Agricultural education inspires

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2014 12:30 am
By Tessa Edick
For Columbia-Greene Media


Holy Cow! An agricultural education is impactful, imprinting and empowering.


Last weekend the students of the Pine Plains Chapter of FFA participated in the FFA Fall Agricultural Festival at Stissing Mountain Middle and High Schools together with local farms lending sponsor animals from Lo-Nan Farm in Pine Plains, Ronnybrook Farm of Ancram, Dillinger’s Dairy in Pine Plains, Pleasant View Farm in Millerton, Millerhurst Farm in Ancram, Hidden Hollow Equines in Red Hook and others teaching kids hard work reaping rewards.


The quintessential cow lover, educator and essay judge Harriet Ackerman invited me to meet Nancy and Lloyd Vaill, owners of the family-run Lo-Nan Farm, where they care for a herd of more than 1,000 and dedicate their lives to feeding us while spending their “spare” time inspiring students who participate in the Annual Dairy Show and exhibit in the Dairy Show — a Livestock Conformation and Dairy Showmanship — at the school barn on property in Pine Plains.


This year there were 41 calves shown by 38 kids between grades four and 10.


The “Best Little Agricultural Fair in Dutchess County” is a well attended festival offering a variety of local food, products, chicken barbecue from the local firehouse, a car show, a flower show, a petting zoo, tractors (old and new) and an antique tractor pull, chicken races, hay rides and the excitement of a live dairy show!


It’s a celebration of agriculture, healthy competition and experiential education at its best. Chairperson Nancy Vaill oversees the dairy exhibitions with her entire family as well as other local family farmers and educators like Chris MacNeill. MacNeill is another ag star who for nine years has dedicated her time and passion to the FFA students and founded the school garden that feeds the school cafeteria together with ag and tech classes.


She took me on a tour of the farm to school garden complete with perennial, flower and berry beds, kiwi and grapes under the gazebo they built and vegetables in abundance this year because of great weather!


Vaill, MacNeill and Ackerman dedicate their time to teaching, judging and organizing the event where the kids win awards, ribbons, banners and recognition for their dedication and commitment caring for animals and winning at the dairy show.


The majority of the students participate with “sponsor animals,” which are animals owned by different farmers in the community. The animals remain at their farms and students from the school district visit those farms and prepare the animals for the show for three weeks prior to the FFA Ag Fair. This provides students with the opportunity and fosters the responsibility to train, feed and care for these animals prior to the show on working farms so children can learn on site.


All of the farms donate their time and calves and in turn FFA students of 10 help on the farm throughout the year and for years to come.


Individuals showing cattle in both the owned and sponsor classes must compete in the showmanship contest to receive ribbons and must show their animal for two parts of the contest: Conformation (showing dairyness of animals’ correctness and balance as well as features of dairy character, fitting of the animal, halter breaking and personal appearance to clip, wash, groom) and showing of the animal (control, poise and skill to walk, lead and train the animal for obedience and presentation in front of the judge in the show ring).


Three weeks of hard work and commitment pay off for many at the FFA Fall Festival as the students are publicly awarded for their work. Trophies are presented to the top showman in each class. The top three showmen compete for champion showman and the winner earns a banner in their name that is added to the many on display at school as the dairy show legacy continues to celebrate resilient agriculture.


When I visited the barn the morning before the show Jessica Meiller and her mom Cory Vaill greeted me with matriarch Nancy Vaill and her family Lloyd, Lloyd Jr. and his wife Amy. They offer 14 sponsor calves to students and make the opportunity possible together with an advisory board, educators, parents and other local family farms. For the Vaill family it’s all in.


Jessica Meiller commits to the program for three weeks all day everyday after school to mentor these students of ag and teach them how to break, halter, care for, wash, groom, feed, lead, clean an animal in preparation for presentation to the judge in a ring where awards reward their dedication and hard work.


Everyone I met at the barn was smiling. Everyone I spoke to agrees the experience is so much fun. Meiller told me, “I love them (the students) to have fun while learning about animal care to get active in ag. I love doing this — it’s always a lot of fun doing it with my family too.” Cory Vaill added, “The kids always come back and learn responsibility, respect, discipline, hard work and accomplish so much at a young age.”


The idea that young kids in grades four to six handle calves and heifers between four months of age and 2 years old — is astounding! The animals are much bigger and heavier than the children by far and the trust they have with mentors like Meiller to teach them everything they need to know for show day is impressive. “It shaped me as a person and love for the animals is always encourages — nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Meiller explained. And she does all this while tending to her job at Lo-Nan Farms with 45 babies on milk, as well as 600 milking cows and 550 heifers and calves to keep her busy. There is always something to do with the herd of more than 1,000 Holstein and Ayrshire cattle.


