KIRBYVILLE, Pa. — A small group of Berks County farmers gave mixed reviews this week on a new report that proposes improvements to Pennsylvania’s dairy industry.
The farmers liked a recommendation to improve the brand identity of Pennsylvania milk but were hesitant on some more ambitious proposals.
“This (report) is something that I think we need to act on, maybe, but I can’t know that until I hear from you specifically, the people that are going to be most impacted by it,” Sen. Judy Schwank told the six farmers she met with on Monday in a nook at the Kirbyville Farm Market.
Schwank, a Fleetwood Democrat and the minority-party chairwoman of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, sponsored the resolution last year that created the study, which was conducted by the General Assembly’s research agency.
The study’s most innovative recommendation is to impose a surcharge on one of the dairy industry’s top competitors — plant-based milks.
“This, I think, will be a heavy lift for sure,” Schwank said.
The regulation would come from the Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, which is authorized to regulate a number of dairy products. One of the products on the list is “milk drink,” a term that arguably could include plant-based alternatives.
The study suggests using the revenue to fund the Milk Marketing Board, but Schwank said it might be possible to use the money to promote real milk instead.
Paul Hartman, an owner of Scattered Acres dairy, said he’d prefer that the government stop plant beverages from being called milk.
But the federal Food and Drug Administration controls that labeling, and so far has not bowed to pressure from the dairy industry.
As a result, Hartman sees the sense in the state collecting a premium on plant drinks.
“It’s not the answer, but it’s something to do to get a little money out of that sector,” Hartman said.
Pennsylvania is in a rare position to impose a fee on plant milks because few states have an agency that regulates milk prices the way the Milk Marketing Board does, said Tim Kurtz, a dairy farmer from Elverson.
Schwank’s takeaway? “I don’t hear you saying forget it, but it may be a long shot,” she told the group.
The group was even less comfortable with the study’s proposal to reduce shoppers’ confusion by relaxing the state’s unusually strict rules for milk sell-by dates.
“Consumers believe that a product with a later date code is a fresher product, even though all products will lose freshness at approximately the same time once opened,” the study says.
The farmers were more worried that extending the sell-by window move could jeopardize the quality and safety of the milk.
Any break in the cold chain, such as when consumers take the milk home from the store, can reduce the product’s shelf life, Kurtz said.
And keeping milk on the shelf longer might not be the best goal. “The fresher the milk is, the higher quality I think it is,” said Phoebe Bitler, a Fleetwood dairy farmer.
The farmers were more enthusiastic about building brand recognition for Pennsylvania milk.
Fluid milk is the most profitable end use and a strength for the state’s processors, but consumption has fallen 40% since 1975, according to the study.
Over the last few years, dairy promoters have encouraged farmers to look for milk bottles stamped with the number 42, which is the code for Pennsylvania.
It’s a useful factoid, but a small, cryptic plant code isn’t much of a brand identity.
National grocery chains probably won’t even have any milk stamped with a 42, Schwank said.
Hartman said some Pennsylvania processors could probably use the PA Preferred logo that aren’t using it now, but many of these bottlers sell some of their product out of state.
It’s hard to know how a consumer in Connecticut would react to the made-in-Pennsylvania branding, he said.
Bitler liked Schwank’s proposal for point-of-sale advertising in the dairy case featuring local farmers. Supermarkets already use such signage in their produce departments to highlight growers who produced a particular crop.
“I like visuals, and if something looks good, I’ll be more prone to buy it than if it’s just that funny old bottle of milk,” Bitler said.
While dairy checkoff dollars could fuel that project, another grassroots program is already bearing fruit.
Lolly Lesher said she’s seen more consumers choosing whole milk since farmers began painting wrapped bales with slogans promoting the product as 97% fat free. The so-called baleboards break down the perception that whole milk is an unhealthful choice.
“The customers come into my dairy store saying ... ‘Give me the whole milk. I don’t have to drink that crappy skim milk anymore,’” said Lesher, of Way-Har Farms in Bernville.
It’s hard to know which dairy products Pennsylvania should produce more of, though, because the state doesn’t have much data on the sales of particular items.
The study proposes licensing milk retailers to capture these details. Pennsylvania might be able to avoid this regulatory imposition by working with a food retailers association, which might already be gathering some of the information the state wants, Lesher said.
Schwank also asked the farmers for recommendations that weren’t in the report.
Bitler suggested the state give farmers an incentive to put money back into their dairies, perhaps a tax credit program like conservation-focused Resource Enhancement and Protection.
“You want people to reinvest or we won’t be here,” she said.
The goal for Schwank and other ag lawmakers now is charting a course that not only ensures that dairy farmers continue to be here, but adapt and thrive in the years to come.