Agriculture is Pennsylvania's number one industry - with $6.8 billion in cash receipts annually from production agriculture. Pennsylvania farmers and agribusinesses are the leading economic driver in our state, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
The dairy industry is a big part of that as only one state (Wisconsin) is home to more farms with milk cows than Pennsylvania (7,829 in Pa.), and the commonwealth also ranks second in the number of farms that sell their milk from cows (7,048), according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. With sales of milk from cows at more than $1.96 billion, Pennsylvania ranks fifth nationally.
Blair County has 119 farms with milk cows. And with 17,760 milk cows, the county ranks sixth among Pennsylvania's 67 counties. With sales of milk from cows at more than $73.5 million, Blair County ranks fifth among the state's counties.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich / Dave Snyder monitors a production run of gallon jugs of skim milk recently at Ritchey’s Dairy.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich / Tracel Will serves a cone of teaberry ice cream to a customer at Ritchey’s Dairy.
In celebration of Pennsylvania's agricultural industry, June has been proclaimed "Dairy Month" in the commonwealth.
"Kick off summer on the right foot with three servings of nutrient-rich dairy foods every day," said President Ken Brenneman of the Blair County Farm Bureau in a statement. "Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese or ice cream are nutrient powerhouses since they contain calcium, protein and numerous other essential nutrients. Plus they taste great."
Dairy Month is a good time to share the dairy farmers' story with consumers, said Laura England, executive vice president of industry image and relations for the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, a promotion organization that works under the umbrella of the United Dairy Industry Association.
"By connecting farmers to consumers - from field to fork - we are able to build trust in our products and industry. Dairy farmers are consumers, too, and they want the best for their families when it comes to nutritious, healthy food," England said.
The dairy industry is increasing efforts to reach out to consumers.
"In addition to traditional media, the dairy industry is reaching out to consumers through social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram, among others. We need to be a part of the conversation consumers are having about food and where it comes from, and that conversation more and more is happening online through social media," England said.
England, as well as local dairy owners, said the dairy industry is facing several challenges.
One of the biggest challenges has been a steady decline in fluid milk sales. "Consumers today have a multitude of choices when it comes to the beverages they purchase for their families. To help turn around the decline in fluid milk sales, dairy farmers are working with milk processors and other partners to bring new life to fluid milk," England said. "Our goal is to reinvent the milk experience to meet consumers' needs, from use at home, taken from home and away from home."
Another challenge is the cost of doing business, said Carissa Itle Westrick, marketing director for Vale Wood Farms near Loretto.
"Our biggest challenge, like many farmers, has been the increased cost of doing business. From feed prices to diesel and fertilizer prices, we are always striving to become more efficient. We market our own milk, so we have an incentive to manage our milk supply from the cows with our customer demand in order to maximize our fluid milk usage," Westrick said.
Another challenge is dealing with federal regulations, said Andrew Ritchey, general manager of Ritchey's Dairy, Martinsburg.
"One challenge that we have been facing is the changing of federal regulations on the school food program. Over the past few years, they continue to put stricter guidelines on what type of milk is served in schools and having us reformulate flavored milks to comply," Ritchey said. "It has been a challenge."
Vale Wood is unique, Westrick said.
"Vale Wood Farms is unique because we still milk our own herd of dairy cows and can provide quality dairy products - from moo to you!" Westrick said. "We also process a full line of products - milk, sour cream, cottage cheese, ice cream, butter and now yogurt - all made locally and delivered to local customers."
Ritchey's has been successful over the years because of its people and providing good quality products.
"We have been blessed with a good workforce of employees that have a good work ethic and care about giving good service and quality products. The farmers that ship milk to us also have been very important," Ritchey said. "I think Ritchey's claim to fame would be our attention to quality. No matter what product we are producing, we use the best ingredients and make sure it is of excellent quality for the consumer."
"Customers in our area are so very lucky to have access to great local milk and dairy products," Westrick said.
To celebrate dairy month, the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Farm-City Committee will offer free ice cream sundaes in front of the Blair County Courthouse from noon until the ice cream is gone on June 27.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.