Don Risser and his son, Eric, took me out to see the plot of land where they intend to build a new free-stall barn. (Excavation of the site began the following week.)   It was good to hear their plans for expansion — essentially tripling the size of the milking herd — because it will help solidify a place for Eric and his cousins in the years to come.

The Rissers are indicative of a new attitude in Pennsylvania. They believe the KeystoneState is a great place to dairy, and they are obviously bullish about the future by wanting to expand.

A state that was stuck in the doldrums has reversed course and is now headed upward again in milk production. Pennsylvania has shown an increase 19 of the past 20 months on USDA’s Milk Production report. (The only decline during that period was a 0.1 percent drop in May 2006 relative to May 2005.)   

Favorable milk prices during 2004 and 2005 helped boost milk production, but one senses that there’s been an attitude shift as well.

Everyone has become focused on where the dairy industry ought to be heading, according to Gary Heckman, executive director of the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence. Producers, governmental officials and allied industry alike have dedicated themselves to making the dairy industry strong.

State Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff, who grew up on a dairy farm, echoes that sentiment.

“The dairy farm you drive by isn’t just a place where a family lives,” Wolff told me in a recent conversation. “It’s a huge part of the local economy.”

I visited with several Pennslyvania dairy producers recently, and they all pointed out advantages that the state has to offer, including:

  • Reasonable proximity to urban centers, which means a ready market for milk produced. It also means a high percentage — approximately 48 percent -— of the milk that goes through the Northeast Federal Order region is used for Class I (beverage milk) purposes. That helps make the pay price in southeast Pennsylvania one of the highest in the nation. 
  • A strong infrastructure made up of dairy-equipment suppliers, veterinarians and other industry professionals.

The agricultural media has talked so much over the years about expansion in the western U.S. But it is important to remember there are other potential growth areas, like Pennsylvania.

Wolff says the future of dairying in his state is “very bright.”

“Our producers have shown an ability to improve efficiencies and production per cow,” he says. “And, many have decided to make a significant commitment to the future by expanding their operations.”