DALTON, Pa. — Paul Manning admits that if he just relied on shipping milk, there wouldn’t be enough income to let one of his sons join the family business, let alone all three.
But because the Manning Farm Dairy has been bottling and selling milk since 1939, and making ice cream since 1964, there was an opportunity for his sons to become the fourth generation involved with the farm.
Still, it was more than just opportunity that compelled Manning’s sons to return to the farm after each graduated from an Ivy League school.
The biggest draw was the chance to not only carry on the family tradition, but to also expand it.
Brian Manning, 42, earned a degree in agricultural engineering from Cornell University and is the manager of the farm. He also handles equipment repairs and runs the breeding program.
Younger brother Ken Manning, 40, is also a graduate of Cornell, majoring in animal science. He returned to the farm to oversee the processing operation for ice cream and bottled milk.
The youngest of the trio, Kevin Manning, 38, handles the daily delivery of milk and ice cream to the farm’s four satellite stores, along with helping out with field work. Kevin came back to the dairy after graduating from Princeton with an anthropology degree.
Along with their father and mother, Jean, who takes care of perhaps the most important aspect of the business — bookwork — the Manning family has survived to become the last dairy left in North Abington Township, Lackawanna County.
“We’re in the fourth generation, and it’s unusual to see farms go into the third,” Paul said. “I knew Brian would be back. The others coming back, that was a pleasant surprise.”
The Manning family’s roots date back to 1920, when John B. Manning purchased the farm. His son, Kenneth, operated the dairy for 52 years and laid the groundwork for the expansion into retail. In 1939, Kenneth started a milk delivery route into the Scranton area, and he added ice cream in 1964. The route served as an important means to augment the family’s income, justifying the opening of a retail store right next to the dairy barn in the late 1960s.
After the delivery route ended in 1970, the Manning family grew the ice cream business, and the store.
“At that time we had the county agent here to discuss the store, and he put a counter on the road and only four or five cars went by that day. He said the location didn’t warrant a seasonal vegetable stand much less a dairy store,” Paul said. “But it wasn’t long until the word got out and people were lined up down the road for the store.”
Soon after, the family opened satellite stores in Scranton, Dunmore and Clarks Summit. Paul said the move to take the retail business off the farm was scary, but it was the family’s reputation that made it work.
“We moved into communities where the people were already familiar with us. They had been coming here,” Brian said. “We brought our milk and ice cream to them.”
The last satellite store opened in 2008, but that doesn’t mean the Manning family has been idle when it comes to expanding the farm.
A new heifer barn was built in 2008, and two years ago the feedlot was remodeled and a pavilion built nearby so customers could enjoy their ice cream on the premises.
The most popular improvement, as far as customers are concerned, is the new parlor that was installed in 2011. Brian fabricated the components of the parlor at his shop to replace the old facility that dated back to 1966.
The parlor allows five cows to be milked at a time, and each can be released individually, eliminating the problem of a “slow milker” holding up the process. It takes three hours to milk the farm’s herd of 100 cows, and the afternoon milking has become quite a draw with customers.
Complete with glass weigh jars and large windows that allow customers to watch the cows being milked right next to the store, Brian intentionally designed the parlor for visibility.
“I think it’s important for the public to see that the cows are calm and treated well,” he said. “This isn’t something they’re watching on a Youtube channel. They get right up close to what it looks like when cows are milked and fed.”
And what about those challenging times when a fresh heifer may be a little uncooperative during her first time in the parlor?
Brian said such occasions are a learning experience for the public.
“We explain to them everything that’s going on. We’re not hiding anything,” he said.
While there is room to expand the dairy herd, the land base is a bit of a limiting factor. The family raises just about all of the feed used for their cows, and they currently farm 450 acres despite the threat of encroachment from development.
The Mannings also belong to Dairy Farmers of America, giving them the option to ship any milk that isn’t used for the retail business. While fluid milk sales are consistent throughout the year, the ice cream business dips in the winter and more milk is shipped.
But in the summer, the family ships as little as 2,000 pounds as the demand for ice cream increases. On average, the family processes about 80 percent of the milk produced on the farm.
“I always want to produce an excess of milk so the processing isn’t short,” Brian said. “But with 100 cows and 450 acres, we need to balance what we have with the land available.”
Fortunately, when it comes to family, there is plenty of help to balance the workload for both the dairy and retail business.
That’s just the way Paul planned it years ago.
“I always looked at it as you get older, you can’t do it all. If the boys had the opportunity to come back, we had to have something they could come back to,” he said. “We want to keep the farm going, but you can’t do that if you’re stagnant in your business.”