Ben Brown’s family has lived on the same farmland in Saltlick, Pa. since the 1700s, but he and his wife, Mary Beth, have not made a dollar for themselves and their three young children since they took it over from his parents four years ago. Dairy prices are simply too low, even after they began self-bottling part of their milk and selling it directly to customers, at a higher price. Plans to scale up production and sales fell to the wayside when Mary Beth was diagnosed with aggressive cancer. “There are two things we know,” she said. “I’m going to die eventually, and we might lose this place.”
This selection of photos is part of “
Growing Up Through the Cracks,” a series from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that looks at the differing experiences of child poverty across southwestern Pennsylvania.
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Nellie Brown, left, 6, lounges on the porch bannister as her brother Oliver, 7, fumbles with a set of toy teeth, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at their family farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Behind them, the milkbarn where their father, Ben Brown, milks their some 50 to 60 head of cattle twice a day.
Physician Assistant Hannah Doyle, left, reacts as she listens to Mary Beth Brown, right, 37, talk about her emotional struggles as a mother, wife, and daughter while undergoing treatment for her stage four, metastatic breast cancer during a visit to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Pittsburgh, Pa. Mary Beth’s parents, Douglas Basinger and Mary Lou Basinger, both 63, at back, often drive drive their daughter from her home on her family’s dairy farm to the city of medical appointments and treatment. Mrs. Basinger quit her job in order to help babysit Mary Beth’s children and take care of the Browns’ home.
From left to right, Ben Brown, 34, and his children, Nellie, 6, and Oliver, 7, cross the road between the barnyard and their house after feeding the calves, Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, on their dairy farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Raised on the land, Ben feels dairy farming is something you are called to do. The Browns have struggled as the price for milk has plummeted nationally, and Ben and his wife worry they will be the first generation to lose the family farm.
Mary Beth gives her daughter Nellie a hug goodnight as her sons Oliver, center, and Anthony play before bed, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at the Brown family farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Pain and exhaustion from Mary Beth’s breast cancer prevents her from walking upstairs to tuck the children into bed, a ritual her husband has taken over. She wonders if Nellie will remember her if she dies while her daughter is still so young.
Nellie swings on the swingset her father and uncle built, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at her family’s farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Despite the sword hanging over their parents’ heads, Nellie’s mother said, “The kids are happy. They go fishing, they shoot bows and arrows. They don’t know they’re poor.” As Nellie gets older, she will be expected to help out more doing chores and working at the farm store. “Since Nellie turned 6, it’s time to figure out what she can do,” says Mary Beth.
Nellie is reflected in her dresser mirror as she plays with her dolls in the dollhouse she got for her birthday, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at the Brown family farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Nellie’s parents saved the dollhouse, which was part of their Christmas gifts donated by Toys for Tots, to give to Nellie on her birthday. Living in the shadow of breast cancer, Mary Beth worries about not being there as a mother for Nellie’s formative years as a young woman.
Oliver protests as he does homework with his mother, Mary Beth, at their kitchen table, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at their family farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Oliver was born prematurely and needed extra help in school, so the Browns sent him to a private Christian school that could accommodate his developmental disability without a specific diagnosis. The school community raised money so the other Brown children could also attend the school.
Nellie, left, and Oliver head out to do their chores after school, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on their family farm that straddles Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. “Part of the reason we don’t feel poor, is you look cross the mountain, and it’s gorgeous. It’s beautiful,” says the children’s mother, Mary Beth.
Shadows fall against the face of Oliver as he plays hide-and-seek with his siblings, Wednesday, April 3, 2019, at their family farm straddling Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Oliver “does not like change,” his mother Mary Beth explains, which makes it even harder to explain what’s happening when she is gone for days at a time for cancer treatment. “It’s hard for them to understand what ‘stage four’ means,” she says.
Anthony Brown, left, 8, carries a bucket of feed as his sister Nellie gets a lick from a baby calf as they do daily chores, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on their family farm that straddles Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Once Anthony gets a bit older and stronger, he will be expected to help with the milking on the weekends, a job his mother thought she would be helping with before her body was hit hard by breast cancer.
Mary Beth looks through mail as her daughter Nellie draws beside her in their family store, Woah Nellie Dairy, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2018, on their farm in Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. Mary Beth had planned to make cheese to sell at the store, but now has to rely on the help of friends and family to keep the store running part-time due to the pain and physical limitations caused by her cancer.
Dusk falls as Anthony walks home from the farm pond, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, on his family farm in Saltlick and Bullskin, Pa. In the beginning of December as the strain from his mother’s cancer mounted, Anthony told her that life is mostly bad. “I told him, ‘I never want to hear that again,’” said Mary Beth. “They’re watching how I’m reacting… We tell them, ‘God has a reason for everything. Sometimes you don’t see it for years.’”