from issue: 41-3
by David Umling of Petersburg, WV
David’s story has since made the local news, “Farmers in West Virginia” on the WHSV tv website.
Since my first journal posting on our Peeper Pond Farm website in September 2016, I have addressed many subjects. I have done instructional postings on farming, exposes on the beautiful natural amenities that abound in our area, somewhat whimsical and/or philosophical discussions of traditional values, updates on our farming activities, humorous accounts of farm life, and even a ghost story. Throughout it all, I have tried to keep my posts entertaining, educational, and thoughtful. Farming and traditional rural living framed my childhood upbringing and became my chosen retirement lifestyle. I feel it is important to convey why I cherish it so and why it represents an important pursuit and lifestyle choice that should endure. In order to maintain that focus, I have tried to minimize (if not outright avoid) political commentary. Today, however, I have decided that I can’t achieve my primary farming objectives without making a political statement on our state government’s abject lack of focus on the survival and ultimate success of small, family owned and operated dairy farms.
In early August 2017, I was forced to sell our dairy goats and end our milking operation because the laws and regulations in West Virginia made it cost prohibitive for us to sell our farm fresh, unprocessed milk and dairy products, and we couldn’t afford to finance the cost of our operation solely on our retirement income. I then dedicated my energy to work for positive, progressive changes to those laws in an effort to salvage what was left of small family dairy farming as well as to promote agricultural diversification and profitability in West Virginia. I even wrote a book about those issues, The Peeper Pond Farm Story: Where Have All the Small Family Dairy Farms Gone, last August and September. In it, I explained the critical issues as they affected our farm and dairy farming throughout the Potomac Highlands region. I further discussed what positive changes we needed to make to improve the situation and make small-scale dairy farming a more viable lifestyle choice. I even made multiple trips to Charleston (our state capital) to discuss with Department of Agriculture officials and my legislators why these issues were important and needed to be addressed. During those efforts, I encountered a state government with an institutionalized regulatory culture so dismissively entrenched in its own lack of concern for the continuing demise of small family dairy farms that they could hardly show any interest in, much less be bothered to listen to my concerns.
I can understand that my legislators have to address a wide range of important issues to govern our state, and that the concerns I raised may not be something that they could prioritize at this moment in time. However, I cannot excuse the West Virginia Department of Agriculture for not recognizing the importance and critical nature of my concerns. Critical nature, you may ask? Yes, because in my August 2017 book, I noted quite factually that only two family dairy farms remained in our tri-county region of Grant, Hardy, and Pendleton Counties. As I write this post today, neither of them remains. The last multi-generational family dairy farm in the region, owned and operated by Chris Keller, ceased operation in December 2017. The Maryland company that collected and transported his milk daily, decided that it was no longer profitable to collect it, and severed his contract with them. Yet, according to the Hardy County Cooperative Extension Agent, there were a total of 28 commercial dairy farms operating in Hardy County alone when the 1985 Whole Herd Buyout program was introduced. Since the State of West Virginia remains one of only 19 states that prohibit direct customer sales of unprocessed milk directly to a growing number of consumers eager to purchase such milk, Chris was forced to sell all but eight of his 35-cow milking herd to avoid impending bankruptcy. He now milks his remaining milk cows, at his own expense, twice daily and dumps whatever milk he can’t consume or use in his home. I have referred to dairy farming as a lifestyle, rather than just a business pursuit because of its time and work demands. In Chris’ case, the farm was his family’s heritage as well.
The news of this tragic and unanticipated loss made front page news in the February 6, 2018 edition of the Grant County Press, even though Chris’ farm is actually located in neighboring Hardy County. Steve Davis, a radio personality for our local radio station, WELD, invited Chris and I to participate in a series of interviews regarding the ongoing demise of family dairy farms and the changes we feel need to be made to salvage what may be left of it. However, the Department of Agriculture’s own state-wide farming newsletter, the Market Bulletin, has yet to even acknowledge it occurred, much less devote any attention to what, if anything, should be done about it.
To place this abject neglect in perspective, you should know that when I met with Department of Agriculture Commissioner, Kent Leonhardt, on September 18, 2017, he was very concerned about the Health Department staff’s lack of responsiveness in giving Chris the most recent sanitary milk quality test results on his herd’s production. Chris told me he had been waiting on those results for several months. Commissioner Leonhardt asked me to tell Chris that he was working on this issue and that he hoped to get those results to him as soon as possible. It was only two months later that his dairy farm was put out of business by the dairy processing industry without so much as an official expression of sorrow regarding the loss from anyone at the Department of Agriculture. No one from the State of West Virginia has approached Chris to offer any financial help or technical assistance in deciding what, if anything, can be done to salvage his family farm. The ultimate magnitude of this loss — the last dairy farm in the Tri-County region — has not even been acknowledged by the state. In fact, a deafening silence was the response from the one state department that is focused exclusively on agricultural issues and needs. The Health Department’s untimely response in issuing required sanitary milk quality test results was the only concern ever expressed by the Department of Agriculture. By the way, Commissioner, Chris still hasn’t received those long overdue test results. Perhaps, at this point, it just doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?
Yet, it is the state’s onerous sanitary milk regulations that prohibit Chris from selling any of his fresh, natural milk to a willing customer base without first sending it to a dairy processing plant. This is why I argue that those regulatory prohibitions leave small dairy farmers subject to the financial whims of a dairy processing monopoly. A regulatory monopoly that allows dairy processors to control the wholesale prices they pay for the farmer’s milk and leaves the farmer with no dairy sale options if the milk processor decides they no longer want the farmer’s milk. Even the states of California, New York, and Massachusetts — highly urbanized states known to impose more restrictive regulations than those of West Virginia — have amended their laws to allow direct farm-to-consumer sales of unprocessed milk. It appears that our state has no concern about this situation, which would be untenable to any other line of business, much less a business that immediately impacts a family’s life and livelihood. Not to mention the fact that dairy farming was an important element of the state’s agribusiness industry only 40 years ago. I recognize the fact that it was when I drive around the South Branch Valley and see the deteriorating remains of long-abandoned dairy barns across the landscape. What value do regulations serve, if they have the consequence of ultimately destroying the activity it seeks to govern? Perhaps the state’s remaining embarrassment will fade when the last dairy barn collapses and disappears into some distant landfill. What then, I ask, will be left of our traditional farming and rural landscape?
Once again, I apologize to my readers for this lapse into the disgraceful state of our political system. However, I hope that by explaining my concerns, you will understand my reasons and need for doing so. How much does the survival and/or potential rebirth of this cherished, traditional lifestyle choice mean to you? I wish to enlist your help in educating the State of West Virginia to the fact that fresh, unprocessed milk is NOT an elixir of death. At least it never made me or Chris Keller sick, even after consuming it for years. If it was truly the dangerous, potential killer our state regulators fear it to be, neither of us would be here to tell you about it today.
David Umling – Peeper Pond Farm, Petersburg, WV