When Jeff Peters was a senior in college, he was taking a full course load and running his family’s dairy farm; milking about 100 cows.
“We were smaller then,” said his daughter Jess, “but that’s still quite a feat. We also had a store where they processed milk, and I still hear stories about the chocolate milk they used to make.”
Today, Jeff and his wife Janet are in the process of helping Jess and her brother Cole become the fifth generation to operate Spruce Row Farm in Meadville, PA. They’re milking 270 Jersey cows, a breed Jess says has always been on the farm. “Once you own all Jerseys, it’s hard to incorporate any other breed,” said Jess. “Everything we build is for the size of Jerseys. I can put more cows in a smaller space than with a bigger breed, and we benefit from component pricing, especially since the fat price is high right now. They’re more feed-efficient and I think their health is a better.”
Like many farm families, Jess and Cole’s parents wanted their children to live away from the farm before making a decision to return. Cole went to diesel mechanic school and Jess studied animal science at Penn State.
Cole returned to the farm eight years ago and Jess has been there for seven, but Jess recalls that the first several years were rough. “Finding where we fit in the business and dad giving up what he’s been doing for so long was hard,” she said. “Dad still does all the breeding — he enjoys the genetics. We have a good genomic herd and do some genomic testing, and I have three polled bulls that I’ve sent samples for. We’ve talked about doing more genomic testing, but it costs money, and right now, spending extra money is a hard thing to justify. We’ve sold quite a few bulls to A.I. in the past.”
Jess handles day-to-day herd health, parlor maintenance, records, inventory and employee scheduling. Since she knows the herd so well and can plan for future needs, she sold 20 milk cows earlier in the year to help finance parlor renovations. “In the past few years, I’ve been able to sell 20 to 30 cows a year,” she said. “We don’t sell a lot of young stock — I try to sell out of the milking barn or dry cows. Because of the economics of the industry, farmers have been willing to buy second or third lactation cows. I don’t sell anything I’m ashamed of.”
Despite her busy schedule, Jess finds time to stay active in social media. She believes that it’s a critical part of the farm enterprise so that those outside the industry receive accurate information.
“Public perception of our industry isn’t good,” said Jess. “I know there are extremists, but the fact that they’re out there telling it (negative information) means that’s what some people are hearing.” Jess has found that creating short videos and posting them on Facebook is a great way to connect with consumers and invite questions.
One video Jess created this past summer was entitled ‘Animal WRONG Groups’ and had more than 217,000 views. With that many views, it’s inevitable that some comments will be negative, but the good comments far outweighed the bad. “I’ve had dozens and dozens of good conversations with people about what we do,” said Jess. “Some people saw the video shared in a vegan group and they weren’t sure what to think, but they thought they liked me and that I looked fun, so they wanted to ask me personally.” Jess says the end result was that many of the people who were negative commenters returned to the post, watched the video and were willing to learn. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve never met a dairy farmer, but it looks like you really love your cows’. That’s a win.”
Last year, Jess did a video series on ‘why I’m mean to my cows’ and explained the practices that appear to be ‘mean’ but are not. “I talked about nose rings, dehorning and using canes to move them,” she said. “I showed how the cows lick the cane that we use to move them — they wouldn’t do that if they were afraid.”
Another important explanation that Jess realized was risky to put out for public viewing was of the farm’s procedure to move a down cow, a necessary practice that is quick and safe for both the cow and the handlers but potentially easy to misinterpret. “I have to do it out in front of the barn, right out on the main highway,” said Jess, admitting she was nervous about posting the procedure. “I took pictures, put it on Facebook and explained it — this cow was down in a place where she couldn’t be treated, and I had to get her to a place where she would be safe, clean and dry. I had to do it quickly and she weighs 900 pounds.”
Later, Jess posted photos of the same cow in a bedded pack pen where she was recovering and explained that the cow would stay there until she was healthy. “If you really explain things, people get it.”
Although she’s received some nasty comments from avowed vegan activists, Jess has also had many responses from those in the moveable middle — the group of people who haven’t made up their minds and are still open-minded and willing to learn. “My dad and I are comfortable with it and I’ve learned how to explain things,” she said. “You have to have a bit of a filter — you can’t just say things the way we say them to each other. You have to put a face on it and use different language. It isn’t lying, you just can’t state it quite as bluntly as we would to each other.”
Jess is a member of the American Dairy Association Northeast Speakers Bureau where she receives training on how to answer tough questions. “If there are people in the area who want a speaker, the bureau puts us in touch,” said Jess. “I did a kids’ program in Erie, which is very urban. I spoke to about 100 kids about dairy farming, talked about the cows and what we do day-to-day. When I was finished, the woman who invited me asked if we did farm tours, so we set up two groups of 80 kids to visit the farm.”
In addition to her frequent Facebook video posts, Jess also uses Snapchat. She realizes that social media for dairy farmers is just one more thing to do in an already busy schedule, but is convinced that it’s an important aspect of maintaining a good relationship with non-farm consumers.
“Our society is so enthralled with being entertained,” said Jess. “If people are entertained enough to watch something for six minutes, they’re going to learn something. I’ve worked very hard to look stupid and silly and still be taken seriously.”
Visit Spruce Row Farm on Facebook to see how Jess is promoting dairy, good animal welfare and inviting communication.