The year was 1840: Martin Van Buren was president of the United States of America, Antarctica was discovered as a continent, and Philip Dean’s great-great-grandparents started a dairy farm in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.
It may seem like a long time ago – it was. But Philip thinks back to that year with a sense of pride and strong family tradition.
“Farming is just a way of life for the Deans. We’ve been farming the same land for all of these years, it’d be a shame to see that change,” he explained.
Philip began farming the 200-acre land full-time with his father in 1982. Philip was in his 20s – and his dad was having heart problems and needed more help. Seven years later, Philip and his wife Cindy purchased the farm and have been living and working as full-time dairy farmers since. In addition to helping around the barn, Cindy handles the bookkeeping for Dean Farms.
But working in a dairy barn for more than 35 years has a way of taking a toll on one’s body. A few years ago, Philip began to struggle with severe arthritis, shoulder pain, foot problems including hammer toe, and nodules in his lungs that caused pain when breathing in extreme temperature changes. He has also had two knee surgeries over the years.
While talking with a friend at church one Sunday in 2015, she recommended that he contact AgrAbility PA. The woman was familiar with AgrAbility’s services, as she had worked for the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), which is part of the state’s Department of Labor and Industry. Both AgrAbility PA and OVR work collaboratively throughout the state to help farmer with a disability or health condition continue working in production agriculture.
Not long after that conversation, AgrAbility PA Project Assistant Abbie Spackman met Philip at his farm to conduct a farm evaluation and assessment. An occupational therapist and a farm coordinator from OVR also met with Philip. The team explored and discussed what types of assistive technology equipment and modifications could be made to his milking process. This consultation and development of formal recommendations are a free service to farmers in the state.
More than half the farmers that AgrAbility PA serves each year are dairy farmers on small to mid-sized farms throughout the state. According to the Center for Dairy Excellence – a non-profit organization that provides resources and support in Pennsylvania to dairy farmers – the state’s dairy industry nets nearly $7 billion in economic revenue for the state’s economy. Pennsylvania’s 6,720 dairy farm families support more than 60,000 jobs across the state. And Pennsylvania is second only to Wisconsin in the number of licensed herds nationwide.
“The Dean family farm is unique in many ways –they take pride in still delivering their milk to their customers,” said Abbie. “During the farm evaluation, we talked about different types of assistive technology that could help him keep farming. We identified the milking routine as one of the most important tasks to modify.”
Recommendations in his flat-barn milking parlor included covering the gutters with grates and installing automatic takeoffs for milking. Automatic takeoffs release the milking unit from the udder of the cow when milking is complete. The unit is pulled up and away from the cow, greatly reducing repetitive motions. Thanks to funding support from OVR, these pieces are in place and Philip can milk 10 cows at once – saving him time, as well as wear and tear on his body.
Other recommendations funded by OVR included a skid steer access platform and a utility vehicle. Philip uses the platform to enter and exit his skid steer safely without the need to climb and step on the front of the machine. It also has served as low scaffolding for doing jobs that require a lift around the farm.
The utility vehicle enables Philip to keep up with the logistics of moving cows from paddock to paddock, and also to pasture. The Deans use intensive rotational grazing – allowing the cows to graze on the farm grasses. Philip has noticed a significant improvement in the grasses in the last 20 years. “And the cows seem happier, too,” he added. They also take cows outside in the pasture during summertime to calve.
Philip is fortunate to have his grown son, Adam – a fifth generation Dean – involved on the farm and in its ownership. Adam has added a cheese-making operation to the farm, and sells the product in Pittsburgh-area farmers markets. The joke among the family is that when Adam began working on the farm following high school, Cindy said, “I’m
retiring!” Retirement isn’t in Philip’s vocabulary yet, but the couple recently took a long overdue trip to Kentucky for a few days – to celebrate their anniversary. It was the first time in 30 years that they had left the farm for more than two nights.
Philip is beyond grateful for the equipment and modifications that have allowed him to continue milking and working day in and day out around the farm. He describes Abbie and AgrAbility PA as the “push to make a lot of this a reality.” He cannot overstate his appreciation of OVR staff for all they have done to support and fund the recommendations.
“It is great to have people come to the farm and see what we do,” said Philip. “I only hope they know how much their support and generosity has meant to me and my family. It has meant everything.”