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Westmoreland

Derry Township farmer grows ag legacy as state industry leader

Jeff Himler
| Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, 10:12 p.m.
Westmoreland County dairy farmer Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, is shown with his cows on his Derry Township farm in June 2017.Westmoreland County dairy farmer Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, is shown with his cows on his Derry Township farm in June 2017.
Kyle Hodges | Tribune-Review
Westmoreland County dairy farmer Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, is shown with his cows on his Derry Township farm in June 2017.Westmoreland County dairy farmer Rick Ebert, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, is shown with his cows on his Derry Township farm in June 2017.
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Derry Township, inspects his milking equipment on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
Patrick Varine | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Derry Township, inspects his milking equipment on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
Rick Ebert of Derry Township feeds some of the cows on his dairy farm off Livermore Road on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.
Patrick Varine | Tribune-Review
Rick Ebert of Derry Township feeds some of the cows on his dairy farm off Livermore Road on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.

Rick Ebert’s farming legacy is rooted locally, expanding regionally and ever-evolving.

The Derry Township dairy farmer was just re-elected to a third term as president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a group representing about 62,000 producers in one of the state’s leading economic enterprises. As such, he’s got his mind tuned to foreign tariffs as well as this year’s moist weather — factors that are affecting farm families not unlike his, across the state and region.

“This year has just been a really tough year all-around, for the dairy industry and all commodities,” Ebert said, noting prices are low for milk and for the cows that produce it.

“There are guys who really can’t afford to stay in dairy, but they can’t afford to get out because of the low prices,” he said. “Two years ago, you were probably looking at $1,300 to $1,500 for a good milking cow. Now it’s between $600 and $900.”

Ebert grows corn, soybeans and hay on his 350-acre spread.

“It’s been a struggle, with the wet weather in the spring, to get enough corn out,” he said. “In good years, we’ve had crops to sell.”

“If you’d asked me 25 years ago if I’d be in this position, I’d have told you you were crazy,” Ebert, 58, said of his leadership role with the PFB. “That just wasn’t a goal of mine. I was more focused on the farm then.”

But he soon became involved with the Farm Bureau, serving as president of the Westmoreland County chapter before taking on responsibilities at the state level, initially as vice president.

He also helps represent the country’s Northeast Region on the American Farm Bureau board and serves on that organization’s trade advisory committee.

Whether or not a given producer markets a commodity overseas, the strength or weakness of the foreign market for that item will affect its domestic price, Ebert noted.

U.S. farmers “lost 97 percent of our exports to China of soybeans,” he said. “That affects the price nationwide. At the beginning of the year, soybeans were around $10 per bushel. Now they’re hovering around $8.40 to $8.60, which adds up really quickly.”

Of the responsibilities involved in heading the PFB, including periodic trips to Washington, D.C., Ebert said, “The thing that I enjoy the most is the fellowship of the other farmers. You sort of get out of your fence row, get off the farm and see how things are being done elsewhere.

“As I got more involved and met more people, I felt the need to give back to the agricultural community with my time. It’s a nice support system. We can work together to solve agriculture’s problems.”

Ebert’s down-to-earth manner is one of the factors that has made him an effective PFB president, according to Chris Hoffman, who raises pigs and chickens in Juniata County and is the bureau’s vice president.

“He’s very personable and very easy to talk to,” Hoffman said. “Rick will take the time to talk with each person individually, if he can.”

Ebert’s time is at a premium as he balances managing his own spread with farm bureau commitments.

“I just think the dynamics of the traditional small dairy farm or crop farm is going to change, to other diversified areas,” Ebert observed, citing the growing interests in local markets for wineries and cheese-making.

“For right now, that seems to be the trend,” he said. “People want to make that connection back to the local farm. People want to understand where their food is coming from.”

Ebert, himself, is leaning toward that trend. He’s supplemented his 75 milking cows with 28 Dorset-Texel crossbred ewes, a variety prized mostly for its meat. He’s also considering adding a few head of beef cattle.

“We’re looking at transitioning ourselves off into other areas,” he said.

After more than three decades operating the dairy farm jointly with his older brother, Bill, Ebert and his sibling divvied up the acreage and forged on separately about three years ago.

“We had a really good partnership,” Ebert said. “It worked well for a lot of years, but times are changing.”

Now, the stage is set for the next generation to take over. When Ebert packs his bags for a PFB business trip, he relies on two of his sons to jointly manage the farm — roles they may inherit on a permanent basis when Ebert retires.

Jonathan, 27, who has a degree in auto mechanics and has worked on heavy equipment, helps keep the farm’s equipment in running order. Jake, 24, likely will focus more on the livestock and crops, his father said.

Over time, he said, “I’m sure they’ll both work together more on everything.”

Ebert’s two remaining children have followed other paths in the broader ag industry.

Josh, 30, who lives on a neighboring farm, works with dealers across the state in promoting many of the products that farmers use. Rachel, 32, of Centre Hall, is an adviser at Penn State’s College of Agriculture.

“All four of our kids have stayed in the ag industry somewhere,” Ebert noted with satisfaction.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, jhimler@tribweb.com or via Twitter @jhimler_news.

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