April 22 2019 10:22 AM

Fuming from the propaganda-laden movie Food Inc., Chelsie Fuller countered with a field trip to her family’s dairy farm that opened the door to a role as a dairy princess.

The author and her family own and operate a 570-cow Holstein and Jersey dairy near Berlin, Pa
Recognizing Chelsie Fuller's passion for dairy, her high school volleyball coach, Brandy Duke, proposed an idea that resulted in this team banner. The project allowed Chelsie to combine her love of sports and dairy.

What do you get when you combine a passion for the dairy industry, a drive to educate consumers, a love for sports . . . and a crown? A county dairy princess who has had a banner year in her promotion role.

Chelsie Fuller, of Newark Valley, N.Y., says she has always loved her dairy cows and talking to people about them. She was involved with dairy promotion teams in two counties for many years.

After a busy summer of traditional dairy promotion events, including parades, making sundaes, and dairy shows, Chelsie began volleyball practice — with a new idea for promotion.

Chelsie has been involved in sports for about 10 years, playing basketball, softball, and volleyball. Her volleyball coach, Brandy Duke, recognized her passion for the dairy industry and proposed an idea for a team banner — featuring Chelsie in uniform with her princess crown and sash.

Using the “Refuel with Chocolate Milk” idea, Chelsie’s mom, Deb Lawton, took to social media for clever slogans for the banner. The support from fellow dairy enthusiasts — and Chelsie’s teammates — was overwhelming.

The first banner in the school series features the slogan “Lady Cardinals — Digging it with Chocolate Milk.” With support from American Dairy Association Northeast, Dairy Farmers of America, Tioga County Dairy Promotion, and Hollenbeck’s Supermarket, the banner was hung in the team’s gym for the entire volleyball season.

“Once it was hung in the gym, it was the talk of the school and the town,” Chelsie said. “Every sports team wanted one.”

The girls’ basketball coach, Greg Schweiger, who is also the vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor, wanted one for his team. By the time basketball season started, a second banner hung in the gym for all to see featuring the slogan “Be Legendairy — Refuel with Chocolate Milk.

The positive response to the banners has allowed Chelsie to not only reach her teammates, but other athletes as well.

“We have been able to host ‘Refuel with Chocolate Milk’ events using these banners,” she said. “Athletes can see for themselves how chocolate milk naturally provides many of the same electrolytes that are added to commercial recovery drinks, and that chocolate milk helps repair and rebuild muscles after strenuous exercise.”

The positive responses from the high school banners helped reinforce her love for the industry and sharing her dairy story. In fact, it was an earlier, far less positive incident at her high school that really made her realize she needed to make her voice heard to support the dairy industry.

In May 2018, Chelsie’s biology teacher showed the movie Food, Inc. to her class. “This really upset me because it was full of propaganda from groups with anti-farming agendas,” she said. “I kept telling the teacher that it was wrong and that this does not really happen. The teacher told me I was ‘overreacting and being too emotional.’”

Chelsie’s mother picked her up from school after the incident, and Cheslie was still furious about the situation. She told the milk truck driver about it, who just happened to be at the farm when she got back.

“Before I could get home and out of the shower, I had several missed phone calls,” she said. The milk truck driver told the next farmer, who then called Farm Bureau, the principal at the school, and a whole army of other supporters. Meanwhile, Deb looked to Dairy Girl Network’s Facebook page to vent and to look for guidance, and scores of other dairy women showed their support.

Deb received all sorts of documents, contacts, and ideas on how to respond.

Requires balance

“It was very disheartening how many others have been through similar situations with the anti-farming curriculum being taught in schools,” Deb said. “Apparently the purpose of this curriculum was to encourage ‘critical thinking,’ but how do you possibly encourage critical thinking without balance?”

Encouraged, Deb and Chelsie came up with a plan, starting with a survey of the class. “The three takeaways were: farmers abuse their animals, GMOs are bad, and organic is going to save the world,” Deb said.

“This incident really pushed me to run for county princess,” Chelsie added, “and it only served to strengthen my passion for the dairy industry and educating the public about something I love. The amount of misinformation that is being taught in schools and on social media has harmed consumer confidence in the dairy industry,” added Chelsie. “I knew that I needed to do something to help.”

After seeing the survey results, the Lawton family hosted a field trip to the farm. “With help from family, many community members, and agribusinesses, we organized the field trip to dispel the misinformation and negative feelings this movie instilled in these students,” Deb said.

Stations were set up that included a veterinarian, an agronomist, a milk inspector, a dairy nutritionist, a food safety expert, and soil and water specialists. The event also included a farm tour.

“We finished the field trip off with ice cream from Tioga County Dairy Promotion,” Chelsie said. “I think most of the students left with a different perspective and hopefully respect for what we do.”

Four generations strong

Chelsie lives at Lawton’s Jersey Farm, a fourth-generation dairy farm where currently three generations are active in the operation. The Lawtons milk 80 registered Jerseys, and the farm is currently ranked first in the nation by the American Jersey Cattle Association for milk, fat, and protein among herds of that size.

Chelsie said her year as dairy princess has helped develop her understanding of the dairy industry and the importance of consumer relations.

“I have gained a lot of confidence in myself to present to the public and to be an effective communicator and ambassador for the dairy industry,” she said.

She plans to take that experience with her after high school graduation, majoring in animal science.

“When I was younger, I always wanted to talk to people about my cows and just tell them how awesome they are,” she said. “My goal for my role as princess was to make that connection with the consumer, to help them understand that milk is a powerhouse of nutrients that is good for your body, that farmers are amazing stewards of the land, and that farmers take extraordinary care of their cows.”

With her sports banners and her farm field trip, Chelsie has made those connections. As her year as Tioga County Dairy Princess wraps up, she advised others who might be considering similar roles to do the same.

“Find that unique way to connect with consumers, something very positive and memorable,” she said, “whether it’s a conversation, clarification of misinformation, or better yet, making a new friend.”