Challenges abound for family-run farms in Butler County

| Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 12:05 a.m.

Farming in Butler County has survived through a mix of family tradition, hard work and business savvy.

But local farmers have challenges that could force some to call it quits in an uncertain future, said Donna Zang, agriculture educator at Penn State Extension in Butler County,

When facing rising costs for seed, feed and equipment, Zang said, success will come down to making good business decisions and adapting to change.

“Agriculture is a business, and good businessmen are using those resources to make good decisions,” she said. “I really believe that the ones that are going to do well are the good business people.”

Advances in technology and easy access to research and resources have changed the way farmers do business. Lawrence Voll, president of the Butler County chapter of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said farming has become more technical.

“Years ago you sprayed every week for specific insects,” he said. “Now we monitor them with traps and pass the numbers to Penn State, and they give us recommendations from when we should spray for certain pests. We're not nearly using as many chemicals as we used to.”

People can get a taste of life on the farm on the 16th annual Butler County Farm Tour. The self-guided tour will open the doors to three farms and two wineries from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

The farms include Har-Lo Farms in Butler, Dave Jones Farm and Thiele Dairy Farm in Cabot, and the wineries include Rustic Acres Winery in Butler and Winfield Winery in Cabot.

“The purpose is to educate the public. Milk doesn't just come from the grocery store shelf,” said Edward Thiele, of Thiele Dairy Farm. “That tends to blow some people away. They have no idea what goes into getting it.”

Agriculture in Butler County employed more than 2,000 people and produced $38.6 million in crop and livestock sales, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the latest data available.

Small family farms, grossing less than $250,000 a year, made up 96 percent of the 1,117 farms in Butler County at that time. More than 76 percent of those farms gross less than $20,000 a year.

The number of farms in Butler County has declined during that five-year period, Zang said, though she didn't have an exact number. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet released data from its 2012 census.

The Thiele Dairy Farm and others exhibited on the farm tour are examples of how to keep the family business thriving, Zang said.

Edward Thiele, a fifth generation farmer, runs the farm with his wife, Lorraine, and their twin sons, James and William. They have about 80 dairy cows, 35 to 40 of which are milked daily. They also farm about 250 acres to grow corn, oats, alfalfa and soybeans to feed their animals.

Each cow produces about nine gallons of milk a day, which is shipped to the Marburger Farm Dairy in Evans City to be sold locally.

The Thiele farm has been in the family since 1868, and Edward Thiele said it's bigger now than it's ever been. Raising dairy cattle is a labor-intensive job that the Thieles regard as a way of life rather than a business venture.

“It's a lifestyle. It's not just a way to make a buck. You don't look at it the same as you would a 9 to 5 job somewhere else,” Edward Thiele said.

Dave Jones relies on his background in business when running his 2,000-acre family farming operation in Cabot. The retired vice president of Penn United Technologies raises about 1,500 free range chickens and 3,200 free roaming turkeys, as well as producing “the best sweet corn in Western Pennsylvania,” he claims.

The keys to surviving the risky world of agriculture are staying diversified and never sacrificing the quality of your product, Jones said.

He raises and processes his own poultry feed, made from a mix of feed corn and roasted soybeans. When corn prices doubled this year, Jones ate the extra cost for feed to continue providing a quality grain for his animals.

“My turkeys wouldn't have tasted the same, and customers would have known it,” Jones said. “And if I just had to rely solely on the profits of my turkeys to survive, I probably wouldn't do it.”

For more information on the farm tour, visit

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or

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