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Mountain Home Magazine

Up on the Farm

Jun 07, 2019 05:36PM
by Jan Smith


This is a big love story, a love story about a way of life and how to save it. The tale involves family, friends, community organizations, businesses, chickens, goats, pigs, puppies, cows, Penn State, and Diamond Sparkle, a horse. At the heart of this story are Tuck and Vanessa Hess and their five children—Graham, Dave, Claire, Jackson, and Sophie, a sturdy, loquacious two-year-old.

They live in Chatham Township in Tioga County, near Middlebury Center, an area loaded with woods, streams, valleys, and steep side hills. This time of year, it’s every shade of green, everywhere you look. Aesthetically amazing it is, but that’s not the reason the Hess family chose to live here. They came to farm. More precisely, to be a dairy farm family. It was a courageous choice.

In the global marketplace, the European Union—a single economic bloc of twenty-eight nations—is the world’s largest producer of cow’s milk. The United States is number two followed by India, Russia, and China. But the number of “federal milk producers” in the United States has been steadily shrinking. In the past two decades, the drop has been precipitous. Though ninety-five percent of dairy farms remain family-owned and -operated, these farms have been shutting down at an alarming rate. The decline of this vanishing entity, a staple of American life and lore, has been well publicized, often with headlines like the one in last December’s Washington Post: “Dairy Farming Is Dying...I’m Done.” But the trend has continued.

There were 650,000 dairy farms in the United States in 1970. By 2017, that number had dropped to 40,000. In 2018, Pennsylvania was fifth in the nation when it came to number of milk producing cows. And there’s more dispiriting news. In 1987, American dairy farms with eighty or fewer cows numbered about half of the total operating in the business; by 2012, that figure had risen to 900 cows at the halfway mark.

Ironically, though the number of cows and farms have steadily diminished, the amount of milk produced per bovine has increased. This increase is also driven by the strategy farmers use when milk prices are high—sell as much product as possible to build a cushion for when milk prices decline and you must sell as much product as possible to make ends meet. The result is a glut of milk in the American market. Since 2014, prices have been declining. By June 2018, it cost farmers approximately $1.92 to produce a gallon of milk. That same gallon sold to processors for $1.32. This defeating trend has continued into 2019.

The picture has been less than encouraging for decades when it comes to the viability of a small family dairy farm. As the writer of the Washington Post dairy-is-dying opinion piece noted, “What kind of determination does it take for someone young and hopeful to begin a life of farming in times like these?” For Tuck and Vanessa, it took faith, family, a shared vision of how they wanted their lives to look, and bushels of optimism.

Tuck and Vanessa grew up in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, about 200 miles due south of Middlebury Center. Tuck was a farm kid. Vanessa was not, though she was familiar with farm life from visits to her grandmother’s home. The pair met during their junior year in high school and weathered the odds—the youthful romance survived and thrived. This summer, they will have been married thirteen years.

After marriage, the couple lived with Tuck’s parents on their farm. Vanessa taught elementary school, and Tuck continued assisting his dad in running the family farm. But Tuck dreamed of his own, and Vanessa supported the plan. Six years later, in 2012, they found a 166-acre spread they could afford near Middlebury Center. The young Hess family, which now included three children under the age of six, made the move.

Milk prices were still rising in 2012 in the wake of the disastrous 2009 price hit the commodity had absorbed, a victim of the 2008 Great Recession. A small herd dairy farm of less than 100 milking cows could still make ends meet and, with frugality, show a small profit, if only on paper. That price trend continued for the next two years. But starting in the last quarter of 2014, pricing storm clouds were gathering. In September of 2014, the price received by a farmer for 100 pounds of raw milk was $25.70. By March of 2019, the amount paid for that hundred pounds was $17.50. No one needs a degree in higher math to appreciate the impact on a household of a thirty percent income drop. And of course, during the same period, expenses continued to rise.

For Tuck and Vanessa, the five years meant welcoming two more children and engaging in a constant juggling act to stay financially afloat. They inched a bit closer to solvency when Tuck’s parents retired from their Waynesboro farm and moved to a house across the road from the younger Hess household. It’s been a boon. Even with a modest milking herd of sixty cows, the work is physically demanding and persistent. Tuck’s father regularly works with him to stay on top of the perpetual chores that farmers build their daily lives around. And the two younger children, Jackson and Sophie, spend their weekdays with their grandparents while Vanessa continues her career as a second-grade teacher in the Northern Tioga School District. Her salary is crucial.

