By Jayne Sebright, Center for Dairy Excellence Executive Director
Like most people, I find December to be an extremely busy time of year. Along with getting ready for Christmas and coordinating holiday gatherings with family and friends, it’s one of the busiest months for the Center and our Dairy Excellence Foundation. That’s because the second week of December is when we have our joint annual board meeting, which brings together the 16-member Center for Dairy Excellence Board and the 11-member Foundation Board to review and plan our organizations’ work in strengthening dairy and supporting the next generation.
I really enjoy our board meetings because they include perspective from dairy farmers representing different regions of the state and representatives from the sales and service industry, milk marketing cooperatives, the processing community and retailers. Someone from Hershey Foods even gives time to serve on our Foundation board, and the perspective he brings from a global food company is fascinating.
One challenge, though, with such a diverse group is getting them to become more comfortable with one another so they are willing to openly share their thoughts and suggestions. Typically, we have an ice breaker to help everyone get to know each other better. Last year our ice breaker was for everyone to share a favorite holiday memory. As people shared, what struck me the most was how much family, farm and faith were all intertwined for the producers in the room.
One of my favorite childhood memories is a Christmas morning when I was about seven. It was an exceptionally cold morning, and the negative degree weather had pipes and water troughs frozen throughout the farm. Since my younger sister and I were still little, we stayed in with my mom while my dad and my three older siblings were out thawing pipes and trying to get the farm work done. I remember looking out the window, wondering what they were doing, and waiting for what seemed like an eternity until they came back in the house to celebrate Christmas. Finally, they did come in, and I remember how much fun it was just enjoying the family time after a long morning on the farm.
To me, it symbolizes the virtue of patience and the reward that can come with it. When I look back on that morning, I am thankful I wasn’t the one who had to be out in the cold thawing all the pipes. But now that I am older, we have had mornings like that on our own farm when we end up spending eight hours on something that should only take three because the brutally cold weather seems to make getting anything to work impossible. But we keep working at it, and eventually, things thaw out and water starts to flow again.
With the past four years, many farm families and others in the industry are finding it challenging to remain patient and stay focused on finding solutions. It’s easy to get distracted with all the negatives out there. But challenges always spark collaboration. At the farm level, we are seeing more farmers looking at ways to work together to save costs. More peer groups are starting to form, so like-minded farmers can share their ideas and benchmark against each other. And more farm families are challenging themselves to make changes and diversify their farms to remain in the business.
Folks at the policy level have also been working to find solutions. The new Dairy Margin Coverage offered by USDA and the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program $5 million grant opportunity are examples of resources that have resulted from good discussions focused on finding solutions. At the industry level, groups like the US Dairy Export Council and the US Center for Innovation are looking to open new market opportunities for dairy, while the National FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program is working to demonstrate farmers’ commitment to animal welfare.
Many people are working at various levels to “thaw the pipes” in the dairy industry and get revenue flowing again. But it has been a long four years, and patience is wearing thin. Fortunately, there are reasons for optimism. Milk prices have increased and are anticipated to be stronger through 2020. In fact, November was the first time Class III prices were above $20 in more than four years. With better forages in the bunk (or silo), milk production is also starting to grow again on many Pennsylvania farms.
As we look forward to the holiday season, remember at the core of the Christmas story is our faith. As we look at the challenges we face, it is even more important to have faith in our industry and patience in what is to come. As our industry becomes more global, it will require dairy producers to continue to look harder for ways to strengthen their businesses and work through the highs and lows of the marketplace.
But we also need to have faith. The world will always need to eat, and we will always need our farmers to provide that food. There are seven billion people in the world, and the population continues to grow. There is no doubt that the past four years have been a very challenging time in the dairy industry. However, tremendous long-term opportunities exist in agriculture, and those who have stayed focused and patient will be better positioned to take advantage of the opportunities to come.
At the Center for Dairy Excellence, we are thankful to serve Pennsylvania’s dairy industry. We want to be a resource for dairy farm families. If you’re looking for a solution, I would encourage you to make a resolution in 2020 to call the Center and ask how we can help. Our resources may help you uncover options you may not have realized otherwise.
In the meantime, take this holiday season to reflect on what is most important and celebrate the blessings in your life. From all of us at the Center, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and blessed New Year. May the birth of Jesus bring joy to your family and keep you safe in His care throughout the coming year. May it renew your faith in the world.
Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.
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