Marc Dillinger of My Dairy Farm has been in the business since he was 10 years old and, “brought eight cows to the dairy show for his brothers and sisters to show.”


Lloyd Vaill Sr. told me, “Been here since the start around 1971 — it brings joy to me and is a great opportunity for the kids.”


Other young student mentors (who learned from Meiller) — twin sisters Jansen and Vincent Ciampaglione have been showing for five years straight and although they haven’t yet accomplished first prizes — they are winners beyond a ribbon coaching younger students and maintaining a noble spirit.


Ninth-grader Jansen told me that “It’s a really proud feeling and something different nobody else really does and it’s good to grow up with and I’ve learned so much to show and take some part in agriculture.”


Never mind that her cows this year have all been lame or unruly — she decided to “wing it” and was showing an assigned calf to not miss out on the fun! Her twin sister Vincent was showing a 2-year-old heifer she worked with for only a week and told me, “Showing a cow is not like sport — it’s like having a friend, an amazing experience so I would feel bad for just doing it only one year — and it’s really fun. We make new friends and have a special bond together that is a lot more challenging than a sport — not with all the same animals and very unpredictable.”


Zack Wessel of Ancramdale is a fourth grader showing 5-month-old Majesta who thinks, “cows are cute, I learned how to wash my cow and am excited to show…”


Emily Torre of Stanfordville is a fifth grader working with 4-month-old Moo from Lo-Nan Farm and she’s been at it for two years. Anna Schmid also a fourth-grader from Stanfordville in her first year “loves to spend time with the cows” and showed her calf Chammy.


Ariana Foglia, a sixth grader from Elizaville, showed her 7-month-old Holstein Ronnybrook Buddy Samantha and explained, “She was crazy at first — never been on halter so I trained her after she was kind of bad — kicking me — but now is ready for the show!”


Dustin showed off his one and a half year old black and white Holstein from Lo-Nan called Precious who took second place out of two cows, “I do this because it’s just really fun. I get to work with the cows and know them really good.”


Emily Forges, a sixth grader from Elizaville, showed 15-month-old heifer Dandelion and isn’t yet in FFA but wants to be and told me, “I love spending time with cows getting to know them better, feeding and walking them with grain and hay two times daily. I always liked horses at Hidden Hollow Farm and wanted to try cows for once.”


Michael Dillinger took second place with Cinnamon of Dillinger’s Dairy with his 2-year-old heifer and said, “I like it because it’s fun and I like cows. It’s most challenging getting the cow to walk and not be stubborn about the halter. If cows are stubborn and you get all angry — the calf can sense it and so you need to be calm and learn patience so it goes OK.”


A lesson we can all stand to learn from the kid — and the cow.


Aislynn Demchek, a fifth grader from Pine Plains and first prize winner in her class the first time showing took home first place with Misty, a 6-month-old calf from Lo-Nan Farm. Aislynn told me before the show, “I hope to get in the top three and no matter what happens I’m so proud. The cows give me attention and lots and lots of love.” Not only for winning first prize in her class — she is a grand champion just for the sentiment.


All of the students show in all white clothes and have to try to keep themselves as clean as their cows. Everyone must be washed, brushed with clean eyes and ears to receive blue, red, white and rainbow prize ribbons that respectively show off their places: excellent, good, worthy and mention. Some kids won for their posters, others for an essay contest in addition to the dairy show.


And winners there were, of the 950 kids in the Pine Plains School District and 80 kids in the FFA chapter, the Supreme Champion was Caitlin Halladay for her win with Lo-Nan Farm and showing the most unusual Ayrshire. The Champion FFA Showmanship winner from grade six on was Aiden Arsenault and there were five classes of first prize winners for the Dairy Show: Lilly Tagg, Aislynn Demcheck, Victoria Douglass, Katie Lutz and Ben Prentice who was also awarded Champion Showmanship and will count his name among the few winning the banner that will hang at the school for first prize all around as he raised his own cow, bred her and birthed the calf he named after his grandmother.


The essay contest also produced prizes, first place to Claudia Hill who showed her calf from Ronnybrook Farm and “Really enjoyed my time there.” Second place Emily Forges who noted in her essay, “Jessica is motivational, Amy is hard working, Nancy is encouraging, Victoria is funny and twins Vincent and Jansen are nice and awesome!” Lilly Tagg won third prize for her essay as well, noting her calf, “did not move for a week and was most suborn of them all but I didn’t give up and was glad I didn’t quit.”


These kids are an inspiration to us all. Well deserved accolades and many congratulations to all of the winners and the FFA students for a job well done reminding us all to invest in our community and the future of farming not by words but by deed. FarmOn!


Contact the author at tessa@


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