Yet, despite Vanessa’s employment and assistance from parents, the scramble to make ends meet is constant and had, in fact, reached a critical tipping point. Enter the Hess Farm Camp for Kids, a creative undertaking implemented in 2018 to prevent the loss of yet one more small dairy farm.

The name may conjure up an image—perhaps a cross between a state park campsite with lots of small cottages in a semi-circle or an experimental farm operation run by a major university. But the Hess farm is the genuine article. It’s situated on a rolling hillside that has a significant pitch from crest to road. Barns, sheds, outbuildings, fenced pastures, calf pens, and round, plastic-covered hay bales that look like giant white snakes spread across acreage on both sides of the long dirt drive to the house. A tractor tire flower bed sits near the house. The covered entryway before the front door holds the requisite muddy boots, shoes, and heavy work clothes that are a staple of farm wardrobes. Inside the home, an unpretentious brick and wood ranch situated vertically to its hilly backdrop, the family-centered ambiance is palpable. This is a house where comfort and easy hospitality are valued, and where children are welcome and easily blend into and out of conversation.

The commitment of Vanessa and Tuck to make the farm viable is apparent within a few minutes of talking to them. They are candid and thoughtful. They acknowledge the financial challenges they face in keeping the farm operational. They also recognize they may not be successful in maintaining their current situation. But there is no bitter tone, no complaining, no tirades directed at forces beyond their control. Instead they have an engaging practicality and talk about how the farm serves them and strengthens the sentiment of teamwork that animates their family life.

One way to keep household costs manageable is to keep grocery store food tabs lean. And raising much of their own food gets everyone involved. A large vegetable garden, fruit trees and bushes, and egg-laying hens helps with this. All five children participate in the planting, harvesting, and canning of the home-grown produce.

To supplement the beef and pork provided by the farm’s livestock, Tuck hunts deer and fishes. He’s introduced all the children to these endeavors, and emphasizes that the point is not aimless sport but to eat what you take by gun, bow, or rod. He admits that for the youngest children, these outings are more of a walk-in-the-woods adventure with plenty of snacks. And even if the woodland forays produce nothing beyond an outdoor exploration, the central mantra of the Hess family has been affirmed—everyone pitches in. Vanessa and Tuck echo each other on that point.

“We want the children to understand this is a team effort,” they say. “Everyone is needed.”

Another example of family-as-team comes in the care and feeding of animals. Graham, the oldest, works with the cows. He is modest about himself, but he not only works on the farm but is also a fine athlete. His sports are football (he’s a quarterback) and baseball (he’s a pitcher). Dave, also a baseball player, is next in age. He works with the goats and has developed a goats’ milk soap sideline. His handmade bars are a gift hit with family and friends. He also fills special orders for church and school groups. Claire, who’s learning to ride and plays on a softball team, takes care of three-year old Diamond Sparkle, the family horse.

Jackson starts kindergarten in the fall. For now, he’s up early to assist his dad with morning chores before they both head over to Tuck’s parents for a midday meal. Jackson says he wants to be a buffalo farmer when he grows up. He’s quite insistent on it, actually. As for Sophie, well, there’s a new litter of ten Labrador puppies—another venture the family hopes will generate income—to cuddle, not to mention baby goats, chicks, piglets, and calves.

But despite the family’s teamwork, economies, and bill juggling, by 2018 Tuck and Vanessa faced a dilemma. Either Tuck needed to get a second job and farm as a sideline, or Tuck would secure a job and they would sell. Both choices were bleak. They needed inspiration. And they got it—a revenue generating business that could be accomplished with limited resources, involve the whole family, and make use of their beloved farm. It came together as Hess Farm Camp for Kids, which had its first run in the summer of 2018.

