2018-07-01 / Features

Got PA Milk?

Local fifth-generation dairy farm’s owners share their story.
Maggie Anderson | Photos by Matt Fern

Agriculture is our region’s past: State College grew up around what was once the Farmers’ High School and then an agricultural college. And that remains part of Penn State — and our area’s current economy. But you don’t have to drive far — just a few minutes, in some cases — to find a farmer who is worried about the future.

“There are families we’ve been in the business with for years and they’ve had to give it up,” says Candy Wasson. “It’s their lifestyle — it’s all they really know — and they’ve had to give it up.”

Wasson and her husband, Ron, have been farming about 500 acres and milking a herd of about 50 cows right on Route 45 between Boalsburg and Pine Grove Mills for more than 40 years. They’re the fourth generation to do so — their six daughters make up the fifth, and the dairy farm will celebrate a centennial in 2022.

Ron Wasson hops back over the fence after feeding his cows.Ron Wasson hops back over the fence after feeding his cows.

But things have gotten more difficult for many dairy farms in recent years. “Milk companies are coming and saying, ‘We’re shutting you down,’” says Wasson. “And the families have no other option.” The Wassons have been fortunate to keep their contract with Land O’Lakes, but things have still changed.

“The break-even point on milk right now is $20 a hundredweight,” says Candy Wasson, citing the price point where farmers recoup costs for feed, labor and infrastructure. “Right now we’re [making] around $15 a hundred. Some milk companies are lower than that, some milk companies are higher than that, but we’re losing money every day.” Just four years ago, they were making $25 per hundredweight (that’s 100 pounds, which is roughly 11 gallons of milk). Plus, a new stipulation the milk companies call a “base” means that if the Wassons produce more than their quota, the price is even lower.

“One thing I want to tell you about milk,” says Candy Wasson, “is that it’s one product that no human hands touch. You put the milker on the cow, the milk goes through the machine, then through pipes into a refrigerated tank. The milk truck comes, hooks a hose up, puts it into a refrigerated tractor-trailer. Then they take it to the processing plant where it is also taken by pipes. It’s never touched by human hands.”

So why do it? “Most of us have been born into the industry, and it’s a passion that you grow up with, it’s a love that you have for it. My husband and I were both born into the industry. Our children have been raised on this farm. They have a passion for it, but we have also encouraged our children to get college educations and to go in different directions. This industry is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There’s no holidays. There’s no weekends. My day starts at 3:50 a.m. It’s a tough industry, but it’s one that if you’re in it, you love it.”

And the Wasson Farm truly is a family farm. It’s been host to three daughters’ weddings, including one just last month, and the Wassons’ five grandchildren spend time running through the barns and playing outside.

The Wasson Farm Market sells fresh produce and other seasonal goods.The Wasson Farm Market sells fresh produce and other seasonal goods.

“I call this farm my own little piece of heaven. I’m five minutes from anything that I need to be, but yet I have all this out here. Our kids grew up in an atmosphere where not many kids have the option to grow up. They learn hard work. They learn respect. No matter whether they carry on in the industry, it carries with them.”

And though not all of them have stayed in the industry, all six of the Wasson daughters have been Centre County Dairy Princesses, and four went on to state-level dairy royalty positions.


6th — PA’s rank in total milk production nationally
525,000 — Cows
10.8 Billion — Pounds of milk produced annually
2,454 — Gallons produced per cow each year
$6 Billion — Impact of diary farms and related businesses on economy

Source: Center for Dairy Excellence

“We are big on promotion,” says Candy Wasson, who hosts more than 2,500 area school students each year. “We like to invite the community into our farm.”

For two weekends each fall, the family puts on a fall festival complete with hayrides to the pumpkin patch, homemade apple butter and live music.

“It’s grown immensely over the years,” says Wasson of the Wasson Farm Fall Fest. “That has helped us substantially. It’s a diversification, but it’s within agriculture.”

Heather Wasson holds Peewee, who was born a month early and was severely underweight. The Wasson family nursed him back to health. All the cows have names, and the Wassons know them by sight.Heather Wasson holds Peewee, who was born a month early and was severely underweight. The Wasson family nursed him back to health. All the cows have names, and the Wassons know them by sight.The Wassons also have a seasonal farm market where they sell fresh produce like sweet corn and pick up extra work helping out neighboring farmers who don’t have the big equipment they do. But the biggest thing that’s helped them through this downturn, they say, is having the farm paid off.

