Friday, April 8, was supposed to be sunny, albeit on the chilly side. Perfect for a farm tour and it was, except for a brief gate-crashing blizzard that lasted for roughly half an hour. To be fair, a reminder sent the day before cautioned Please Dress Warm. No one was caught short. That’s the first thing you learn on a farm tour — be prepared.
Mary-Elizabeth Foote, Dairy Education Program Coordinator with the Center for Dairy Excellence, explained, “This is the third year of the Dairy Leaders of Tomorrow Farm Tour and it is rotated throughout different areas of Pennsylvania. We only travel to dairy farms and then usually have the industry host our group for lunch. By holding the tour each year we are able to give high school students the opportunity to see diversity among how dairy farms operate, the technology that is revolutionizing agriculture, and future career opportunities within the dairy industry.”
“I was born and raised on this farm,” said Jeff Balmer, owner of the Stoney Path Farm in Lititz, PA. “I am by far the youngest in the family. My father passed away when I was in the first grade. We rented to about four tenants over a 20-year period, at which point I approached my mom and asked if we could come back and start a farming operation. We did that in 2001. We bought one herd, a local herd, and moved in with an option to purchase the farm at some point in case something happened to mom. She had that all written up for us. We exercised that option through the Center for Dairy Excellence. One of their farm transition teams — which included the banker, the vet and the nutritionist — researched what we wanted to do next. We are now milking 24/7. While I am talking to you, we are milking. While I’m sleeping, we are milking. While I’m out in the barn working we are milking. This is how you gain flexibility throughout the day.”
Balmer and his wife Jesslyn have two robotic milkers that make this possible. Robotics is different from carousel milking. The robot moves to the cow, adjusting itself higher or lower, nearer or farther, and attaches the milker. The robot is able to adjust to an inch or even a quarter inch in perfecting where it needs to be.
“We have about 115 heifers running around,” Balmer said. “We have about 110 acres on the farm by deed, about 90 plus that are tillable, and we have about 20 acres of grass hay that we farm.” And with the end of BST in the fall, Balmer’s herd averages drop down a bit. At the time of the tour, Balmer’s milk average was around 80 or 81 pounds per cow per day.
At the end of the first part of the tour, the assemblage went to Binkley & Hurst about a mile down the road for lunch.
The next farm on the tour was Luke Brubaker’s Farm in Mount Joy, PA, which is home to countless tours throughout the year. Before the outdoor tour, speakers brought the students up to speed on various aspects of farming. Jeff Harding, a sales representative from Elanco Animal Health in State College PA, took an informal hand-raising survey based upon two questions. The first question was “how many of you think you want to be farmers or have something to do with farming?” A lot of hands went up. The second question was “How many of you ever think about selling?” Not a single hand. “That is highly unusual,” Harding said. “About 50 of you want to be on the farm, yet nobody wants to sell.” Harding explained that a lot about farming is selling. “Look at it this way,” he said. “We are always selling ourselves in one way or another and for various reasons. What you raise on the farm must be sold to someone somewhere. Nearly everything about farming involves sales of some sort; you are either selling or being sold to…medicines, foods, services, supplies, technologies. It might behoove you to start exploring that right now if you are serious about farming as a future endeavor.”
“This year was the most students and educators that we have ever had,” said Foote. “There were 110 students and 15 chaperones, four buses full of students from State College and Manheim. However, each year the number of students attending has grown significantly. We believe that this is due to more schools learning about the tour and seeing just how valuable it is because students are being given the opportunity to see what they are learning in the classroom in a real world setting.”