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For more than two years, the business plan was to find the best way for the Marchezak family to take the milk from the family farm and its Twin Brook Dairy business into its own hands and then to the market.
Along came a pandemic early this year and all of a sudden, the plan — albeit with some rapid modification — was in play.
“Our situation is a little unique,” said Randi Marchezak, who is relatively new to the dairy industry as she steers the way for Twin Brook Dairy in Bentleyville.
“We spent the last two years planning and strategizing how to market our milk ourselves. We wanted to take our milk into our own hands. We felt if we could do that, the prospects were good we could do very well.”
Another dairy farm, which directly feeds the SpringHouse on Route 136 in Eighty Four, also reports good news and sales.
It also offers fresh farm milk. As they like to say there, they “raise the cows, milk the cows and bottle the milk.”
“Our customers have been amazing (throughout the pandemic) supporting local family farms,” said Marcia Opp, a second-generation owner of the farm and SpringHouse. “We want to help people and had some special prices on the milk.
“The customers have been wonderful in buying suppers, salads, cookies and pies. We’ve been really blessed.”
Neither Twin Brook Dairy nor SpringHouse had to dump as much milk as others in the industry did around the country.
Opp said SpringHouse was fortunate to sell as much milk as people needed and also became involved in projects with food banks and food pantries.
SpringHouse has long produced and sold its own milk.
“We just are very thankful to our customers streaming through the front door,” Opp said.
The local meat packers also have seen a change in business and some operations since March.
Local farmers have seen some benefits from the way consumers make their choices during the pandemic.
In many cases, consumers stay away from supermarkets and grocery stores and move toward local farmers — both meat and dairy.
Eighty Four Packing Co., also located on Route 136, is surviving what owner Gary Gregg said “has been a very trying time.”
The company, which is a supplier of retail, wholesale and deli meats, is a USDA slaughter house.
“Early on (in the pandemic) we had product that others didn’t,” Gregg said. “The customer response has been tremendous, overwhelming.
“We went to six or seven days as opposed to usually working five days — Tuesday through Saturday. Now, we’re going Monday through Saturday. There were times we went seven days a week to cut, slaughter and package.”
Gregg said the retail businesses gross income is up 40%.
“We’ve got a lot of new customers through this and they have been really loyal,” he said. “Some of these people are coming from some distance.
“A lot of buying patterns changed. People who bought three-to-five pounds of ground meat were now buying 20 or more pounds of it.”
Gregg lamented while it’s easy to find meat cutters, it’s difficult to find a true butcher.
“Finding a true butcher is not an easy thing to do these days,” he said.
Cheplic Packing Inc. in Finleyville has adjusted its operations and hours along with the changes in phases of the pandemic.
“With the COVID-19, we put a new system in almost immediately,” said Jason Cheplic, owner of the company. “Instead of people coming into the store, customers would place their orders, wait in their cars and have the products brought to them.
“The system was a little difficult to get in place,” he addded. “ But once it got going, everyone felt safe. Now, we allow three customers at a time and we are texting others in their cars as to when they are next in line. We’re using technology. It’s easier for some than others, but it’s working out pretty well.”
Cheplic said he works with three suppliers. He said if the pandemic spikes, the company is prepared to immediately adjust.
He added the earliest stages of the pandemic challenged everyone and everything.
“That was a bad time,” Cheplic said. “Things are getting a little better now. It’s been tough.”
Marchezak knows how tough it can be. She was intent in helping her family’s failing farm and her plans — which included a deal with Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream, which is a huge hit in the Pittsburgh area — had Twin Brook Dairy in line for a big change.
John Marchezak, Randi’s father, said the dairy industry “is tough and has been tough the last five or six years.”
“The price to sell dairy cattle is ridiculously low,” he said. “Dairy farming is a tough industry to get in and tough to get out.”
The arrangement with Millie’s evolved over a two-year period.
Twin Brook delivers its milk to Millie’s Homestead-based production headquarters where the milk is used to produce ice cream. They share the space so the Marchezaks can pasteurize and bottle milk there for their own distribution.
“Partnering with Millie’s was helpful and is still helpful,” Randi Marchezak said. “Before the pandemic we estimated selling about 400 gallons of milk per week to them. After the pandemic, it was about 100 gallons a week and now it is slowly ticking up to 200 gallons a week.”
She admits, her family business has benefited from customers turning to local farms during the pandemic.
Randi Marchezak hopes that trend will continue.
“I feel guilty about benefiting while others struggle,” she said. “I do hope a more positive light has been shined on dairy farming and that people will continue to care more about supporting local farms.”
Those interested in joining the Be Local Network can contact Chris Slota at 724-225-1326 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Discount cards are available at the Observer-Reporter and Almanac office, 122 S. Main St., Washington.