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Rebound in milk prices a relief for farmers

Some Western Pennsylvania dairy farmers are seeing signs their industry is improving two years after the recession significantly lowered the price they received for milk.

"On the whole, attitudes have been better and prices have been better," said Myron Bonzo, 47, a lifelong dairy farmer with 250 acres in New Sewickley in Beaver County. About 8,500 dairy farms operate in Pennsylvania.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rising demand sent milk prices from $14.30 per 100 pounds in October 2009 to $19.90 in October of this year.

"When the economy tanked, it was extremely severe on the dairy industry in Pennsylvania and the country," said David Smith, executive director of the PA Dairymen's Association. "This year, milk prices have far improved — 2011 has been a fairly decent year for dairy farmers, far better than 2009."

Locally, the cessation of milk production at a Beaver County farm has not affected business at other dairies, farmers say.

Brunton Dairy, in Independence, voluntarily ceased production twice in the past year after several people developed symptoms caused by bacteria known as Yersinia enterocolitica, according to the state Department of Health.

"They filled such a niche market," said Bonzo, referring to customers who favored Brunton's glass-bottled milk. "It was a pretty isolated incident."

Joseph A. Wakeling Jr. of Moon is suing Brunton Dairy, claiming tainted milk he drank caused kidney damage. Wakeling filed the lawsuit in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court last week.

Wakeling did not return phone calls. His attorney, James Tallman, declined comment.

Herb Brunton, who works at the family farm, referred comment to the family's attorney, who did not return calls.

Jim Marburger, president of the 300-acre Marburger Farm Dairy in Evans City in Butler County, said while milk prices are up, so is the cost of production. Nationwide, prices for things such as fertilizer, feed and utilities have risen sharply, Smith said.

"It's not easy," said Marburger, a third-generation farmer. "You've got to watch every little bit you can watch."

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