Happy Dairy Month!

I’m a dairy farmer from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.

Working in partnership with my brother, I milk 90 Holsteins and grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa. And at the age of 54, I am working to bring my three sons into the farm operation.

As the saying goes, “timing is everything.”

Over the past 10 years, milk production is up in Pennsylvania, with dairy farms in the Keystone state increasing annual milk production from 9.9 billion pounds to 10.8 billion pounds today. In contrast, domestic milk and dairy product consumption is dropping and global trade is weakening due to the recent strength of the American dollar.

Rick Ebert, President, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau

So, my family – and my farm – stands at a crossroads. We are looking to grow our herd, while the general sentiment is that there is already more milk in the market than the market can handle.

I’ve dealt with low prices before and I’ll experience low prices again. But this time, something feels different. With the desire to transition the next generation into the farm, it feels like I have more at stake. Whatever happens, I know that our family – and our farm – will get through this glut.

Many dairy farmers have been able to pay down debt over the past two years and I’m hopeful that the downturn of 2015 will not threaten their viability in the future.

There’s No Avoiding Social Media

Meanwhile, as farmers, we generally adopt technology when it will help us become more efficient or more profitable. However, there is a piece of technology I’ve seen farmers generally avoid… social media.

My children are literally connected to the world through their smart phones. Information (and misinformation) is quickly available at your finger tip.

Recently, I upgraded to a smart phone and took the plunge into social media. And if I’ve learned anything from Facebook and Twitter, it’s that more of us need to tell the story of our farms… on social media.

We will never be able to eliminate misleading and outright false information about agriculture from being put on the Internet. But we can tell our own stories about the things we do to keep our cows healthy and happy.

Recently, an Oklahoma State University survey that tracks consumer preferences, asked a pointed question to assess whether consumers understand issues surrounding food and food policies. This study found that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labeling of foods containing DNA.

Yes, DNA – the building block of life. From apples to zucchini… bacon, steak and chicken nuggets… nearly all food contains DNA. If it was once alive, it contains DNA.

We have a lot of work to do, because the conversations about agriculture, farming and food will happen on Twitter and Facebook, with or without us.

It’s up to farmers to join the conversation. It’s up to farm families to share personal examples of animal care and environmental stewardship.

Most Americans are now more than two generations removed from the farm. Social media is our chance to influence what others are saying about our profession.

Yes, the immediate concerns about the imbalance in milk supply and demand and the effect it is having on prices dairy farmers receive for their milk, bothers me. But I fear my boys will face a much more difficult future if farmers don’t join the dialogue on social media and provide consumers with the facts and realities of growing healthy food products.

For the long-term viability of my family’s farm, I’ve made the decision to engage on social media – to help tell the accurate and positive side of dairy farming. I’ve made the decision to invite consumers and web-goers to ask me questions about how I treat my animals and care for my land.

Help me celebrate June as Dairy Month by getting on social media sites and posting pictures of you and your family enjoying a nice tall glass of wholesome milk. Share pictures of children and grandchildren enjoying ice cream, yogurt or cheese… or even better, post pictures that show dairy farmers caring for their animals. Be open to telling your farm’s story year-round, not just during Dairy Month.

Cover Photo by Cathleen Abers-Kimball/istock