For Vanessa, the camp made sense on lots of levels. She and Tuck both enjoyed and appreciated children. They were patient. They liked being instructors—Vanessa in the classroom and Tuck as a volunteer coach for youth sports. They knew their own children were enthusiastic about farm life and the benefits were evident: the children had an appreciation for the sometimes-sorrowful ebbs and flows that are endemic to all living things on the planet; the thrill of birth and the inevitability of death; they knew where their food came from and how challenging it could be to obtain; they developed a sense of purpose and a regard for work.

And, in Vanessa’s words, there’s the pleasure of watching kids find enjoyment in simple pursuits.

“Seeing how the farm sparks excitement and curiosity in my own kids, even though they are there every day, is fun to watch,” she explains. “This is a life that many children don’t get to experience.” The camp is also an investment in the future. By exposing youngsters to what farm life offers, there’s the hope small family farms might continue to be part of the landscape in American agriculture. As Vanessa says, “By us opening up our farm we are opening [children’s] eyes to the blessings of agriculture to hopefully increase their appreciation of it.”

Tuck also reasoned that if it worked well, the camp would enrich their children by giving them an opportunity to share their life with others and learn leadership skills in the process. For the children who attended, the goal was to create an environment where the lessons on food, farm practices, woods, and streams were fun and experiential. The campers would get an up-close-and-personal look at the labor involved and machinery needed to operate a farm. They would be learning by doing, with encouragement to explore and experiment, whether coaxing a garden plot or a crabby cow. They would share in the secrets of how foods are combined to create yummy concoctions like ice cream and preserves. And, the kids would be untethered from electronic gadgets and pixel screens for at least a portion of the day.

Experienced at developing lesson plans, managing behavior, and attending to the logistics required when moving groups of children from one activity to another, Vanessa had no difficulty in organizing the ow of each day, and knowing expert resources she could call on, like Penn State’s Cooperative Extension specialists and the local Back Road Creamery, for presentations and demonstrations.

As word of the camp project percolated through the community, Vanessa and Tuck were moved by the offers that came in their direction to assist with the endeavor. There was, for instance, close-by expert advice on the ins and outs of running a camp from Jared and Elaine Davis, owners of Triple-D Farms, a full-service equine facility just six miles away.

“This is a community that cares about kids,” Tuck says.

“So many people and local businesses have made this camp possible,” adds Vanessa. The couple says they have felt blessed by the outpouring of support, which has included donations of materials by individuals and businesses, as well as received dollars for camper scholarships. Volunteers were also integral to the camp’s operations.

With approximately thirty children in daily attendance, and different activities happening simultaneously at different locations on the farm, campers work, learn, and explore in small groups. It makes sense. Learning-by-doing is best accomplished in this kind of structure. And there’s the safety factor. Hay still needs to be mowed, animals moved, and truck deliveries accommodated. There are a lot of moving parts on a working farm, one more reason for small groups always accompanied by an adult. Supervision is unobtrusive but constant. Volunteer adults, family, friends, and community members were crucial to the camp’s success in 2018.

So, with summer approaching, the Hess family is looking forward to Farm Camp 2019. Registrations are underway. If all goes well, ninety children will attend—thirty per week over the three weeks in July that camp is in session. A new activity added to this summer’s agenda is the Chocolate Milk Toast Challenge, a dairy industry campaign championed by local Pennsylvania State Representative, Clint Owlett, Jr. And no, it’s not the kind of social media challenge that involves chugging quarts or pouring the liquid over someone’s head. The idea is to post a picture or short video that shows a group of friends, co-workers, or in this case, campers, raising a glass or carton of chocolate milk in a toast of appreciation for the state’s farmers. In addition to promoting the importance of dairy, Vanessa hopes the challenge will illustrate the tie between farm families and the legislators who represent them.

Make no mistake—though Vanessa and Tuck are effusive about the community’s involvement, the camp is a lot of work. Whether the enterprise succeeds in generating the income needed to keep the farm in the Hess family remains to be seen. But no matter how the farm story ends, the immediate rewards of the camp for Vanessa, Tuck, and their children go beyond money. As Vanessa says, “Smiles are huge, laughter is plenty, and eyes are sparkling.”

Now that’s what love looks like.

Find the Hess Farm Camp for Kids at 591 Glenn Road or on Facebook, call (570) 376-2908, or email [email protected].