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WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Brian Smith begins his day at 3:15 a.m. to milk the cows on his dairy farm.
When he’s finished with the milking, he starts his second job as a school bus driver, which is followed by a full day’s work as chairman of the Wayne County Commissioners. Such a full schedule, he said, is necessary for a modern farmer. His son, who also works on the farm, has a second job as a surveyor, as does his daughter, as a veterinary technician. Despite making money through other jobs, Smith said his family has conversations about possibly closing down the farm every time they plant corn for another season.
“On a good month… you can break even, but you’re only breaking even,” Smith said. “You got to have money that you can pull from other places.”
Ongoing struggles, such as low milk prices and crippling rainfall the past couple seasons, have resulted in many local farmers shutting down their operations. While there used to be about 1,500 farms in Wayne County, there are now fewer than 50. Smith said at least two farms he knew of closed down this past week.
In the midst of decline, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded the county $35,000 to evaluate the feasibility of a dairy processing plant in the county. That grant is a source of hope, Smith said.
“If we build a milk plant here, I think that would save our dairy industry,” Smith said. “I think that would reach into all of our neighboring counties.” Smith said a processing plant would be beneficial to small dairy farmers in New York State as well.
Chelsea Hill of the Penn State Extension of Wayne County said it’s important to temper expectations, however, noting that the feasibility study may not yield a positive conclusion.
“Unfortunately, there’s so many different ways it can go,” she said.
If it goes well, the commissioner said that one tangible benefit that a processing plant would bring to the area is called over-order premiums.
“If milk is produced, manufactured and processed right in Pennsylvania, [farmers] get a premium,” Smith said, explaining that currently local farmers’ milk gets sent to other states to be processed. “We’ll have a plant uniquely located right here in Pennsylvania that can pay over-order premiums back to the farmers.”
Hill also said that if a processing plant does come to the area, the county will try capitalizing on niche markets in more urban areas, producing “specialty products” for specific cuisines in cities.
“A lot of the ethnic markets, specifically Spanish or Mexican cultures, they like high-fat products,” she said. “If we could get a product that fulfilled that, and we were able to successfully market to them in larger areas like New York City or Philadelphia, I think that would be very successful.”
Smith and Hill both noted that Wayne County is advantageously situated near many large cities throughout Pennsylvania, New York State and New Jersey, making it feasible to fulfill underserved markets in those areas.
That possibility falls in line with the recommendation of the consulting firm, Agriculture and Community Development Services, in its 2019 agricultural development plan for Wayne County.
“Wayne’s small population, lower-than-average food spending and the region’s sufficient grocery supply make it unlikely that a market for farm goods will be found locally or regionally,” the plan reads. “However, the fact that it is barely 120 miles from New York City and 150 miles from Philadelphia, provide an advantage that few other agricultural counties can match.”
The other goal of a dairy plant would be to encourage young people to maintain family farms after their parents retire.
While this is still just a concept, Smith said he hopes to see a processing plant that doubles as a production museum and educational center.
There is not yet a timeline on the feasibility study.