Carol Ann Gregg, Western Pennsylvania Correspondent
KNOX, Pa. — Andrew and Jill Henry have different recollections of the day in March 2018 when they found out that Dean Foods would stop buying their milk.
“I wasn’t too concerned,” Andrew said. “God had always looked out for us. This would work out.”
Jill, his wife, was less sanguine.
“I panicked,” she said. “I got on the computer and got the numbers of all the processors in the area. Everywhere I called and asked if they would take our milk, they said no.”
The Henrys, who milk 110 cows in western Clarion County, were one of 42 Pennsylvania farm families dropped by Dean last year as the major processor overhauled its operations.
The 90-day termination letters sent shock waves through an industry that was several years into a serious downturn in milk prices.
“We knew that other farms had received the letter from Dean’s,” Andrew said. “But I was sure we wouldn’t be getting one because a year earlier we received an award from Dean’s for our low somatic cell count. They should have wanted to keep our high quality milk.”
But then his dad, John, a partner at the farm, was notified that a certified letter was waiting at the post office. The dreaded news had arrived.
A couple days later, during her son’s wrestling practice, Jill was talking about the situation with another dairy farmer.
Corey Rex, a salesman for Pittsburgh-based Schneider’s Dairy, overheard the conversation and offered to see what he could do.
“He knew that Schneider’s was a family-owned business and that they liked to support local farmers,” Andrew said.
Bill Schneider, the president of Schneider’s Dairy remembers the evening that Rex called him about the local farmers who had been terminated.
“He said if they didn’t find a market for their milk they would have to go out of business. I told him we really didn’t need more milk but I would think about it over night,” Schneider said.
Schneider hadn’t even had his first sip of coffee the next morning before Rex called again.
Schneider agreed to help, and the company picked up its first load from the Henrys’ farm on Easter Sunday.
“We never had to dump any milk,” said Beth Henry, Andrew’s mom, and she is sure God had a hand in that.
“The biggest downside of all of this was that the local hauler who had picked up milk at our farm for 50 years was not picked up by Schneider’s,” Andrew said.
But Schneider’s did take on eight farms that were dropped by Dean.
The company made it work by getting new markets, some of them unexpected.
“Last summer, when there is always a surplus of milk with the schools closed, we received a call from a dairy in Cincinnati that needed ice cream mix. We were able to send them six trucks a week,” Schneider said.
Fairview Swiss Cheese in Fredonia was helpful throughout the process, and Schneider’s picked up some new fluid, or Class I, markets.
“We have always tried to get the Class I as high as we can so our farmers can get the state premium,” Schneider said.
For a few years even before the Dean termination, the Henrys had been looking at ways to expand their business too.
They settled on selling A2 milk on their farm directly to consumers.
Proponents say A2 milk, which lacks a protein found in most cow’s milk, is easier to digest, though scientific evidence remains thin.
John started using bulls with the A2 gene about five years ago, and last year genomic testing showed that the farm had about 30 cows with the trait.
The family plans to sell both raw and pasteurized A2 milk.
Their new processor hasn’t been turned off by the Henrys’ plans to establish a retail side business.
“Schneider’s will take any milk that we aren’t able to sell direct at the farm,” Andrew said. “I am sure that Dean’s wouldn’t have done that.”
Jill worked with the Center for Dairy Excellence to receive a consultant grant. And she is working with Clarion University’s Small Business Development Center in hopes of receiving a $200,000 grant, which will help with equipment and marketing costs.
Jill, who has a communication degree from Clarion, also hopes to build a classroom to teach people about the dairy industry and A2 milk.
She and daughter, Hannah, 9, are members of the Clarion County Dairy Promotion Committee, which participates in an annual local-food event.
“This gives us an opportunity to talk to about 300 people about dairy products,” Jill said.
The Henrys celebrated their farm’s 100th anniversary in October, just seven months after receiving the termination letter that could have put their dairy out of business.
It was their faith, they say, that kept them going.
“God has gotten us through 100 years,” Andrew said. “I believe he will be with us into the future.”