Dairy farmer Dave Myers, board president of Allied Milk Producers, says his milk has an extra ingredient – “fun.”
Some revel in the challenges and even the risks, but few would deny that at the heart of farming lies a deep-rooted passion for the land and livestock. No matter how challenging or trying life may get sometimes, our farming friends speak with an unparalleled commitment to their calling as farmers.
In his book, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, author Wendell Berry sums farming up in one word, “love.”
He elaborates, “Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors.
“They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live.”
Here in Cambria County, that theme is no less palpable.
For Jim Benshoff, 79, owner of Benshoff Farms in New Germany, farming has done much more than pay the bills.
“The greatest joys of family farming have been the close relationship my wife and I have with our daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” he says. “The love for the land we farm, being proud of the crops we produce, and watching our children grow up with strong work ethics, morals, and a respect for the land we love have always tugged at my heart. If I had to choose, I would absolutely choose farming again.
“Working long, hard hours, always at the mercy of the elements, the uncertainty of what the year’s crop damage would be and the fear of possible crop disease has always been a challenge for us,” Benshoff says. “But, it’s a labor of love, a faith in God, and the support of my family that I would never change.”
The sense of fulfillment certainly runs deep and it compels farmers to stay the course no matter the risks.
Martin Yahner, 59, co-owner of Yahner Brothers Farms in Patton, as well as board president of the Cambria County Farm Bureau, says farming has always been a risky business.
“So many things beyond our control affect our bottom line: weather, politics, tax laws and regulations, market prices and more,” he says. “Farmers don’t get an automatic pay increase or cost-of-living adjustment like most other occupations. There can be many years when a farmer barely breaks even or even loses money.”
Yahner, who has been involved in agricultural policy and leadership for several decades, notes that dairy farming has suffered severely.
“Pennsylvania lost about 40% of our dairy farms back in the 1990s and we have lost 40% more just in the last few years.” Many of the smaller beef farms in Cambria County used to be dairy operations, he adds.
It may not sound like an attractive or lucrative profession. But you might say that farming chooses some, and some choose farming.
Yahner and his brother, Rick, are the sixth generation of Yahners to farm the land since their ancestors came from Germany and settled there in 1839.
The brothers raise corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, hay and straw on some 2,300 acres, and run a sizable beef cattle operation, reputedly the largest in Cambria County.
At Benshoff Farms, a family farming endeavor since 1764, 115 acres of tillable ground provide a full line of produce such as potatoes, cabbage, hot and mild peppers, beets, beans, pumpkins and various fall items.
Besides a retail market on the farm, the Benshoffs also sell at various farmers markets and festivals – and wholesale to local restaurants and stores.
Benshoff, with his wife and three daughters, took over the farm in 1969. Today, he is assisted by his eldest daughter, Cindy, and his granddaughter, Stephanie, the eighth generation of Benshoff farmers.
“My wife continues to be my biggest supporter, constant companion and works with me in the barn as much as her body will allow,” Benshoff notes.
Not too far from the Benshoff farm lies Myers’ dairy operation, another farm with a legacy. The property has been in the family since 1865, when Myers’ great-grandparents, Albert and Louisa Berghane, purchased the first 80 acres.
Myers, 72, took over the farm from his parents, Wendell and Fern Myers, in 1961, and now owns some 300 dairy cows and another 300 young stock on about 1,000 acres of land.
Asked how he makes things work, Myers says it is essential that farmers keep in step with the times. As his contribution to the future of farming, he welcomes opportunities to teach and mentor aspiring young farmers and veterinarians on his farm.
Myers also acknowledges the roles that his six full-time and three part-time employees fulfill: milking the cows, feeding calves, planting corn, harvesting crops, maintaining the machinery.
“I can’t do it without them,” he says.
Besides dependable staff, Myers credits his college experience for the skills that have enabled him to succeed and to serve the community.
He recalls his professor telling him: “You ask me for the time — I teach you how to build a clock.”
Myers didn’t appreciate those words at first, but recognized later that his professor was “teaching us how to think.”
A dairy science graduate from Virginia Tech, Myers also remembers being a little miffed that he was given a dairy advertising project for a final, while others in his class had the distinction of more elaborate, seemingly more relevant assignments. Looking back, he chuckles at the irony of it all, considering that he is now president of the board of Allied Milk Producers Inc., a farmer-funded dairy promotion cooperative.