“I could never buy this farm today,” says Ron Wasson. “I paid as much for 1 acre as my grandpap did for the whole farm,” and that was more than 40 years ago.

In that time, the region has grown from small town to small city, and farmers aren’t as visible as they once were. Ron Wasson remembers farming the land where the Nittany Mall now sits.

Candy Wasson says bringing people onto the farm helps them understand agriculture a little better. “Too many people don’t know where agriculturalists come from and where the industry is going,” she says, citing concerns people sometimes have about modern farming practices.

“We do not abuse our animals because our animals are our livelihood. And the same with the land and the water. We take care of it because that’s the future — that’s our future and that’s what we pass down to the generation after us.” •SCM

The Dairy Crisis Explained

Cheryl Cook, deputy secretary for market development in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, breaks down the problems plaguing the dairy industry.

What exactly is happening in the dairy industry?
“Writ large, the problem is that dairy prices have been depressed for a good four years now. Dairy farmers have run out of whatever financial cushion they had and are starting to make decisions about going out of business.”

How many farms did we have, and how many do we have now?
“We’ve been losing dairy farms for a long time. There were some number of our dairy farmers who were already going to be retiring and making other plans. This is simply accelerating that process. We had back in 1992, according to the USDA, 10,659 dairy farms in Pennsylvania. In 2012 that had already dropped to 7,829. In the beginning of this year it’s estimated we’re at about 6,500.”

How did we get here?
Cook says a combination of factors led to lower milk prices. “Government data shows that on average we’ve dropped 50 pounds of fluid milk per person from 1993 to 2016. The USDA data says in 1993 people were drinking an average of 210 pounds of milk per person per year. That’s dropped to 154 as of 2016.” And not only is demand down, but production is up. With developments in technology and herd health, “everybody who’s in the industry is producing more milk than they used to with the same number of cows.”

What are farmers doing to deal with it?
“Dairy prices have been swinging wildly high and now, for the last few years, low, and sometimes farmers and sometimes their bankers suggest they look at something like contracting for poultry production because of the consistency and predictability of the income. So particularly in this part of the state with Bell & Evans (a family-owned poultry producer based in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania) increasing their capacity, their business model wants to increase fourfold their processing capacity, which means they need a lot more chickens — we’re seeing dairy farmers adding broiler houses and diversifying their farm operation so that they have the best of both. They get to still have their cows but they’ve also now got the chickens for more predictable income.”

Are they diversifying in other ways?
“You see diversification take a lot of forms. We have seen some dairy farmers who are going to beef and still working with cows, just in a different way. We’ve seen some dairy farms that are thinking about organic although even the fluid market now in organic milk is getting saturated. Most of the dairy farmers in Pennsylvania raise their own corn and soybeans to feed their animals. Some of them are realizing that adding value to corn and soybeans by running them through dairy cows isn’t as profitable as it used to be but maybe growing organic corn and soybeans for organic poultry that’s going to Bell & Evans could actually keep the lights on and make a living.”

What can consumers do about it?
“Drink milk! I can’t tell you how many meetings I go to where there’s no milk in the back of the room with the coffee and the soda and the bottled water, so just making sure that we’re thoughtful and adding dairy as a choice is big. It’s summer, so ice cream, my favorite value-added product, is going to be available in abundance. We’ll soon be launching an ice cream trail with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development’s Tourism Office and the Center for Dairy Excellence. It’s a fun way to increase dairy consumption.”

How do I find Pennsylvania dairy products?
Look for the “PA Preferred” logo on all dairy product packaging. The program requires that dairy producers source 100 percent of their milk from Pennsylvania farmers in order to use the logo. You can also check the plant code, which is a string of numbers stamped on dairy packaging usually alongside a “sell by” date. The first two numbers in the code refer to the state — PA is 42.

Where is the future of dairy farming in Pennsylvania going?
“I think the trend toward diversification will continue, and probably replacing dairy with other types of agriculture will continue. Certainly trends toward organic will continue. Pennsylvania now is second in the United States among states for sales of organic product. It’s largely poultry that pushed us over the state of Washington last year to take that number two spot.”

“With the population size that we have in and around Pennsylvania, there will be dairy farming here. But I think there will be fewer dairy farms. And so the challenge for us is how to make that transition as graceful as possible, to keep as many people in agriculture in some way as possible, to keep land in agriculture in some way if possible.”


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