Unity farm may have found solution to ‘dairy dilemma’
Pleasant Lane Farms is starting to see a way out of the dairy dilemma.
On Wednesday, the Unity farm welcomed Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding to announce plans for a cheesemaking facility to supplement milk production.
“With (milk) prices being the way they are, making the cheese is the only way we can make the change,” said Ralph Frye Jr., who founded the farm in 1976. “Making the cheese makes it work.”
The family farm, a longtime producer for Turner Dairy Farms in Penn Hills, recently learned that it had received a $286,744 grant from the state’s new Dairy Investment Program to construct a creamery for cheesemaking.
Frye and his sons, Todd, Jason and Chad, started looking at cheesemaking as an option last year after considering the economic realities of the four-year slump in milk prices. Cheese production will give the farm a profit margin that it doesn’t have with liquid milk.
“It opens up a different opportunity for us versus just milk,” Todd Frye said. “The idea is just something to help the farm move forward. … It’s like a big jump for us.”
In 2014, milk prices — what the market was willing to pay the farmer — reached a record high in Pennsylvania, the nation’s sixth-largest dairy producer. That price dropped 28 percent in 2015 and has continued to decline.
The average price for Class III milk, used for spreadable and hard cheeses, dropped from $22.34 per hundredweight in 2014 to $14.61 per hundredweight in 2018, according to Hoard’s Dairyman. Milk is typically priced and sold in 100-pound increments, which equals about 12 gallons.
Other factors have conspired to hurt the small dairy farmer — a glut of fluid milk in the United States, a decline in foreign exports, a shift to low-fat milk by American schools, increasing competition from almond and soy milk and, ironically, improved efficiencies from better technology.
“We’re in this dairy dilemma because you’ve got so many forces at work, some of them product-driven, some of them consumer-driven,” Redding said. “They all come to bear here.”
The state introduced the Dairy Improvement Program as a way to help dairy farmers adapt to the new market realities by diversifying into “value-added” products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream and butter, he said.
In addition to the cheesemaking grant, Pleasant Lane Farms received a $77,338 grant for marketing costs and the construction of an on-farm classroom and tour facility.
“When I looked at this particular project, it embodied what I was hoping to see, which is a farm that said, ‘We’re going to stay in it,’ ” Redding said.
The farm hopes to break ground on the 2,000-square-foot production facility in mid-May and to be in production by late July, Todd Frye said.
“Our cheesemaking facilities will allow us to replicate weather conditions from around the world, enabling us to make and age artisan cheeses in a repeatable high-quality process,” according to the farm’s website.
The farm will be equipped to produce various cheese curd flavors: cheddar, Gouda, Colby and quark cheese.
The grant, plus a $400,000 loan, will cover the cost of construction and equipment, Todd Frye said. A second phase of the project will involve construction of a 5,000-square-foot robotic milking facility.
Those additions will allow the farm to eventually increase its herd size from 45 to 65 milking cows, he said.
Although cheese production will be the main focus of operations, any surplus milk will continue to go to Turner Dairy. An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of milk will be required to make 500 to 800 pounds of cheese, he said.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .