VALENCIA, Pa. – When Rita Kennedy tells her story, she omits any mention of the drive and determination and hours of hard work that have transformed the life she adopted when she first married James Kennedy in 1962.
Growing up on a dairy farm, she decided she wasn’t going to spend the rest of her life on a dairy farm after she went into Slippery Rock to high school and saw how other girls used their time. She wasn’t going to marry a dairy farmer.
Things changed, she said.
The newlyweds moved into her husband’s family homestead so she and her husband could work the family’s small dairy farm while Jim’s father, Francis Kennedy, served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Always active. But Rita Kennedy was never inclined to keep herself busy solely on the farm, even during the years she was beginning her family and raising five young children.
And as one result of her enthusiasm for her role as dairy farmer, the Kennedy family was named Outstanding Farm Family in Butler County three times, 1975, 1978, and 1981.
Kennedy’s terse description of her time with the Pennsylvania Dairy Princess Program might lead you believe that her part in creating and driving the program came about more by chance than out of her own eagerness to share a friend’s vision, and her determination to find a better way to promote dairy.
For 27 years, she devoted huge chunks of her time to help build a program that would promote dairy actively in every county of the state, retiring only last year as vice chairman.
Image award. And how did she became so involved with the Pa. All-American Dairy Show that the show’s directors honored her last month with its coveted 2001 Image award?
The Image award is given each year to an individual who has enhanced the image of the All-American Dairy Show by contributing to the reputation, prestige and welfare of the show.
She has been a member of the All-American Dairy Show board since 1993, and currently serves as its vice president. She has also been president of the All-American advisory committee.
As Kennedy tells the story, however, her involvement came almost coincidentally because of her father-in-law’s involvement in helping found the show when he was in the legislature.
When he started spending winters in Florida in the 1990s, he asked her to attend the board’s March meeting for him. In 1993, he decided to retire from the board, and “they voted me in. There was only one other lady then.”
“After my involvement with the dairy princess programs, it was really the next step,” she said, “another phase of being involved with the cows.”
First woman president. Kennedy was the first woman to be elected president of the Butler County Cooperative Extension in 1977. She served three terms on the board between 1975 and 1989, finishing with a second term as president.
Her involvement with the dairy princess program began in the early 1970s when her friend, Barb Gross, became frustrated with how the program was run by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and decided to do something about it.
In those days, Kennedy said, Pennsylvania dairy princesses were elected in regions, and then went on to compete for the state title. They made appearances, but did no personal promotional activities.
Gross put together a county organization to keep the promotional activity at the grassroots level in the county where she believed dairy products were being purchased.
Kennedy decided to do the same thing in Butler County, and called a meeting to organize a promotion committee. Her husband was elected president and she was elected secretary, and the effort was off and running.
Training program. That summer, she became involved in the program Gross had put together to help train the girls to do promotions. There were about 45 people representing a dozen counties at that first training session. The rest is history.
She said she decided to retire from the program when she was appointed to the National Dairy Board and elected to the national board of Brown Swiss Enterprises within the same month.
She also serves on the American Dairy Association’s Dairy Council Mid-East board of trustees, representing farmers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia, and is vice chairman of that board.
The board controls dairy checkoff monies for promotion, marketing, and nutrition education for these three states.
National dairy board. That led to her recommendation for appointment to the National Dairy Board in 1999.
She was waiting to hear about that, when friends in the Brown Swiss association asked if they could nominate her for the national board.
Because she thought the time for the appointment to the National Dairy Board had already passed, she consented to run for the Brown Swiss national board.
The day after her name was put into nomination, her appointment to the dairy board was announced.
Being able to influence national dairy promotion is a position she relishes because she feel strongly about dairy promotion. (In restaurants, she always asks for butter and cream, no matter what’s on the table. And she regards her own excellent bone density scans as an endorsement for the heath value of the product she produces.)
“I’m a dairy farmer,” she said. “If I don’t push my own product, who’s going to?”
With national, regional, and state board meetings to attend regularly – plus traveling with her husband as he attends meetings associated with his position as Butler County Commissioner and as a director for the Farm Credit in Pennsylvania – Kennedy said she is away from home, “probably not half the days in a year, but certainly more than a third.”
Keeps milking. When she is home, however, she is not content to sit back and put everything into the hands of her oldest son, Jeff, and his wife, Janet, who have taken over the farm management.
Every day she is there, Kennedy still gets up and drives the 5 miles to the original Kennedy homestead to do the morning milking.
The 90-cow dairy herd is housed in an older tie-stall barn and in a newer freestall barn, and the milking is still done in the tie-stall.
When Rita and Jim bought the farm from his parents in 1968, they had 28 Brown Swiss, 75 acres, some machinery, “and a couple of two bottom plows.”
In 1976 they bought a second farm, where the families now live, and they now farm about 750 acres.
Brown Swiss. Four Seasons Farm, as the Kennedy operation has always been known, was already an established breeder of registered Brown Swiss cattle when Rita married James.
Although the herd includes several head of Holstein and other colored breed cattle, Four Seasons Farm remains identified with its Brown Swiss herd, and the Kennedy family is active in showing the cattle at every level.
They have been at the Pa. All-American Dairy Show every years since 1980, when Kennedy said her children were old enough to begin to want to show.
When they first began, she said, their herd was “at the opposite end of first place.” Over the years, they have moved up to what she terms the upper to middle herd range.
“We have had a star or two over the years,” she added. Most prominent was Four Seasons Kara Radar, who in the late ’80s was capturing grand champion honors, and whose progeny are now helping push Four Seasons Farm even closer to the top.
At this year’s All-American, the herd came in fourth place in the exhibitor herd judging.
“We haven’t had the very top Brown Swiss,” Kennedy said, “but our breeding has kept them moving up, and showing just gets in your blood. It does make you feel so good when your cow does well. And there is always next year.”
One more thing. One additional family enterprise at Four Seasons Farm also absorbs a great deal of the family’s time.
Each Saturday morning, Jim and Rita, and whatever of their family is now available, including grandchildren, get up before dawn, pack enough meat to stock a butcher shop, and drive to East Liberty where, for more than 50 years, Four Seasons Farm has been selling meat and poultry in a cooperative farmer’s market.
The Kennedys raise the beef, hogs, and sheep themselves, getting it processed at a meat processor in Saxonburg. They contract with neighbors for the poultry.
This time of year Kennedy is busy taking telephone orders at home for fresh Thanksgiving turkeys. On one Saturday a year, she said, the cooperative market delivers 500 to 600 turkeys and another 200 or so ducks.
Of the Kennedy’s five children, four are active in farming. Jeff and Janet are managing Four Seasons Farm; Janelle and her husband, Ted Callen, have a dairy farm, as do Jason and his wife, Jessica. John and his wife, Valarie, have taken part of the second farm to establish a game bird farm and pheasant hatchery. Jill, married to Joe Moser, is a school accountant. There are seven grandchildren, with two more on the way.