive director of Pennsylvania’s Center for Dairy Excellence, says there are already six to eight other dairy incubators in the works across the Keystone State. He said the northwestern Pennsylvania farm, at nearly 700 cows, would be the largest of those planned.
By the numbers. Agriculture, specifically dairy, is on the decline in northwestern Pennsylvania.
Heckman said state figures show statewide losses of about 75,000 dairy cattle from 1995 to 2005.
Northwestern Pennsylvania lost about 25 percent of its dairy cattle in the same time period, which is twice the rate of the statewide decline and a real reason to be concerned, Heckman said.
“If we’re going to stay strong in the dairy industry, we need a certain size [state dairy herd],” to keep infrastructure strong. Dwindling cow numbers are the start of a downward spiral, Heckman said.
In the last five years alone, Erie County has lost 22 percent of its dairy cows and 20 percent of its milk production, according to Dan Brockett, an Extension educator who focuses on community and economic development in 10 counties in northwestern Pennsylvania.
That’s led to the demise of feed mills, nutritionists, veterinarians and other ag input suppliers, he says.
Brockett said the incubator dairy has the potential to regrow cow numbers and bring back some of the feed mills and other business that are crucial to helping farms run.
Negativity. But farmers and locals aren’t all seeing the farm plan in a positive light.
Dairyman Joshua Sherretts said he and his farmer-neighbors heard the state was planning to spend $2-$3 million on the farm’s barns and equipment, and the idea doesn’t sit well.
Sherretts, just 19 years old, offered a resolution of nonsupport that the local Grange passed, which prompted the Pennsylvania Grange to host a summertime forum featuring agriculture director Dennis Wolff.
“And after that forum, we still had a lot of questions unanswered,” Sherretts said.
The farmers started petitions to show taxpayers and farmers don’t want this farm and, as of Oct. 26, had collected 717 signatures.
Those signatures came from farmers, retired farmers, and people in dairy-related professions. Some even came from nonfarmers, Sherretts said.
Arguments. Sherretts said he and his neighbors aren’t against the idea of such a large herd in their backyard. It’s the rest of the plan that irks them.
“It’s the idea that giving government assistance to [build a brand new farm] that’s not fair to the farmers that are just trying to hold on,” he said.
“We heard one farmer will supply all the crops for the farm. Another farmer gets the farm. How is that fair?” asks Lisa Ford, Sherretts’ cousin who’s also campaigning against the project.
“They’re going to take business away from the local mills and vets. It may not be the first [farm] they put in that hurts us the most, but maybe the next one, or the next one.”
Ford says she’s heard the state is planning on putting 10 farms like this one in Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties, ranging from 300 to 700 cows.
“Eventually they’re going to put all the family farms out of business,” Ford says. “Pennsylvania has always been family farms, and that’s where we’d like to stay.”
Milk pricing. “Adding more milk to the market when prices are already so low …. The government is already paying dairy farmers to get rid of their cows through the buyout. There’s a world of irony there,” Joshua Sherretts said.
But Dan Brockett says more milk coming from the region won’t drive milk prices down.
“Everybody’s got to understand the amount of milk produced in northwestern Pennsylvania is a drop in the bucket of the national supply. We’re not affecting the national price.
“If this project happens or not, dairy producers need to understand their price is not affected or set by what the neighbor produces.”
“The reality is dairy farmers are competing with dairies in Idaho and California, not the farmer down the road,” Brockett said.
Needs basis. “Milk processing plants here need the milk, and we can’t give it to them. Right now they’re trucking it in from other states,” Brockett said of the processing plants at Sharpsville, New Wilmington and Erie.
Center for Dairy Excellence figures back that up: The processing plants are importing 30 million to 40 million pounds of milk per month to keep those plants at capacity. The cost of moving that milk goes into the pool and reduces the prices farmers get for their milk, Gary Heckman said.
“Producers are subsidizing milk being brought in. Once the plug is pulled on these plants, though, there will be even less opportunity for farmers. Eventually they will be paying even more to have their milk hauled.”
“The best thing that could happen is the addition of 20,000 cows to the area over the next 10 years. It would really help producers.”
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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