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Keeping dairy in Pa.: Fayette County farmer's dreams of diversifying hinge on internet connection

Published by The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on September 9, 2019

By Kris B. Mamula

At the core of Vickie Baker’s dream of opening a bed and breakfast on her Fayette County farm and marketing a new line of milk products in Pittsburgh supermarkets is a robot that talks to the internet.

The robot, installed about four years ago at the 119-acre farm, milks her family’s 80 cows as needed around the clock, cutting labor costs and allowing online troubleshooting of the $250,000 piece of equipment from afar. The result: more time for Ms. Baker and husband Michael, 41, to diversify the family business at a time when dairy farm income nationally has been shrinking and bankruptcies are rising.

“It allows us to do other things and grow our business,” Ms. Baker, 41, the mother of two young children and a Penn State University graduate, said about the robotic milker. “I could not have this without the internet. Just milking cows isn’t going to cut it.”

The Bakers’ Maple Bottom Farm in Dawson hosted several members of the General Assembly on Friday to discuss farmers’ need for broadband access, among other issues. Pam Snyder, a Democratic state representative from Greene County, was among the legislators at the Baker farm who also had attended a hearing Thursday at Penn State Fayette on the need for expanded broadband service in rural Pennsylvania.

The Senate Communications & Technology Committee has been conducting hearings around the state on the lack of rural broadband services, which has left about 800,000 Pennsylvanians off line, according to Federal Communications Commission estimates.

Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing $4.5 billion in infrastructure improvements over four years, which include expanding broadband access to rural parts of the state. A natural gas severance tax, which would fund the projects, has been rejected by the General Assembly since 2014, dimming the prospects for enactment. Mr. Wolf first raised the idea of the tax when running for governor.

Broadband access is a matter of staying competitive in a challenging economy, Ms. Snyder said.

“If you can’t connect, you can’t compete,” she said.

Pennsylvania dairy farmers’ costs to produce milk are higher than national averages, Ms. Baker said, about $20 per hundred pounds produced in Pennsylvania versus $18 for the same amount nationally.

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