For this family, it helps to have a working mother

Dairy Farmer: Mike and Janet Mowrer say they could get by without her working, but they couldn't replace the benefit package she receives as an elementary school teacher.

June 03, 1999

PETERSBURG, Pa. -- Mike Mowrer figures he could keep his 215-cow milking operation going, even without his wife's income as an elementary school teacher. In fact, he wouldn't mind having her at home during the day as an extra hand around the dairy.

One thing is for sure, however: They could never replace the benefit package that comes along with her job at Juniata Valley High School -- one he figures would cost a few thousand dollars to replace.

"We'd have to buy the health benefits, and we can't even come close," he said. "Not even close."

There are other reasons Janet Mowrer works off the farm, but theirs is a story of how Pennsylvania farmers -- even traditional, full-time farmers with sizable herds, men and women who have never known anything else -- lean on off-farm income in one way or another.

Mowrer Farms in Huntingdon County may do a little more leaning if milk prices don't rebound.

Dairy is among the more lucrative of farms, but even they have been pinched by financial pressures. From 1980 to 1997, the price of milk rose just 48 cents per hundredweight -- from $13.60 to $14.08.

After reaching near record levels in 1998, the price dropped by a third this winter.

The Mowrers' check on April 1 was $25,000 smaller than the one for March 1, an indication of how significantly farmers feel a price drop of a few dollars.

"If it stays this way, it's going to get real tough," he said. "There's going to be bills that aren't going to get paid."

At the same time, Mowrer is paying higher wages to the four full-timers and two part-timers on the larger-than-average farm. The machinery costs more than ever, and labor on repairs is around $35 an hour. Then there are a host of ancillary charges: bills from veterinarians for chekups and regular hoof-trimming, milk-testing fees and feed supplements.

So with average sales of $800,000 and earnings from the teaching job thrown in, the Mowrers take home about $50,000 a year.

"Everything is going up two or three times, but the price of milk hasn't gone up," he said. "That's the only way a farmer can get a raise is produce more. We can't say, we need $17-a-hundred or you're not getting milk."

When the Mowrers moved in 1990 from the suburban Chester County -- where his family farmed for several generations -- to the farming-oriented world of central Pennsylvania, they didn't think it would be this way.

"I said, 'I'll get to meet more friends that are like me,'" said Janet Mowrer. "I think it took me only a short time to realize that all the young farm wives were working."

One farmer's wife living nearby vowed that she would quit after a couple of years, that she was only going to work as a stop-gap solution. But now, years later, Mrs. Mowrer figures the woman will be working forever -- just like the rest of the women.

"They're secretaries," Mrs. Mowrer said. "Nurses."

"Waitresses," her husband added.

"Factory work. They work in the prison. They're the lower minimum-wage jobs," she said.

For a while, the Mowrers made due without her income. When she had their three children, who are 11, 14 and 15 years old, she left full-time work for seven years to rainted to go back, and started substitute teaching soon after reaching Petersburg.

The timing couldn't have been better.

"I started in 1990 with a big debt, and the price wasn't what it is now," Mowrer said.

Half of the debt was for the farm; the rest was for a new barn and milking parlor.

"We were probably pushing $800,000," he said. "The banks want $3,000 per cow, but we were maybe two times that."

The farm economy is one of cycles, and 1998 was a good year.

Now, they're back to the belt-tightening.

"It's definitely a way of life," Mowrer said. "The return on investment just isn't there. It's kinda disgusting when you think about it. If I invested it, I could make just as much."

But he doesn't see himself in another job, one with steadier hours and benefits.

"What would I do? I like the challenges of this job," he said.

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