BELLEVILLE, Pa. — A former mental health worker is helping one Mifflin County farm navigate its way through the dairy crisis.

Some research has helped the farm get a grant to find its niche in the market.

Jessica Matthews lives in Centre County and has no farm background. She grew up in Delaware County, earning a psychology degree and working in the mental health industry in inner-city Philadelphia for 11 years.

A move to Centre County a few years ago prompted her to start a chicken hobby farm. While searching for straw online for her flock, she came across an ad for a dairy apprenticeship at Hameau Farm in Belleville, Mifflin County.

The farm is nestled against a mountain with a herd of Plum Bottom Aryshires and is home each summer to a girls’ camp that introduces the campers to agriculture. The farm hosts events for visitors and continues to operate as a working dairy.

“I thought, ‘This place looks amazing,’” Matthews said.

Feeling burned out by the exhausting work in mental health, Matthews took the leap and decided to apply for the apprenticeship.

She interviewed with Gay Rodgers, farmer and director at Hameau, in March 2017. Rodgers was impressed by Matthews’ enthusiasm for something so new to her. She agreed to a “pre-apprenticeship” so Matthews could “test it out” and see if it was a good fit.

Matthews worked at the farm chores and getting to know the herd from March until November of 2017. She then began her apprenticeship under Rodgers that November.

“It was definitely overwhelming for me. I was fumbling for a while,” Matthews said. “But it is very much a routine on the farm, which helped. It eventually clicked. I finally managed to get into the daily operations.”

As she spent time interacting with visitors to the farm and with the public, Matthews was often asked, “Where can we buy your milk?”

Hameau had not had a means to do direct sales of its milk or any milk products from the farm itself.

Matthews got involved immediately with researching the dairy industry and the current milk pricing crisis. She became involved with the Grazing Lands Coalition, the Center for Dairy Excellence, and the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

Signs all over Centre County encouraging the community to “Buy Milk” were also a prompt for Matthews to keep researching for a way to get the Mifflin County farm’s milk on the market.

Matthews spoke with other apprentices at other farms and this led her to look into earning licenses for the farm in order to boost the milk checks.

She said it didn’t seem fair that cows that ate grass and those that ate TMR, or total mixed ration, were producing milk that earned farmers the same amount on the milk checks.

“I just kept thinking how the milk (at Hameau) is very special milk. So I looked into marketing milk like this and raw milk came up as an option,” Matthews said.

After some discussion with Rodgers, Matthews felt that she had found the farm’s niche.

She contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and DHIA, or dairy herd improvement association, in Lancaster. In order to obtain a permit, she learned, they needed to test such things as the water, the cows for tuberculosis and brucellosis, and the milk for antibiotics, as well as other things.

In March of this year, Hameau Farm received its permit.

“We received a grant to put in a creamery,” Matthews said.

The creamery will include yogurt and cheese made with Hameau’s milk.

“If we can get raw milk and a direct market, then we can get a store in place,” she said.

The plan is for Rodgers to oversee as Matthews develops the product, and manages and markets the store.

The grant also includes the funds to build a lab at the farm.

The construction will not begin until after the summer season of campers has ceased.

“We are very intentional on how we spend our funds,” Matthews said. They are taking their time, making sure each part of the process is done correctly and money is spent accordingly.

A name for the creamery is yet to be chosen. Since she is not from the area originally, Matthews said she wants to research a great name that best represents the community.

“I want to honor this land and these cows,” she said, because the dairy Aryshires “work really hard for that milk!”

For a young woman with nearly a dozen years working in mental health, she has come a long way from raising a few chickens for a hobby.

She is now a dairy entrepreneur.

Matthews said Hameau touched her heart in a special way, and she fell in love with the farm immediately, which is why she has worked so hard to help it thrive and continue.

“Hameau is such a special place to me,” she said, “And I want the public to experience it and appreciate it too.”

When Matthews was a college student, she said she wanted to choose a career in which she made a difference in the world. In her job in Philadelphia, where she dealt with poverty-stricken clients, she said she could not help them with their mental issues immediately. She first had to find food sources and help for them to pay their bills.

“I felt like in order to truly help people, I needed to get back to the basics,” she said. “There was nothing tangible in what I did before. But with farming, this is all very concrete here.”

She said she is so glad she started her process with a few chickens at her home.

“They really boosted my homestead skills. Really, raising them was the ‘gateway drug’ to farming,” Matthews said, adding that it was a responsibility that was daily, no matter what kind of weather or time of year, just like any other form of farming.

“Chickens don’t care if it’s Easter or Christmas morning,” she said.

Until Matthews found her full-time position at Hameau Farm when she moved to Centre County, she worked on some small vegetable farms while using her psychology degree part-time at another location as well.

She has no regrets of how her career has changed, and despite Rodgers’ applause, she does not wish to make the business venture about herself.

“I am really just a conduit,” Matthews said. “It’s not about me. It’s all about the land and other farmers in Pennsylvania.”

Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer in central Pennsylvania.