Vances Mill Dairy: Piwowars strike balance between family and farming

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UNIONTOWN, Pa. – Better get one thing straight: John Piwowar is no pro farmer.
It’s not that he’s bad at what he does. But there are a lot more farmers, a lot more dairymen, who are more focused on their crops and cows and tractors and parlors than he is, he says.
John and his wife, Myra, do things on Vances Mill Dairy a bit differently, with only one goal in mind: to keep an even keel between their family and community life and making a living.
Just returned. John and Myra Piwowar just returned from a week-long trip to visit their daughter and her family in Minnesota.
Sure they gawked at Northern Plains cornfields that stretched across the horizon, but the real reason they were there was pure pleasure.
They were there to visit and relax and spend time with their grandchildren, Helena and Robby.
And there wasn’t a single worry that the farm would fall apart while they were gone.
A different view. Both Piwowars work full-time on their 80-cow dairy just outside of Uniontown in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Fayette County.
This place is their home, their livelihood, their legacy.
But it’s not their entire life.
Myra, a Baltimore girl, met John at Penn State in the 1960s. She’d never touched a dairy cow before she met him. John, on the other hand, was a third-generation dairyman, around cows all his life.
After his graduation from Penn State, John married Myra, then left for a tour of duty in Vietnam. When he came back, he earned a master’s in dairy science at Penn State and went to work for New Hampshire’s Extension service as a dairy agent and specialist.
In the spring of 1976, John received a startling phone call from his father. His three brothers, who were farming the homestead, had decided to sell the cows.
Oh no they’re not, John said. Negotiations started and that September, he and Myra moved home to take care of the herd they now owned.
There was one stipulation: “We said we will not be tied to the farm seven days a week,” Myra said. It’s been that way ever since.
Getting away. The Piwowars have a different operating philosophy than most of the other dairy people they know.
“We always said we didn’t want to work until we’re 70 and too old to enjoy life,” John said. “I hear guys bragging that they’ve not missed a milking in 30 years. That’s insane!”
“Dairy farming is a big part of our life, but it’s not everything. We get away, get charged and come back,” he said.
The couple employs two part-time milkers and one full-time farmhand who helps with most anything, they say.
All their schedules are worked out before John and Myra take off across the country, and his brother Jim, who lives on the farm, is usually in town when they’re away in case anything happens.
There’s rarely a worry.
Their employees, who love the cows and the crops, keep the business pushing ahead while the Piwowars take in Disney, the beach at Ocean City, their other daughter’s home in Ohio, Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas or Bourbon Street.
Being involved. Besides relaxation, the Piwowars emphasize volunteerism in the community.
John grew up watching his father play a leadership role in their local farm supply cooperative, and his mother helped with several church functions.
Over the years, the couple has taken active roles in their school board, Penn State’s student council, their dairy co-op, Genex breeding service, Extension, 4-H, Farm Bureau, and the county DHIA board and county conservation board.
He’s also heading up their local watershed association, and plans to run for a director’s seat with the Dairy Farmers of America this year.
“If you’re going to complain, you’ve got to be in a position to do something about it. Don’t stand on the sidelines and [criticize],” he said.
One thing he brought from his years in New England was to wear his heart on his sleeve. Piwowar watches what’s going on around him and says what’s on his mind, even if it’s the unpopular opinion or comes out a little brash.
“If I put myself out there into [a cause], I feel I have the right to comment,” John said.
Humbled. John has served on the Penn State advisory board for the Fayette campus for 26 years, and this year was bestowed that group’s Outstanding Fellow award.
Piwowar admits he was surprised to receive the honor, and it humbled him.
“But I don’t seek recognition. This is all just stuff we do.”
“It’s a family tradition. We can’t give money, but we can give time and talents.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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