Dairy Day at the New York State Fair is typically a time to honor excellence in the industry, whether it’s top-quality fluid milk or the best aged cheddar.
It’s also a time to honor those Dairy of Distinction farms whose beautification efforts help boost the dairy industry’s positive public image in the Empire State.
But this year, Dairy Day was a time to remember as well.
Helen Fountain, a familiar Dairy Day presence and one of the original board members when the Dairy of Distinction program was founded 28 years ago, died last December. She was 85.
“Helen was Dairy of Distinction,” said Phil King, the program’s current president. “She has been our real leader and motivator.”
Fountain, of Fayetteville, N.Y., climbed aboard the Dairy of Distinction bandwagon shortly after the idea for a farm beautification program in New York was born — and she never got off.
That idea came by chance when a group of western and central New York dairy farmers went on a tour of some California and Washington state dairy farms, a common practice in the 70s and 80s, according to former Dairy of Distinction president Dave Weaver.
“For a while they were doing almost annual out-of-state tours from western and central New York to visit a variety of dairy farms and study the management, particularly in the higher producing herds,” Weaver said.
At one time or another, the itinerary also included Oregon, British Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota, he said.
“I know a number of dairy farmers from pretty good-sized operations indicated they would not have had the incentive and initiative to expand if they hadn’t visited some of the large operations on the West Coast,” Weaver said. “It encouraged them to try new management techniques and do some expanding.”
On one of those Cornell Cooperative Extension-sponsored West Coast trips, however, Weaver and fellow dairy farmers Bill Quinn, Jesse Hannan and Gary Bigger brought back another idea that had nothing to do with herd management or farm expansion.
The foursome observed dairy farms designated as Dairies of Merit in Washington and Dairies of Honor in California and thought a similar program could give the dairy industry a boost in New York state.
Actually getting the program off the ground in New York took several years of planning, Weaver said. The first step was to form a committee of representatives from dairy cooperatives, the Farm Bureau, Grange, ag lending banks, the Holstein Association, and the like.
That’s where Fountain entered the picture. As manager of member services for Dairylea, she was recruited for the organizing effort.
That original planning committee reviewed the programs in California and Washington and decided upon the criteria that would be used to judge New York’s dairies, finally settling on roadside evaluation — attractiveness of buildings, uniformity, repair, condition of roads and ditches, cleanliness of any visible cows, evidence of pollution, manure handling facilities, etc.
The New York State Dairy Farm Beautification Program was incorporated Nov. 1, 1983, with the purpose of recognizing attractive farmsteads. The goal, as outlined in a booklet commemorating the 20th anniversary of the program, is to “give consumers greater confidence in the wholesomeness of milk, stimulate milk sales and encourage public support of the dairy industry.”
Fountain served on the Dairy of Distinction board of directors continually, from its inception until her death, Weaver said. She was also instrumental in the expansion of the program in 1987 to include Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
The Northeast Dairy Farm Beautification Program eventually grew to include Vermont and Maryland, as well, with Fountain serving as the program’s secretary for as long as it existed.
Weaver referred to Fountain as the “go-to person” for Dairy of Distinction.
“Helen was a very good leader. She did a lot of behind-the-scenes work, as well,” he said. “She didn’t always worry about being the person to necessarily get the credit.”
Among her contributions, Fountain helped put together the displays that Dairy of Distinction used at the New York State Fair and at Empire Farm Days, Weaver said. She also helped plan the annual meeting, chaired the committee for the 20-year recognition program and served as the chair of the nominations committee for many years.
Fountain made her mark beyond the dairy industry, as well.
“She also worked ... as a mentor for young entrepreneurs to help them set up businesses,” Weaver said. “She was a watercolor artist. She was very involved with the local community.”