NEW SHARON — It’s 2:30 p.m. on a hot Wednesday in August. Many recent high school graduates are soaking up the last bits of summer with friends before heading their separate ways.

But Mt. Blue High School class of 2016 graduate Kristen Davis, 18, is soaking up the last days of chores and time with her dairy cows before leaving the Franklin County farm she grew up on for her freshman year of college this month.

“Home is where the herd is,” Davis said.

She may have been joking, but as she interacts with the dairy cows — greeting them all by name — it’s clear she means it.

“Hi boys! Hi Otis. Hi Harry,” she says cheerfully to her steers, petting their faces as she passes their stalls while walking into the barn at Silver Valley Farms to help her father bring the cows in for the afternoon milking.

Kristen Davis, a recent Mt. Blue High School graduate, tends to calves recently at Silver Valley Farm, on Farmington Falls Road in New Sharon. Davis has received a scholarship for students who intend to go into organic farming, and she will use it as she attends Husson College, where she plans to study public relations and marketing with the goal of becoming an advocate for farming.

Kristen Davis, a recent Mt. Blue High School graduate, tends to calves recently at Silver Valley Farm, on Farmington Falls Road in New Sharon. Davis has received a scholarship for students who intend to go into organic farming, and she will use it as she attends Husson College, where she plans to study public relations and marketing with the goal of becoming an advocate for farming. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

There’s no question that Davis’ childhood has been rooted in dairy farming. From a young age, she always remembers helping — or at least thinking she was helping — her father and three older brothers with the cows. As soon as she could enroll in Franklin County 4-H at the age of 9, she jumped right in, working her way up over the last nine years and ending her tenure with the organization as the president of the Franklin County 4-H Dairy Club.

Last year she was named the Maine Dairy Princess and was a representative for the Maine dairy industry in the role. This year she is competing to be the Collegiate Maine Dairy Princess.

So when it came time to start looking toward her future, Davis got creative about how she plans to incorporate dairy farming and agriculture into a practical four-year degree. In less than two weeks, she will begin her freshman year at Husson University in Bangor, on a track to earn a communications degree with the hope of gaining the professional skill set to be an advocate for the industry she has grown up in.

Her aspirations were given a boost last month when Horizon Organic, the company Silver Valley Farm sells its milk to, awarded Davis a $2,500 scholarship. The Horizon Producer Education program scholarship is awarded to children of Horizon Organic’s 700 family farmers across the county who are pursuing careers in the organic agriculture field.

“There should be more advocating for dairy farming. There are so many misconceptions about what goes on on dairy farms,” she said.

Those misconceptions include the notions that farmers are cruel to animals or that farms are dirty.

“There aren’t enough people out there to actually fire back at those misconceptions,” she said. “Farmers are the hardest working people in this country. We feed you guys. Just come and spend a couple of days on the farm and see what it’s really like, and you’ll see they’re not that bad of people and that growing up on a farm is probably one of the best places to grow up.”

FARMING AND 4-H ROOTS

Silver Valley Farm has been in business since the 1940s, when Davis’ great-grandfather started it as a crop and dairy farm. Since 2005 the farm has been solely an organic dairy farm run by her father, Jim, and his brother, Rick.

Jim Davis said the family made the switch to organic farming to find a smaller market in order to get a more consistent price for the milk they produce. While there was a learning curve to farming without being able to use pesticides or milk replacer to feed the calves, he said he feels better morally, producing a product that is organic.

Kristen Davis. at the age of 5, leads a calf adorned in a costume down the fairway in 2003 during the costume parade at the Windsor Fair. Davis has been going to fairs as a member of 4-H since she was young and is attending Husson College beginning later this month, with the intention of becoming an advocate for farming after she graduates.

Kristen Davis. at the age of 5, leads a calf adorned in a costume down the fairway in 2003 during the costume parade at the Windsor Fair. Davis has been going to fairs as a member of 4-H since she was young and is attending Husson College beginning later this month, with the intention of becoming an advocate for farming after she graduates. Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

He and his wife were involved in 4-H growing up, and all of their children participated in the club as well. So even before she was old enough to join 4-H, Kristen Davis was going to about six state fairs a summer with her siblings, who were in 4-H to show the farm’s dairy cows.