As part of the cooperative’s ongoing marketing endeavors, it is now seeking to promote chocolate milk as a nutritious recovery drink for athletes, starting with the donation of half-pint cartons to the Greater Johnstown Community YMCA and to the East Hills Recreation Commission, delivered weekly by member farm Vale Wood Farms of Loretto. The co-op will continue deliveries for six months before evaluating and, possibly, widening the scope of the chocolate milk program.
In addition to marketing services, Allied also plays an educational role at school and community events.
Along similar lines, the Pennsylvania Friends of Agriculture Foundation (a non-profit supported by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau), hosts “Agricultural Literacy Week” each spring, providing an opportunity for farmers to visit kindergarten through second-grade classrooms in their communities.
“Ag Literacy Week is one of many wonderful farm bureau programs to educate kids and the non-farm public,” Yahner says. “This spring was the second year now that volunteers could not physically go into schools to read the books to the students, so some read online or virtually.”
While many farms have flourished on the strength of heritage and specialization, some others have distinguished themselves by diversifying their product lines.
Dickert Farms in Mineral Point, known for its beef cattle and produce, stands out as a developing and enthusiastic enterprise that has broadened its offerings to include pigs, turkeys, and chickens, honey, tulips, strawberries, a pumpkin patch, an array of flowering plants, herbs and community partnerships.
Purchased in 1997 by David and Joanna Dickert, the farm was formally handed over to their youngest son, Ben, and his fiancée, Michaela Slayton, last year.
Dave, who passed away just before Easter this year, was a truck driver by profession and a farmer at heart. His wife, Joanna, a retired science teacher, now dedicates a large part of her time to growing plants and flowers for sale at the farm.
Slayton, 20, a full-time hairdresser at Salon Vizions in Westmont, says, “I wasn’t raised on a farm, but I got here as quick as I could.”
She manages the farm’s social media content and communication and marketing, while also assisting with the ongoing farming operations. “I would have never imagined that I would be marrying a farmer and before Ben and I started doing stuff together on the farm, I didn’t have the first clue about farming.”
But fell in love with farmer and farm, and says she looks forward to “building a huge career out of it with Ben.”
Ben, 21, the youngest of three Dickert offspring, has taken the reins of the Dickert Farm with such expertise that “we’re pretty sure he had his feet in the farm’s dirt the weekend he came home,” Slayton says.
Dave’s passing hit the family hard, but in his memory, they are now even more committed to building a thriving business. Their recent community collaborations include an arrangement with Pleasant View Dairy of Windber to sell the dairy’s milk at the Dickert Farm. A community day was held on July 18 to welcome area vendors and the public to the farm.
Meanwhile, about 15 miles east of the Dickert Farm stands a less typical sort of enterprise – Lilly Mountain Alpacas, established by Tammy Crum, 59, in 2012.
Asked what attracted her to the creatures, Crum says the Alpaca Owners Association’s television commercial promoted alpaca ownership with the tag line, “fall in love with alpacas.”
Fall in love she did, and she now owns some 26 alpacas with several crias (alpaca babies) due in the coming months.
Alpacas are typically raised for both their fiber and their meat, but Crum says she is only interested in the fiber, especially valued for its hypoallergenic, water-repellent, and fire-resistant qualities.
An adult alpaca weighing about 150 pounds could produce about five to ten pounds of fiber.
Given the size of these animals, shearing is a major undertaking, often better executed by professional shearers.
But perhaps more significant than their fiber is the service these alpacas provide as therapy animals to special population children and seniors in assisted living facilities.
“Alpacas are mesmerizing animals … they have a calming, therapeutic effect,” Crum says.
An alpaca encounter is probably better experienced in person than described in words. Crum’s alpaca farm opens to the public each Sunday from noon to 4 p.m., or by appointment.
Its on-site store also sells raw alpaca fiber and alpaca wool products.
In this time of a pandemic, it is good that farmers have remained steadfast.
Food, fuel and fiber are, after all, essential to our existence and farmers, already working from home, would be hard-pressed to change professions or their work environment.
Perhaps the pandemic has helped us appreciate not only where our food comes from, but how fragile the food chain itself is, farm bureau president Yahner says.