Agriculture is a big deal in Blair County, and David Hileman is proud to be a part of it.
"I am proud to be part of the 1 percent of the people of the United States that are in the business of production agriculture - one of the one percent of the U.S. population. I am proud to say I am a farmer and I help to feed the world," Hileman told members of the Blair County Chamber of Commerce Breakfast Club Thursday at The Casino at Lakemont Park.
Hileman, 69, of Sinking Valley is passionate about farming.
"I have spent most of my career in dairy farming. I started the day after I graduated from high school. All I ever wanted to do was to be a farmer. I was fortunate to live my dream. I feel blessed I can make that statement," Hileman said.
Hileman said he was in the dairy business for 46 years and in 2008 sold his dairy operation to Phil Kulp.
"It has not been an easy adjustment. Today I own 30 black angus to keep me occupied," Hileman said. "I consider myself a casual farmer. I always will own some dirt and care for some critters; it is what I am."
Agriculture is the No. 1 industry in Blair County and has a tremendous impact on the area.
"It is like a sleeping giant. You don't realize what it means to the area and county. We have a strong and vibrant dairy industry," said Dan Brogdon, chairman of the Chamber's Farm City Committee and executive loan officer for AgChoice Farm Credit. "Both Blair and Bedford counties have been recognized as among the top 100 dairy counties in the United States. Morrisons Cove is one of the top dairy areas in the whole country."
Hileman said farming brings a large amount of dollars back into Blair County. The three large family owned and operated dairy farms in Blair County collectively produce nine tractor trailer loads of milk each day, which is transported east and south for processing and sale.
"The value of one truckload is over $11,000. Over $100,000 is coming into Blair County each day just from the sale of the milk. You add the milk from the other farms and add the beef, hogs, and produce and the dollar amounts are staggering," Hileman said. "One thing we farmers are good at is we keep the money in circulation. We spend it, and most of it is spent in Blair County to operate our business and take care of our family."
Farmers are facing many issues - one of those is how they see themselves.
"Farmers like to make money too but don't see themselves as businessmen. Most focus more on the business of farming. I considered myself a businessman, and farming is the business I was in," Hileman said. "Farmers are going out of business every day, but they are not going out because of low prices and high costs. The farmers that are struggling are going out because of bad financial decisions and poor financial planning, making poor business judgments. We farmers are getting better as business-minded people, but we have a long way to go."
Agriculture will be an economic driver in Blair County and central Pennsylvania for many years to come, Hileman said.
The number of cows in the area is expected to double over the next ten years, and above average prices for grain, milk and livestock are projected in the near future, Hileman said.
Blair County has a strong agriculture infrastructure.
"We have strong quality feed mills, equipment dealers with pretty good products and service, auction barns to market and lending institutions willing to provide capital for our businesses," Hileman said.
The diversity of cultures and farming practices in the county is important.
"The plain sect, the Amish in Sinking Valley and the Mennonites in the Cove, they are much more conservative in farming traditions. The Hispanics are providing loyal, reliable skilled labor on many farms. They have become an integral part of our local society," Hileman said.
The plain people play a key role in Blair County agriculture, Brogdon said.
"We have a really good business model with the plain community. They are small enough and don't need a lot of outside labor; they rely on their family," Brogdon said. "Their focus is to keep the family business going. They are mindful of getting the next generation into the business whether as a dairy farm or another type of farming."