Bill Itle was taking a rare fishing vacation, when he looked up at the big screen TV in the casual sports restaurant where he was eating dinner with friends and saw a Holstein calf on an ESPN report.
Not just any calf, but one that had just been born on his central western Pennsylvania farm, Vale Wood Farms.
Carissa Itle-Westrick said it wasn’t minutes until her dad had her on speed dial.
“What’s going on?” the dairyman asked.
And Itle-Westrick couldn’t exactly explain it either.
A Holstein bull calf was born on the farm Sept. 20 with a big white blaze on its face. A young cousin told Carissa it looked like the number seven. She didn’t really think it was a big deal. “I mean, how many times do you hear dairymen say, ‘oh, that marking looks like a map of South America,’ or something like that.”
But when she went out to the barn, she had to agree the seven was pretty definite, and snapped a quick photo of the calf.
And it was that photo that took the sporting world by storm.
Vale Wood Farms is a small family farm near in Cambria County. The family milks about 200 cows, and the milk is processed on the farm. Their own dairy products, including ice cream, are sold directly to consumers from the on-farm store as well as through home delivery.
They also reach out to consumers with a variety of activities, including an on-farm Farm to Fork dinner in August that featured the products from 10 local farms, and their popular pumpkin patch that runs the first three weekends in October.
Itle-Westrick uses the farm’s Facebook page to share scenes from the family’s fourth generation farm with their customers.
“People look to us to create that link for them back to the farm, so Facebook is an easy way to do that.”
On Sept. 24, she posted the calf’s picture on the Vale Wood Farms Facebook page with this post: “Hey Steelers fans — does our new little addition remind you of anyone? Say hello to Baby Ben! We know which team he’ll be rooting for on Sunday.”
The number 7 happens to be the uniform number for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and Ohio native Ben Roethlisberger, thus the calf’s name “Baby Ben.”
The photo quickly went viral, reaching more than 200,000 people, and has been shared on Facebook 2,914 times.
She also emailed the photo to a Pittsburgh TV station, and they ran with the little photo story, which was soon picked up by other local and national networks, then Associated Press and the Huffington Post. Within 24 hours, Itle-Westrick was doing a Skype interview with CNN.
“It was a very bizarre day,” she admits.
But Itle-Westrick, who returned to the farm in 2002 after a stint with the National Milk Producers Federation in its Arlington office, recognizes the value of sharing her small farm’s story.
“I think it’s always a good opportunity for nonfarm viewers to realize there are real live people back on the farm, that we’re real people too,” she said. “It’s not a big machine.”
What she wasn’t expecting for animal rights activists to flood the Facebook page with posts about how cruel it is to milk dairy cows, and raise calves away from their mothers.
“It feels like a personal attack,” she admitted.
“I support their right to have that opinion, I really do. I don’t discriminate and I’ve always tried to know the full story before making an opinion,” she added. “So it was interesting to be criticized just because we’re dairy farmers.”
Interesting is probably a kinder word than I would’ve chosen. The activists railed against animal agriculture with such comments as “So cute and so adorable, until he is packed in a crate for veal and mercilessly slaughtered,” and “Dairy farming is EVIL.”
It’s clear the activists didn’t bother looking at the pictures of the well cared-for cows on the farm’s website or Facebook page, or didn’t care that the farm works hard to open its doors to community members of all ages, either through school children tours, or community service days by area college students.
“We work so hard at our farm to be a positive part of our community,” Itle-Westrick told me. “We try so hard to do everything right.”
That’s why the anonymous social media attacks felt a little like a blind side quarterback sack.
The farm has received so many requests to see the calf, that he will be featured in a pen during the weekend pumpkin patch hours.
And even after he’s no longer “Baby” Ben, Itle-Westrick said the animal will have a place on the farm.
“I think he’s going to be around for quite some time.”
By Susan Crowell
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