This year's life-sized butter sculpture at Pennsylvania's Farm Show made its debut Thursday before a crowd of admirers that included the a former NFL quarterback and Gov. Tom Wolf.
But the unveiling of the yearly staple, carved from a half-ton of butter, was more than a farm show highlight. It was also a plug for the state's struggling dairy industry.
The sculpture puts the dairy farmer on a literal platform beside "superheroes." A soldier, doctor, firefighter and football player, all made out of butter, all donning capes, show off their dairy products alongside the farmer. They form a semicircle around a table filled with more dairy products, including milk, ice cream and, of course, a stick of butter crafted out of butter.
The sculpture has been part of a tradition of many Midwestern fairs since its birth in Pennsylvania in the late 19th century.
"It's more than just butter," said the governor at the unveiling. "It's a way for us to honor our dairy industry in a fun and memorable way - an industry that we work hard to promote and support year-round."
It was the first time a governor had attended the Pennsylvania event in more than 25 years, according to Marie Pelton, who sculpted the display along with her husband Jim Victor.
Wolf's presence may be a marker of the state's push to revitalize an industry that has faced immense financial pressure, as consumer preferences have shifted nationwide.
Fewer milk consumers and increases in milk production have caused a drastic decrease in prices, as WHYY's Catalina Jaramillo reports. Dairy consumption nationwide has been falling for decades, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
That decline has dealt a blow to Pennsylvania, which has the second largest number of dairy farms in the nation, after Wisconsin, according to the Center for Dairy Excellence. Pennsylvania lost 120 dairy farms in 2016. In addition, Dean Foods, one of the nation's largest dairy distributors, ended its contract with dozens of farmers in the state last year.
More than 6,600 dairy farms still operate across Pennsylvania. At the butter sculpture unveiling, state Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, former Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Charlie Batch, and dairy farmer Marilyn Hershey made an appeal on behalf of those farmers: Please drink more milk.
"Milk is an energy powerhouse packed with nine essential vitamins and minerals," said Hershey. "Milk fuels our bodies in every stage of life."
In his address, Redding praised Wolf for his support of the dairy industry, including the Dairy Development Plan released in August, and $5 million in grants for dairy farmers announced in November. The grants are intended to help the industry adapt to market conditions, according to Redding.
At the unveiling, the governor thanked a handful of members of the youth organizations 4H and Future Farmers of America in attendance.
He said that he had asked which FFA members intended to pursue a farming career, and only one had raised a hand. But there was a bright side for Wolf. That young woman is planning to be a dairy farmer.
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