Reinford brothers diversifying in competitive environment
MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. — Brett Reinford and his two brothers are in no way getting the milk for free.
The fourth generation dairy farmers work 1,400 owned and rented acres where 800 cows each day produce some 6,000 gallons of milk.
Their family farm, like many increasingly productive as a result of breed and feed improvements, produces for a local cooperative of one of the nation’s largest producers of butter and cheese: Land O’ Lakes.
As Reinford Farms in Mifflintown undergoes a parents-to-sons transition, the brothers have been working to diversify, Reinford said.
They are accomplishing that through renewable energy that they produce with food waste, cow manure and a digester that converts them into biogas.
An attorney is handling the gift-sale transaction of Reinford Farms by dividing two pieces of land from each other and from the farm, buildings and cows, Reinford said. An accountant is working on issues such as paying their parents over a period of time, he said.
“The way the general farm economy and prices have been for many years, it makes it very difficult for my brothers and I to pay the full value of the farm,” Reinford said. “It is an extremely high capital investment business with very little return.”
Dealing with Dairy’s Volatility
Pennsylvania is, however, a Mid-Atlantic leader in farm bankruptcies, and the state according to the American Farm Bureau ranks second in the nation in terms of licensed dairy operation declines.
Pennsylvania dairy farms in 2019 dropped by what the Farm Bureau reports is a rate of one per day. Dairy farms have for years been paid below-production level pricing. Prices in a global market according to Reinford depend upon how much Europe and New Zealand are producing and how much
China is buying
“A lot of things have to go right in order to succeed when you first get started in dairying,” Reinford said. “That is why you did not hear of too many dairy farmers making it without some sort of partnership or transition taking place to help beginning farmers get started.”
Milk prices had increased to profitable levels months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery only. Schools and restaurants account for about 30 percent of the dairy industry’s business, and milk prices plunged $6 per hundred pounds, Reinford said.
Frantic shoppers seeking to stock up on grocery needs at first fast cleared shelves of products such as dairy, Reinford said. Sales information for weeks ending March 15 and 27 showed that retail milk sales increased 44 and 42 percent, respectively, over the same period last year, according to a prepared statement from American Dairy Association North East CEO Rick Naczi.
Panic buying patterns have since eased up but milk sales remain strong, the Naczi statement noted.
Cheese, the dairy industry’s 50 percent player in restaurants and institutional settings such as schools, has meanwhile seen reduced sales of 30 to 60 percent, the statement added.
Cows for now can’t stop producing milk while employee shortages plague processing plants that have instituted more flexible pandemic scheduling, Reinford said.
Processing plants are reportedly dumping tens of thousands of gallons of milk daily.
When the dairy shelves at supermarkets are these days empty, Naczi stated, it typically has to do with delivery issues.
“The pandemic has been very damaging to the dairy industry. My fear is that many farms will not be able to recover financially from this pandemic,” Reinford said.
Making the Most of
Food Waste and Manure
Reinford said that his father, Steve, now 64, encouraged the 32-year-old and his siblings Chad, 37, Drew, 32, and Dove, 30, to leave the farm and to find other jobs – which they did. Reinford majored in business administration in college and went on to work in software installation and training.
He found the idea of an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., job appealing but soon realized that he loved the environment, the challenges and the freedom of running a dairy farm, he said. He and his brothers all returned to the family farm within a two-year period around 2011.
A renewable energy plant that they launched on the property was by then three years old.
In 2017, they invested in a food waste depackager and built a separate facility to accommodate their new process.
The Reinfords this year installed a second digester that is four times the size of the first, allowing them to produce enough combined electricity to power 600 residences, Brett Reinford said.
Many dairy farmers have established similar plants, he said of the growing facility that has helped his family to diversify and to “soften the financial blow of low milk prices.”
Dairy farms, part of an industry that through its domestic livestock produces the most methane emissions, is conducive to supplementing food waste with manure so that they are both anaerobically digested by a machine.
The anaerobic digester produces energy that would otherwise be released from the farm and from landfills as methane, the primary component in natural gas.
Reinford Farms distinguishes its renewable energy plant from many others by including packaged foods that Reinford said has helped to bring in more clients. The new anaerobic facility handles food waste that they then deliver in the form of biogas through their own trucking company to a local power company, Brett Reinford said. The power company provides the product to customers with other forms of stored grid energy.
Seeing the Light
Renewable energy at Reinford Farms now accounts for 10 percent of the gross income, Reinford said. He’d like to see that increase, he said. He also remains positive about the dairy industry.
“We’re in a very tough position right now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Dairy’s potential in China, where the publication Marketing to China in 2018 reported that cheese consumption is expected to triple by 2022, is on the other hand “incredible,” he said.
“We wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand.”