(The rural ag scene is made up of many people who often go unrecognized. In 2016, our Rural Roles series will feature some of those personalities, and why their voices are so important to agriculture.)
NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio — There are some farmers who think their most important role is on the farm. And then there is Connie Finton, who sees her volunteer work to improve Tuscarawas County as important as her job in the milking parlor each morning.
Finton and her husband, Cliff, own Carlene Farms, milking 100 Holsteins and farming 340 acres of rented and owned ground on the outskirts of New Philadelphia. They built a progressive dairy farm, and were the first Ohio farmers to have a manure lagoon. They were among the first to adopt magnet feeders then computerized feeders for their herd, to use hutches for raising calves, and to install buffer strips and other conservation practices because it was the right thing to do.
It’s that commitment to agriculture, to the farming community, that drives Finton to volunteer off the farm in a big way.
“I think it’s important that my kids, my grandkids, and someday my great-grandkids, can continue to live here and do the things that they want to do here on the farm,” she said. “We want to live in a great community, and this farm is part of a great community, and that’s what it’s all about, being part of a community.”
A lot of people assume Finton was born and raised on a farm. Others assume she’s so passionate about Tuscarawas County because she was born there.
“I remember going to high school with you,” they’ll say.
No, you don’t, she responds, not unless you went to high school in Florida.
Finton was raised in Orlando, Florida, and met her future husband in 1966 while she was working in a department store and he was stationed at the Naval Air Station Sanford.
“I really didn’t know he was a dairy farmer,” she recalls. “I thought, you know, ‘sailor in the Navy, we’d travel the world.’”
She was still oblivious to his chosen post-Navy career, even when he’d pick her up and go for a drive — doing what all farmers do, trying to find local farms to check out. It was on one of those drives that Cliff fabricated a tall tale that Connie confesses she believed for awhile: that feeding dairy cows orange pulp byproducts is what produced orange sherbet.
“I was so naive,” she said, admitting that she even bought new white jeans to wear to visit her future in-laws’ farm for the first time.
White jeans. On a dairy farm.
But if you didn’t know her urban roots, you would never guess that if you met her today: She milks with Cliff twice a day, can talk feed and herd health with the best of them, and is a tireless dairy promoter, spouting ag industry stats to local CEOs and reading dairy books to libraries across the county each June.
She learned how to farm one step at a time, and raised her three now-adult children — daughter Suzanne, and sons Charlie and Matthew.
Looking beyond farm
As she grew to love the farm, Finton grew to love the surrounding community, which includes the sister cities of Dover/New Philadelphia, population 30,250. Because the farm was Cliff’s domain, she looked off the farm to leave her own mark.
As her children grew, she volunteered at their schools, at church, 4-H and Buckeye Dairy Boosters’ dairy promotion programs. She has been active in the county Farm Bureau, served on the board of directors with Dairy Farmers of America, the board of the American Dairy Association Mideast, and a trustee with Ohio’s Dairy Industry Forum.
She loved the marriage of her livelihood and her volunteer leadership on the dairy boards, and bringing ideas back to Tuscarawas County to implement locally.
“I remember standing on pallets in a tent at the fair dipping ice cream,” of the county dairy committee’s early work. “Now we have our own building.”
Building a hospital
But one of her passions sparked in the early 1970s, while volunteering a weekly three-hour stint on the information desk at nearby Union Hospital in Dover in the early 1970s. She chose the hospital because her son, Charlie, was born with gastroschisis, a birth defect of the abdominal wall. He required numerous stays and surgeries at what is now Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus to replace the abdominal organs and repair the abdominal wall.
The information desk led to her involvement with the hospital auxiliary.
“I think rural health care is extremely important,” she said. “It’s important to have access to quality care, especially if you’re in agriculture, which is a dangerous occupation.”
In 1993, she helped with the auxiliary’s first Christmas Tree Festival, which features decorated and lighted Christmas trees donated by community sponsors and then sold as a fundraiser. Finton now chairs the project, which featured nearly 90 trees in 2015 and drew more than 4,000 people during the nine-day festival. It raised $61,000 for the hospital auxiliary, which turns around and supports the hospital — most recently making a $300,000 donation for the new $17.7 million emergency room that just opened.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” Finton said, “but I get to feel successful that people are benefiting from my work. I like being a part of things that make a difference.”
“And I do it so future generations of Fintons can keep working these fields.”
She is also a member of the Union Hospital Development and Community Relations Board; Tuscarawas County Job & Family Services Advisory Committee; Got Milk? Got Cookies? Got Books? Reading Enhancement Program and she is the co-developer of Fit Youth Initiative. She’s active in the Jerusalem Church as Sunday School teacher and vacation Bible school leader.
And she’s been instrumental in helping develop the Women’s Success Series, sponsored by Dennison Railroad Depot Museum and Kent State University at Tuscarawas. The lecture series is now in its fourth year, and Finton, who serves on its steering committee, was one of its keystone speakers in 2014.
“I like highlighting the fact that women can do things,” she said, explaining that the series provides opportunities for networking. “It’s a lot easier to do things as a group, than try to strike out on your own.”
And, she adds, the network has always worked well for promoting the dairy industry, too.
In 2008, Finton was recognized for her extensive volunteerism when she received the Lucille Nussdorfer Tuscarawas County Woman of the Year Award, and earlier this year, the Tuscarawas County Chamber of Commerce named her its Citizen of the Year.
Check out other stories in our Rural Roles series:
January: Amish farmer and author shares story of the simple life.
February: Mary doesn’t have a little lamb, but she is a friend of the sheep industry.
April: Conservation and cattle: Pete Conkle knows them both.
May: Gerards helped give equine trail riders miles of opportunity.
July: Passion for the fair runs deep: Tanya Marty.
August: Tuscarawas County farmer answers the call of his industry
September: It’s all because of the Jersey cow
October: Risky business: Tire repair has its share of dangers
November: Family tradition, trees and rescue
Just do it
Balancing full-time farm life and that equally-as-full-time volunteer schedule is a juggling act.
“I don’t know how she does it,” says Dee Grossman, executive director of the Tuscarawas County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “She must look at herself in the mirror each morning and say, ‘Let’s do this!’”
But Grossman said Finton is the last to see her work as being deserving of awards.
“It’s just everyday stuff for her,” said Grossman, who has known Finton for 20-plus years and serves on two countywide committees with her. “It’s just something you do: You volunteer in your community.”
“She just says, ‘this needs to be done,’ and gets out there and does it.”
Five Minutes With Connie Finton
FAMILY: Husband, Cliff; adult children, Suzanne, Charlie, Matthew.
HOMETOWN: New Philadelphia, Ohio
OCCUPATION: Dairy farmer
FIRST JOB: Selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts door to door on Saturday in the Florida housing development where I lived (maybe age 12).
BEST FAMILY MEMORY: Summer family trips as a child to my grandparents’ cottage on Burt Lake in Michigan.
WHAT’S ONE ITEM ON YOUR BUCKET LIST: European river cruise, maybe the Danube.
BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE RECEIVED: “Keep out of other people’s business.”
FAVORITE QUOTE: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” — Dr. Phil
BURGER OR STEAK: Steak. Medium rare.
WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT: Worrying if I did enough.
— By Susan Crowell