Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Agriculture Restructure: Farmers shift gears amid the pandemic

Lucas Brownback is sitting on a cash crop.

“We’ve been preparing and hoping for a year like this—we just wish it wasn’t under these circumstances,” said Brownback, a second-generation farmer who co-owns and operates Perry County’s 300-acre Spiral Path Farm with his brother, Will.

For the past 10 years, shares of Spiral Path’s certified organic CSA program have remained steady at around 1,200 members. But in 2020, more than 400 new members joined.

“The pandemic happened at the midway point of our seeding,” Brownback said. “So, once we started to see the huge surge, we upped our plans and fields.”

Over the course of the season, the farm grows about 50 types of vegetables, plus a few varieties of fruit. Produce is harvested and distributed weekly at 35 different locations throughout five counties—Cumberland, Dauphin, Lebanon, Perry and York.

“Customers were first and foremost excited to lock in their produce share because of the food shortage they were seeing at grocery stores,” Brownback said. “And people are very grateful for our contactless pickup.”

The honor system is in place at Spiral Path’s pickup sites. The day we talked, CSA boxes were being packed with zucchini, lettuce, beets, parsley, kale, cucumbers and garlic scapes.

But that’s only half the story. While half of the farm’s produce supplies CSA members, the other half stocks Wegmans grocery stores along the east coast. That market is reliable and steady.

Brownback said most local farmers are seeing a huge demand for the fruits of their labor. Many consumers prefer buying fruits and veggies directly from growers amid the pandemic.

Spiral Path, unlike some CSAs, accepts new members throughout the growing season, so consumers can sign up at any time. Boxes of produce are distributed weekly through Christmas.

Cash Cow, Canceled

Alec Dewey, like many of us, saw his world change in the blink of an eye when the pandemic hit.

“It feels like forever ago,” said Dewey, president of Harrisburg Dairies. “In early March, our volume was at an all-time high. We had put in a new production line, taken on new business, and we were on a growth path to have a record year.”

More than half of Harrisburg Dairies’ business is tied to the food service and distribution industry, including schools, colleges and restaurants, nearly all of which were closing due to COVID-19.

“Our volume dropped off by 40% in March and sent things in a troubling direction,” Dewey said. “But cows don’t know anything about a virus, so, at the same time, the milk was still coming in.”

With some of his markets drying up, Dewey found himself “in a big-time surplus.”

Typically, 200,000 gallons of milk flow into the Herr Street facility from 30 farms across five counties weekly. Harrisburg Dairies processes, packages and distributes the calcium-laden beverage across nine states—some of which is further distributed by partners to additional east coast states.

“We were one of the processors that had to dump [thousands of gallons of] milk—once in April and once more in June,” Dewey said. “It was heartbreaking because we have close relationships with every farm going back generations. Their fathers worked with my father, or their grandfathers worked with my grandfather.”

Dewey’s great grandfather founded Harrisburg Dairies in 1931. The business will celebrate its 90th anniversary in March 2021.

“The natural reaction from people, when they hear about dumping milk is, ‘Why don’t you just give it away?’ But it’s not as easy as it sounds,” Dewey said. “The milk has to be picked up, processed, bottled, then to give it away—there are pricing laws… It’s not legal to give away milk. It’s an unfair competitive situation for grocery stores and other dairies.”

So, when people started reaching out to him, offering to buy milk, and asking if he would facilitate the delivery, he said yes. Under the federal CARES Act, charitable groups can organize milk giveaways and be reimbursed.

To date, Harrisburg Dairies has supplied milk to several dozen community giveaways, at least two per week, through churches and other organizations.

“Sometimes, a truck full of milk is gone within the hour, with people lined up down the street,” Dewey said.

Several state and federal programs are designed to give farmers a helping hand.

Part of Pennsylvania’s share of the federal CARES Act funding, $15 million worth, is supporting direct relief payments to dairy farmers. An additional $5 million is reimbursing dairy farmers who donate excess products to the state’s charitable food system, officially called the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS). Dairy farms that discard milk will each receive at least $1,500 in what’s being called the “Dairy Indemnity Program.”

“We anticipate—of 5,700 dairy farms—4,500 applications,” said Shannon Powers, press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture. “We’ve received more than 200 so far, mostly by mail. Because our offices are closed, someone has to physically go to the building to pick up the mail to process the applications.”

Over the past three years, Pennsylvania’s milk production has steadily increased to 10.2 million pounds annually. Nationally, only one state has more dairy farms—Wisconsin.

Powers said that dairy farmers have a deep-rooted work ethic and empathy for others, which makes milk dumping all the more painful.

“Aside from the financial pain, it’s hard to see what you’ve produced go to waste,” said Powers. “And, as part of Pennsylvania’s farming culture, there’s a tremendous desire to help neighbors when you can.”

For more information, visit Visit Harrisburg Dairies’ Facebook page for information on milk giveaways.


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