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Farmers, you can make a differenceFarmers, you can make a difference

Take a cue from Nelson Troutman, who uses hay bales and spray paint to advocate for whole milk.

April 26, 2022

3 Min Read
Nelson Troutman stands proudly next to one of his newest 97 milk bales he painted on the farm
PAINTED BALE: Nelson Troutman stands proudly next to one of his newest “97 milk” bales he painted on the farm. The 97 milk bales started with him four years ago, when he painted a hay bale and placed it on the corner of his farm for the local community to see. Chris Torres

Who would have thought that a hay bale painted with “97% milk” would spark a movement to get whole milk back in schools? Nelson Troutman didn’t expect it; he just wanted to teach people about whole milk.

But with a few cans of Krylon paint and some hay bales, he has inspired dairy farmers to demand whole milk be placed back in school lunches. And his efforts are starting to pay off.

A Pennsylvania legislator has gotten a bill passed in the state House that would allow milk produced, processed and sold in Pennsylvania to be sold as whole milk in schools.

When USDA’s school meal nutritional requirements were updated in 2012 to conform with new Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) at that time, whole milk was taken out of schools. Right now, schools and child care providers can offer flavored, low-fat milk (1%) — in addition to unflavored, low-fat milk, and flavored or unflavored nonfat milk.

Many dairy advocates disagreed with the rule, and it also inspired Troutman to speak out on behalf of the product his farm produces. He wanted to advertise whole milk as 97% fat free, something that he feels the dairy industry should already be doing in the first place.

He thought of painting a billboard, or maybe some old milk doors he had collected. He looked around the farm and saw 500 wrapped bales in the barn. And then it clicked: a painted hay bale.

Troutman got some paint, brushed “97% fat free” on the bale and set it at the corner of his farm, a four-way crossroads that would enable lots of people to see it.

Storms came through and washed the paint away, so he repainted it using Krylon spray paint. The messages stayed on.

Since then, newspapers and TV stations have flocked to his place wanting to do stories about his hay bales. Farmers from near and far started painting their own hay bales with “97% fat free,” or some similar message. I even profiled a local farmer running for school board who used hay bales to get elected as a write-in candidate. It worked!

Troutman says he never wanted the attention; he just wanted to educate people about whole milk.

He made connections with local businessmen and lifelong farmer friends who had connections in Harrisburg, the state capital, to convince lawmakers to do something, or to at least listen to what the 97% milk campaign was all about.

Politics 101

Along the way, Troutman got a crash course in how politics really works — the connections that must be made, the one-on-one meetings that must be scheduled and the importance of having others by your side.

And let’s not forget, money. “There were a few times when we scheduled a meeting, and it was canceled for a fundraiser. That happened a few times,” he says.

There are many lessons to be learned here. If you want to effect change, you can. Just be ready to work, set time in your schedule to meet people — and this might be the most important part — be ready to do some schmoozing.

“I didn’t push the bill over the goal line. It was the senators that we educated. It was the representatives that we educated. It was a representative that wrote the bill because of us talking to him," Troutman says, adding, “They go to sleep if you don’t push them.”

For all the talk of dairy farmers coming together with a united vision for the industry — from milk pricing to exports — what Troutman and his 97% milk crew are doing might be seen as counterproductive. And he knows this.

But this is milk. This is what farmers, and the industry, are selling. Troutman is proud of his product, and dairy farmers everywhere should be too.

And why not let kids have that whole milk option again? It’s a much healthier option than soda, iced tea or any other soft drink you could serve. 

Will whole milk be allowed in schools again? That’s up to legislators. But farmers absolutely should advocate for the food they produce.

Take it from Nelson Troutman: Grassroots change can happen!

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