A group of Holstein heifers from Hertzler Farms soak up the sunshine while grazing along the intersection of Hopewell and Cold Run roads in Caernarvon Township, Berks County.

A state commission is finishing up its work on a major report designed to chart a profitable future for Pennsylvania’s dairy industry.

The Dairy Future Commission has a broad mandate to suggest improvements to marketing, regulation, cost of production and current issues — in short, anything that can be done to help the state’s largest ag sector find more secure footing.

“At the very beginning of this we were told to kind of shoot for the moon,” said Glenn Stoltzfus, a Somerset County dairy farmer who chairs the commission’s subcommittee on state regulations.

Dairy is a big deal in Pennsylvania. The industry contributes a quarter of the state’s total annual ag sales, $2 billion, and the state ranks seventh nationally in milk production.

But Pennsylvania has not been immune from the past five years of mostly low milk prices, including the abrupt loss of school and restaurant business this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Pennsylvania has lost 1,000 dairy farms since 2015. And though it still has the most dairies of any state save Wisconsin, Pennsylvania’s farms remain relatively small as their counterparts in other states are getting bigger and bigger.

Analysis by AgChoice Farm Credit finds the state’s producers are not increasing milk production fast enough to keep up with costs.

AgChoice acknowledged that increasing production might not be the best strategy for the industry as a whole, but that doesn’t change the fact that costs keep going up for farmers, and Pennsylvania farmers are becoming less cost-competitive as a result because of the way they’re managing their farms.

The Dairy Future Commission’s report, due to be released Aug. 1, will be the third study of the state’s dairy industry in four years —and with 50 recommendations, the largest.

Previous studies were conducted by a group of dairy economists, who recommended attracting cheese plants to the state, and a legislative research agency, which recommended a number of tweaks to the state Milk Marketing Board, a price-regulating agency.

The Dairy Future Commission was created last summer during a flurry of legislation promoting the ag industry.

The commission bill was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman. His spokeswoman did not respond to questions about Corman’s perspective on the commission’s progress.

The Dairy Future Commission has reaffirmed some of the recommendations from previous studies, such as extending the sell-by window for milk, but many of the recommendations will be new.

And this group of people crafting the proposals is particularly large. The commission’s 24 members include lawmakers, dairy processors, even the state ag secretary.

But the process has very much been farmer-led. Chairman Brett Reinford and the heads of the four subcommittees are all dairy farmers. (The commissioners are unpaid but can get reimbursed for travel expenses.)

Committee Work

Since Sept. 3, the commission has held a dozen full meetings and twice as many subcommittee meetings.

The consumer subcommittee has focused on ways to make milk more appealing at retail.

One of its recommendations is for the industry to collaborate with the dairy checkoff to make sure supermarkets keep their milk displays clean. Shelves streaked with gray from old spills don’t exactly make consumers eager to buy.

Subcommittee chairwoman Carissa Itle Westrick is used to thinking about consumers’ needs.

She and her family run Vale Wood Farms in Loretto, which sells milk through a farm store and delivery service.

“We get that feedback right away from consumers who want to know, why isn’t there more chocolate in the chocolate milk — or too much chocolate in the chocolate milk?” she said.

Proposals approved by the subcommittees went to the full commission for discussion.

Because there were people with relevant expertise who weren’t on the subcommittee that produced an idea, Reinford tried to give each member an opportunity to weigh in before voting.

“We didn’t want to push anything through without everyone having a say,” he said.

Many of the proposals from Stoltzfus’ subcommittee on state regulations would have to be implemented by the Legislature.

Those proposals include scrutinizing the convoluted method for collecting and distributing the state’s premium on fluid milk, and developing a new premium or fee for dairy products other than milk. Both levies are designed to boost farmers’ income.

The Milk Marketing Board has already been looking at these two ideas, and Stoltzfus said his subcommittee benefited from having on it a board representative who could explain what the agency legally can and can’t do.

While commission members did try to aim high, they also had to be realistic.

Stoltzfus said his group scrapped a proposal based on Maine’s unique milk pricing system when it became obvious that Pennsylvania’s Legislature would never go for it.

Maine has a tiered pricing system based on farms’ annual production. When the milk price falls below a set price for that tier, the state pays farmers in that bracket.

Pandemic Priorities

As it did for so many other endeavors, the coronavirus pandemic shook up the commission’s plans.

Most obvious was the switch from in-person meetings to conference calls.

Though discussions could get a little confusing with so many people on the line, Reinford said the commissioners remained engaged, and few were absent on any given call.

“In a way, the COVID made it easier for us to meet. We didn’t have to travel as far to all meet together, and I think it might have even helped us be more engaged,” he said.

Stoltzfus said he thought the phone format hindered discussion, but he learned to compensate by politicking before the meeting — calling other commission members to get on the same page and garner support for ideas.

Dairy’s sudden market downturn and supply-chain snarls also altered the commission’s priorities. Long-term projects seemed less pressing in the face of immediate needs.

To Westrick, the state’s rising food insecurity underscored the value of Fill a Glass with Hope, a partnership between dairy groups and food banks that channels milk to people in need.

“Suddenly that may be the most important thing we can support,” she said.

This spring, the commission sent political leaders six “COVID urgent” recommendations that the panel didn’t think should wait till August.

One recommendation was continued state funding for the Center for Dairy Excellence, which has developed contingency planning materials and held numerous calls to help farmers keep up with the rapid changes in the industry.

Other suggestions included a temporary relaxation of manure management regulations to facilitate milk dumping on fields, and a study to help the state’s food processing sector weather emergency situations.

Though progress has been made on several of the urgent recommendations, Stoltzfus said that overall the pandemic took some of the wind out of the commission’s sails, blunting the early enthusiasm by creating a new set of challenges to address.

“I hope that doesn’t water anything down that comes out of this commission because I think there’s a lot of real good recommendations that come out of it,” he said.

Looking to the Future

The commission’s final report is currently being written, and the full commission will review it at a meeting in July.

The document must be presented to the governor and legislative leadership by Aug. 1. A public rollout was in the works for Ag Progress Days, but because of the pandemic, Penn State’s mid-August trade show has been canceled, at least in its in-person form.

Despite the industry’s struggles over the past five years, commission leaders are optimistic about dairy’s future in Pennsylvania.

“What’s important and unique about the Pennsylvania dairy industry is that there are so many different ways to keep so many different family traditions alive,” Westrick said.

Stoltzfus hopes Pennsylvania continues to have a place for modestly sized dairies, which have been disappearing faster than either tiny or large farms.

Stoltzfus can’t see huge Texas-style dairies cramming into the valleys between the Allegheny ridges, but he said Pennsylvania enjoys a prime location on the densely populated East Coast.

“We’re close to the market, and we need to try to use that to our advantage as much as possible,” Stoltzfus said.

Reinford believes the commission’s recommendations will lead to improvements for the Pennsylvania dairy industry.

Actually implementing the panel’s vision will fall largely to other people — especially lawmakers and industry groups — and Reinford acknowledges some proposals may take longer to implement than others.

Still, at 34, Reinford has a long career in dairy ahead of him, and he’s grateful to have a hand in defining where that future should lie.

“The dairy industry 20 years from now in Pennsylvania will certainly be different,” he said, “but I’m so optimistic about it, even though we’re in a challenging time right now.”

Lancaster Farming