Dressed in layers, state Rep. Pam DeLissio of the 194th District sat in seiza surrounded by cattle feed for about a half-hour, carefully but not quite expertly working the teats of a Jersey cow.
With the hope of taking home the Celebrity Milking Contest crown on Jan. 10 at the 98th Annual Farm Show, DeLissio headed to Saul to practice milking cows with faculty and students from the school.
The yearly contest held at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in Harrisburg, and is the largest indoor agricultural exposition in the country, according to event organizers.
The Farm Show includes nearly 6,000 animals, 10,000 competitive exhibits and 300 commercial exhibits. It runs runs from Jan. 4 – 11.
“It’s a fantastic leg-up on the competition when you have the state’s only public agricultural high school in your district,” said DeLissio, whose district includes Roxborough, Manayunk, and sections of West Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
“With their help and a little luck,” she explained, “I plan to ‘cream’ the competition and win.”
While DeLissio is a member of the House’s Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee, it’s strong talk from a newcomer to the barn, especially when her rivals include state Agriculture Secretary George Greig. His team took first place in the 2013 contest, producing 2.2 pounds of milk from an Ayrshire cow.
So how does she stack up?
“Not bad for her second time,” said David Ruvarac, an agricultural science teacher at Saul High School.
A new year
On Monday, DeLissio had her first hands-on dairy experience with a cow named “Radish,” who was described by Saul staff as being a comparatively easy milk.
“It’s kind of like a water balloon,” he said. “You let it fill up and then you squeeze it out.”
At Saul, the twice-daily milking of the 17 cows is overseen by farm manager Kevin Kellerman, who explained that depending on their place in the calving cycle, a cow can provide milk for 10 months. The milk from Saul is then shipped to the Land O’ Lakes cooperative.
The dairy program at Saul is in the process of rebuilding: Last year, the school unwittingly acquired moldy feed, which wreaked havoc on the school’s herd. Once ingested, the mold triggered the cows’ airway to shut down.Only one of the dozen cows inside the barn on Thursday was a survivor of that episode.
Kellerman, a nine-year veteran at Saul, said that he hopes to get the number of cows up to 20, as cows will be rotated out of the herd based on their level of production.
“Not all 20 will always be here,” he said. “If they don’t produce milk, they don’t stand much of a chance.”
In April, DeLissio invited Greig and Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite Jr. for a tour of Saul. The stop included a visit to the 130-acre campus farm along with a meal produced and prepared for the guests by food-science students at the school.
The principal motivation was to draw attention to the plight of the Philadelphia School District and to seek ways to address its chronic budget problems, thus ensuring that both core programs and special offerings like Saul have the resources they need.
And at Saul, financial needs are unique: for instance, the school’s feed bill alone is $120,000.
There were immediate benefits to the tour — DeLissio noted that Hite quickly approved a roof repair project — but the larger purpose was to create awareness about the school, build connections, and insulate the school from what DeLissio termed as the “chaos” in the school district.
Advice from the pros
Eschewing the traditional bucket, DeLissio sat on her knees and received compliments for the steady streams that she was achieving.
“She’s doing well for her second time,” said Ruvarac. “She’s got to work on her technique, so to speak – since it’s a competition, she’s really got to work on her rhythm.”
In addition to improving her basic skill-sets, Kellerman provided the legislator with some insider information, suggesting that she not to be first one to milk a given cow, as the animal relaxes with time.
DeLissio will have one more practice round before the contest next week.