Kristen can rattle off the different breeds of dairy cows faster than it is humanly possible to write them down or keep up with as she dictates their unique traits, but she said that knowledge becomes inherent after having been involved in 4-H for as long as she has.

“You get to work with (different breeds) early on when you’re in 4-H,” she said. “Fairs are one of my favorite things. … I always just thought it was so cool that I got to handle the big animals when I was younger.”

This week Davis was at the Skowhegan State Fair showing her cows. Franklin County 4-H Youth Development Coordinator Dave Allen said in the year he has been in his role, he has been impressed with Davis’ level of maturity and involvement in the club. At the dairy show Tuesday at the Skowhegan Fair, Allen said it was nice to see Davis take on a role as a mentor to the younger club members.

“This past year I’ve gotten a chance to work with Kristen, and she has been very visible in our program throughout the county. It’s really nice when you have somebody that is getting to the age when they transition from 4-H youth to an adult,” Allen said. “In the 4-H world, she’s really mature.”

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension runs the 4-H program in Maine, and each of the state’s 16 counties has its own 4-H organization.

While at its roots 4-H was an agriculture-based program, and in many ways still is, Allen said the program is more than that. He says it’s a way for young people to learn valuable life skills such as public speaking and community service.

Currently 113 children and teens under the age of 18 are enrolled in Franklin County’s 11 4-H clubs. While enrollment is down in some of the more traditional clubs, such as the dairy club or the steer club, enrollment in 4-H overall has remained consistent as it adds new programs, such as small-animal clubs or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, according to Judy Smith, community outreach assistant for Franklin County 4-H.

Smith, who has worked for the program in Franklin County for more than 20 years, said the decline in the number of students participating in those traditional farming clubs probably is the result of a decrease in family farms in Franklin County over recent decades.

Still, Franklin County 4-H has the second-greatest number of youths participating in animal science projects, just behind Cumberland County 4-H.

Davis said a few years ago the dairy club had only three or four members, but it has been working to bring that enrollment number up; and today there at 10 members.

‘A VOICE FOR AGRICULTURE’

With his daughter growing up around the process and sharing his interest in the organic dairy industry, Jim Davis said the communications and advocacy path is perfect for her.

“I think it’s kind of ideal for her,” he said, adding that she’s “very capable” of communicating with people in any age group.

“She’s been exposed to lots of different organizations and people,” her father said.

Jim Davis said his daughter’s participation in 4-H strengthened her ability to communicate with people and specifically to convey information she has learned about dairy farming. Smith, who has a dairy farm in Wilton and has known Davis since she was a baby, agreed that the qualities Kristen Davis has developed from participating in 4-H will make her a great voice for agriculture.

Kristen Davis helps get milking cows into their stalls at Silver Valley Farm, on Farmington Falls Road in New Sharon.

Kristen Davis helps get milking cows into their stalls at Silver Valley Farm, on Farmington Falls Road in New Sharon. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

“I think there is a lot about farming that people don’t understand,” Smith said. “It’s sad that they don’t realize where their food comes from. I think it’s great for these kids who want to be a voice for agriculture.”

As Maine Dairy Princess, Davis already has served in an advocacy role for the dairy industry in Maine. At events such as the Northeast Livestock Expo, Davis talked to the public about the Maine dairy industry.

Educating the public about where its milk and food comes from is the big reason she is pursuing a communications degree with a focus on public relations — a field she said offers many opportunities to refer to her agriculture roots.

“I think it’s important for, really, any industry to be able to handle the business aspect side of everything and the advertising, and being able to advocate for their product,” Davis said. “There should be more of a population out there advocating and being willing to show where people’s milk and dairy products come from.”

Classes start for Davis on Aug. 29, but a large reason she chose Husson’s communications program was because of the proximity to her home and the 4-H culture in which she grew up. With a niece getting ready to begin her own time in 4-H, Davis said she’ll be back home frequently to help out and be a mentor for her.

In the end, she said, everything comes back to the farm.

“The farm is where I learned my work ethic,” Davis said. “This is where my family is.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate

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