SALEM, Ohio – Wearing green muck boots and carrying a clipboard, Connie Oshop-Keith opens the milkhouse door.
A man in manure-splattered coveralls greets her with a scowl. “What are you going to find wrong today? We just shined everything up. We spent all day yesterday cleaning for you.”
It’s just the scared, hostile remark a milk inspector expects to hear as she investigates to see if there’s any reason to reject this farmer’s milk. Manure caked on the bulk tank? insects hovering in the air? wastewater pooled around a drain? … things that make farmers’ hearts harden when they see the milk inspector pulling in the drive.
But the man in the coveralls breaks into a grin and Connie laughs.
“You guys like to give me a hard time,” she says, shaking her clipboard at him.
* * *
If Connie’s job as an inspector tied her to that clipboard and checklist every day, she would’ve been back to milking her own cows long ago.
“We could just buy their milk and leave them on their own,” she said. But that’s not how it works for her and that’s not how it works for her employer, Schneider’s Dairy in Pittsburgh.
Connie, 46, is required to make only two trips to her farms each year for inspections, but that doesn’t stop her from dropping by other times as well. She brings farmers information on the latest programs, she arranges workshops with experts, she pushes producers toward innovation, she agonizes over their numbers and she thinks up ways for them to improve.
And she looks out for them, making their official inspections as painless as possible. Each time she visits, whether it’s to drop off a pamphlet or to check on their expansion, she glances around and lets them know what to fix before inspection time.
* * *
But that doesn’t mean Connie isn’t tough with that clipboard.
As she enters another milkhouse in western Pennsylvania, she takes a quick look around.
It’s like a house, she says. If the kitchen is clean, you assume the food will be good. The same is true here, she continues. If a farmer cares enough to keep his milkhouse clean, he’ll care about the other details, too.
She carefully inspects any equipment that may come in contact with the milk. Is it clean? Are the gaskets rusting? Are there old soda cans or tools or other unnecessary items sitting around?
She moves on to the barn. Are the cows clean? Comfortable? Do they look healthy? She pays particular interest to the calves.
“I hate seeing dirty calves because they’re the farmer’s future,” she says.
She opens the refrigerator and cupboards. Are all the drugs labeled and stored correctly? What about sanitizers?
She jots notes, signs her name, explains what needs fixed, questions if they need help. She puts down her clipboard and asks if they’ve signed up for the new Johne’s program yet, hands them brochures for a workshop, forewarns them about animal ID and then asks about their children.
“We take her advice pretty seriously,” says farmer Dean Kind. “She looks at us as one team, not like we’re on separate teams.”
Connie figures if she works with the farmers to help them increase their production and improve their milk quality, it will only pay off for Schneider’s.
And she can’t do that simply by making checks on a list.
* * *
It’s been more than 20 years since Connie bought her first “livestock.” It was a goat and when she brought it home and let it loose in the yard, it ran away.
After spending an entire day chasing it down, Connie decided it needed a friend and thought a horse would be perfect. But after she spent $500 on a 10-by-12 building, she realized she could fit a second horse in there, too.
Once she had the two horses and goat, she changed her mind and thought the building was too small. So she moved to a bigger parcel in Petersburg, Ohio, and got four more horses.
One day, she walked to a neighbor’s dairy farm. She’d never seen a cow so close and she fell in love with those dark doe eyes. It didn’t take long before she came home with her own newborn Jersey in the cab of her truck.
Two years, she thought, I have two years until I need to start milking. She went to work setting up a milking operation and buying heifers.
But Connie didn’t know the first thing about milking or farming or cows in general. So she visited dairies in the area. Teach me everything you know and I’ll be free labor for two weeks, she told them.
She spent the next nine months picking up tips from area farmers and fine-tuning plans for her own operation.
Two weeks after the birth of her third child, Connie began milking her 12 cows and quickly built up to 70.
Years later, Connie got a divorce and, with five young children, decided to sell her herd. But she wasn’t about to leave the dairy business.
Instead, she spent the next few years working as a herd manager for two farms in western Pennsylvania.
Finally, in the mid-1990s she got her milk inspector’s license and will celebrate her sixth anniversary at Schneider’s Dairy this year.
* * *
Connie could easily make two stops a year at each of her 100 farms, look over their equipment, fill out her sheet and forget about them until there was a problem.
But that isn’t the way she works.
When a new Johne’s program was introduced, western Pennsylvania vets were going to have to travel several hours to attend the required program. So Connie and her company paid for local training for nearby veterinarians.
When a dairy tour was planned for eastern Ohio, Schneider’s picked up the tab for its farmers.
When dairy beef quality assurance became an issue, Connie planned a workshop for her producers.
When a farmer is expanding or buying new equipment, Connie offers to bring in a vet or engineer or builder to give free advice.
Although she acknowledges Schneider’s didn’t operate this way before she started, she refuses to take credit for the turnaround. Her boss, however, says otherwise.
Connie was exactly what we were looking for, said vice president Bill Schneider Jr.
“Our whole raw milk program is enhanced because of her,” he said. “She continues to flourish. As far as programming, we’re the most progressive in Pennsylvania.”
* * *
Connie knows when some inspectors walk into the milkhouse, their farmers immediately remember every improvement they’ve been meaning to do, every speck they probably didn’t clean that morning.
But she strives to overcome that image.
“I want to live by these standards every day, not just at federal rating time,” she said. “Sometimes that’s a hard mentality for [the farmers].”
By now, though, most of her producers are used to it.
“I’m critical of what I want, but I’ll work with them to do it,” she said.
For example, the somatic cell count legal limit in Pennsylvania is 750,000, but that’s not good enough, she says.
The United States is the only country with a limit that high and it should be lower, she said.
When Connie started at Schneider’s, their farms’ average count was 550,000, but now it’s under 300,000, she said.
Still some farmers don’t understand why a higher number isn’t OK as long as it’s legal.
It affects the shelf life, more additives have to be used, and the state penalizes you, she tells them.
Let me come and sample your cows and send away for results and work with a vet, she says.
“We’re not telling them they have to change on their own, we’re saying we’re here to help.”
* * *
Driving 700-900 miles a week visiting farms from State College, Pa., to the Ohio border could wear Connie out.
But her five children, grandson and new husband, Penn State Extension dairy educator Rodger Keith, keep her life balanced.
When she gets up at 4:30 a.m., she looks forward to the day ahead. And when she comes home at night, she tells her children, “I don’t care what you do, I want you to wake up with a passion.”
Connie’s farmers know all about her passion – and it’s not found in checklists or rules or black X’s.
It’s illustrated by the days she can leave her clipboard in the car and talk farming instead.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at email@example.com.)