French Creek Man Moves On After Dairy Farm Closure

Thomas Gilkinson is pictured at Maleski’s Dairy Farm just days before he had to sell his cattle and equipment after a letter of termination of a contract providing milk to Meadow Brook Dairy was served. After having more than a month away from running his farm during the high-stress time for the dairy industry, Gilkinson says he feels healthier and more worry-free. P-J photos by Eric Tichy

FRENCH CREEK — Thomas Gilkinson of Maleski’s Dairy Farm in French Creek had to close operations in May, forcing him to make life and work changes after running his farm for years.

So far those changes have been positive.

In May, The Post-Journal reported on the impending Meadow Brook Dairy plant closure and the subsequent letters of termination from Dean Foods that were released to dairy farms in the region, including Maleski’s. Since the closing Erie, Pa., plant no longer needed his cows’ milk, Maleski’s was out of options. While Gilkinson had to alter his way of life after selling his cattle, he says he’s actually doing just fine.

“I still miss it,” Gilkinson said of running his own farm. “I do miss doing my own stuff.”

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t moved on, however. He now works hauling feed and taking care of animals at Neckers Farm for Carl Neckers in Clymer. No longer his own boss, Gilkinson said he enjoys not having to worry about the pressures of running operations and potentially having to replace broken down machinery and paying for those types of expenditures. Paying his normal bills and taxes is enough.

Gilkinson, pictured pointing at his herd of cows in May, said he misses running his own farm. “I do miss doing my own stuff,” he said.

Gilkinson said he sleeps better at night no longer having to deal with the modern pressures of dairy farming, namely the low milk prices that have put many farms on edge this year. Even with the announcement of farmland protection opportunities from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to try to attain financial sustainability for some dairy farms and continue grant support, some dairy farms in the state have had to close shop.

When Gilkinson tied up loose ends for Maleski’s, he successfully sold his cattle in late May. He also began selling his farming equipment, which ended up providing dismal results.

Nevertheless, he has been able to sustain himself financially with his new job and Neckers renting out his land primarily to keep younger animals before they are of age to breed.

As Dean Foods and other dairy companies continue to terminate contracts with farms in the U.S., Gilkinson understands why many farmers have had enough. He said adjusting to the low milk prices isn’t easy, resulting in high-stress situations and piling bills, and Gilkinson knows long-time farmers in the area who are getting out of the business on their own terms before the market gets potentially worse.

“My heart beats and goes out to those people,” Gilkinson said.

It’s part of the reason why Gilkinson counts himself in better shape than some, even after having to sell his farm’s assets. He has less headaches, stress and worry, and his doctor even reported he’s become physically healthier as a result.

While many farmers and stores that provide equipment for them are experiencing the adverse effects of low milk prices, Gilkinson keeps tabs on his fellow farmers and wonders what will happen next. Cuomo’s recently announced farmland protection opportunities may have even helped Gilkinson, and the increased state aid may just help active dairy farms adjust to the challenges of the time.