by Sally Colby

The Pennsylvania Dairy Summit, hosted annually by the Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania and the Center for Dairy Excellence, draws dairy farmers from throughout the Northeast and provides an opportunity for engagement with fellow producers and agribusiness professionals. This year’s two-day event, held in Lancaster, PA, drew a variety of speakers who addressed critical issues in the dairy industry.

Prior to the recognition of 2019 industry award winners, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding addressed the audience. A former dairy farmer who has remained close to agriculture, Redding understands industry issues.

“We aren’t going to hide the fact that these are extraordinary times,” said Redding. “For many of us, it’s partly what attracts us to the business of agriculture. We’d love it to be a little more predictable, but that entrepreneurial spirit gives us a chance to do something extraordinary. There is not a more an honorable job than farming and producing food, fiber and fuel for this nation. That is what we do, and we need to be proud of that and tell that story every place we can.”

Redding believes agriculture is going through a period of rediscovery that involves farmers thinking about their strength in relation to the larger community. “They want to know who’s feeding them,” he said, referencing consumers. “It’s a great question, but it requires a response and engagement. Sometimes it requires accepting that we don’t know the answer, but being able to talk about what we do, the pride we have in the product, and how safe it is.”
Whether farmers believe they’re in the business of producing dairy, beef, pork, apples or strawberries, Redding said they’re actually in the business of relationships. “Those relationships are critical, and building and sustaining those is no different than our families,” he said. “Sometimes the conversations are challenging and sometimes decisions are difficult, but always remember the relationship we have with the consumer is the number one determinant of our success in the future.”

Referencing the current challenges faced by the dairy industry, Redding said both farmers and consumers are concerned with the future of agriculture. “There are thousands of people who want to see us succeed,” he said. “There’s a vote of confidence in what we do and how we do it.”

Redding closed by reminding dairy farmers they are the most credible people to act as storytellers for the industry, and urged farmers to continue working at it and take pride in what they do.

Following Redding’s remarks, recipients of the 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Industry Awards were recognized. The Pennsylvania Distinguished Dairy Producer was awarded to Rob, Tom and Abe Barley of Star Rock Dairy Inc. in Conestoga, PA. The third-generation farm is a partnership among the three men, who maintain several enterprises including dairy, beef finishing, hogs and broilers. The men also raise crops on 11,000 owned and rented acres.

Star Rock Dairy strives to operate a profitable dairy with the end goal of producing quality milk. With emphasis on good management, efficiency and a friendly environment for employees, the farm has low employee turnover. The Barley family offers school tours and welcomes anyone who wants to learn more about modern dairy farming. In addition to managing the diverse farm, each of the three partners volunteers in both community and dairy-related activities.

Two men with outstanding service to the dairy industry received the 2019 Pennsylvania Dairy Service Award. The first was Michael Hosterman, ag business consultant with AgChoice Farm Credit, who has been involved in the dairy industry since childhood. Hosterman graduated from Penn State with a B.S. in agricultural business management and planned to continue dairy farming, but started working for AgChoice Farm Credit when returning to the family farm was not an option.

Hosterman has been with AgChoice Farm Credit for 29 years, primarily serving dairy customers and sharing his strong desire to see the Northeast dairy industry thrive. Hosterman was instrumental in developing and overseeing the “Dairy Success & Profitability Review” benchmark, and developed and co-chaired AgChoice’s Dairy Team to train AgChoice staff in dairy knowledge. Hosterman also co-authored “The Ag Choice Dairy Outlook” starting in 2000, and helped make the information available on the AgChoice website in 2016.

The second recipient of the Dairy Service Award was Alan Zepp, a familiar name to many in the Northeast. After retiring from 30 years in dairy farming, Zepp chose to give back to the industry as risk management program manager with the Center for Dairy Excellence. Over the past 10 years, Zepp has counseled both individual dairy farmers and the entire industry, and has challenged farmers to think strategically, understand their cost of production and make decisions in the best interest of their farm and long-term financials.

Zepp is well-known for offering a realistic perspective on dairy markets and helping dairy farmers understand the complex dynamics of dairy pricing. His monthly “Protecting Your Profits” webinars provided up-to-date information on ever-changing markets to help dairy farmers plan ahead. Although Zepp is retiring at the end of February, the strong connections he built will continue to benefit dairy farmers as they navigate a challenging industry.

The Pennsylvania Dairy Innovator Award was given to Chuck Turner of Turner Dairy Farms in Pittsburgh. The farm, founded by Turner’s grandfather in 1930, is still owned and operated by the family today. After graduating from Penn State with a B.S. in food science, followed by an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, Turner returned to the family business in 1986. The Turner family has created innovative products such a lactose-free milk and flavored milks, and redesigned product labels to attract consumers. Products from Turner Dairy Farms are widely recognized in the area, and have received national honors for high quality and taste.

The Turner family’s focus on customer satisfaction is embodied in their mission: “Perfect Products, Perfect Service, Treat People Right.” Turner added that the people they treat right include everyone from team members, dairy farmers and suppliers to neighbors and customers.

Make plans now to attend the 2020 Dairy Summit to take place in State College, PA.