EDOPT-A-COW: Lamar County Dairy Milks Cyberspace
Will Gilmer figured it was one of those “Field of Dreams” ideas. You know, the kind where “If you build it, they will come.”But there was no such luck.Instead, Gilmer’s brainstorm — a website where kids can fork over $10 to electronically “adopt” (or “edopt” as he calls it now) one of the 400 or so cows at the family’s Lamar County dairy farm — has become a virtual classroom where young students can experience the udder excitement of dairying.Fascinated by the marketing power of the Holstein (think Gateway computers and Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” ad campaigns), Gilmer began searching for ways the Gilmer Holstein herd could bring in a little extra cash. “When I was in elementary school, I remember our class adopted a whale or dolphin or something like that,” said Gilmer. “And I just thought, maybe I could try to have an adopt-a-cow website. I was just trying to figure out some way to do a little something that might generate a little extra spending money.”Unfortunately, www.gilmerdairyfarm.com wasn’t the cash cow Gilmer was looking for. “I thought, ‘If I just put it there, folks are going to find out about it and knock down the door.’ So, I just sat back and waited … and waited … and waited … and waited.”After four years of waiting, the cows have finally come home — but not in the way Gilmer was expecting.Because the life of a dairyman leaves little time for promoting websites, only about 10 cows have been adopted since gilmerdairyfarm.com first hit cyberspace. Even the most recent adoptions — classroom projects by a Vernon Elementary School fourth-grade class taught by his wife, Joni, and a kindergarten class taught by their friend, Leigh Ann Eskridge — have been “freebies” meant only to generate interest.But as a result of those adoptions, Gilmer is seeing that the greatest reward may actually be years down the road when the students adopting members of his Holstein herd are old enough to vote. Then, maybe — just maybe — they can put an end to the decline of Alabama dairies which now number 82, exactly half as many as just five years ago.”Farmers are pretty well regarded, but there are entities that work against us,” he said. “It’s not their mission to go out and put us out of business, but the way the laws are written and the way they have to do their jobs is a hardship on us a lot of times.
“But, maybe, by educating some young folks, some kids in the future may be able to make some policy that will be a bit more friendly to dairies. That will be a long time coming — in 10 years, we may not have 50 dairy farms in the state; actually the trend is that we may not have any by 2015 — but anytime you can make a good impression on a kid, that’s good. “Kids become voters; voters run the country,” Gilmer added. “So anything we can do to make a good impression, we need to do it, and try to protect ourselves years down the road. If nothing else, it’ll spur kids to go find out more about what’s out there.”Today, the kids are learning plenty. The fourth-graders in Joni Gilmer’s class adopted Gilmer dairy cow No. 219, a 3 1/2-year-old Holstein that Will named “Annabelle.” For adopting Annabelle, the class received an adoption certificate, a high-quality electronic picture file of the cow, a pedigree chart, information and history, and a year’s worth of monthly notifications of “major events in the cow’s life.”Annabelle’s life history report tells us that she was born Aug. 10, 2002, and “drank milk everyday until she was six weeks old.” It goes on to tell us that on Aug. 2, 2004, a week before her second birthday, she gave birth to her first calf. “In early October,” the report said, “Annabelle stopped giving milk and moved into the ‘dry pasture.’ She is still there, and she spends her days resting and relaxing while eating grass and hay.”Adoption updates include some dairy terminology that can be used to build vocabulary skills. Among those are such words as “dry period,” “lactating,” “parlor” and “silage.”Adoption updates also give students a look at how well their cow is producing. On April 12, 2006, Annabelle gave 81.6 pounds of milk, the equivalent of 9.5 gallons or 52 cups. “She has been milking for 130 days after giving birth to her last calf, and in that time she has made 8,650 pounds (1,005 gallons) of milk. In her lifetime, she has made 23,170 pounds (2,695 gallons) of milk. It would take you almost 40 years to drink that much milk if you drank 3 cups a day!” A “Did You Know” on the update reads, “A cow has 32 teeth, a four-compartment stomach, and chews up to 60 times a minute when eating or chewing her cud!””It brings agriculture into the classroom and shows students how agriculture affects everyone’s lives,” said Joni.Likewise, Eskridge says her kindergarteners grew quite attached to “Modesto,” a cow that Will named after the area code for Modesto, Calif. “I’ve been very impressed with the program,” said Eskridge. “The children have enjoyed learning about cattle and dairy, and they feel connected to Modesto. Even though we’ve moved on to other things, they’ll still ask, ‘How is Modesto doing?'”One of her class’s favorite parts of the program was learning about Modesto’s pedigree. “We started by talking about the children’s family trees and then I told them Modesto had a family tree, too,” Eskridge said. “They thought that was really neat.”This month, Gilmer’s website also is featuring a Milk Mustache Contest where people are invited to submit photos of their best milk mustache.Winners of the county competition and the on-line competition will each receive prize packages. “There’s a lot about the dairy industry that people don’t know,” said Gilmer. “And we want to help raise awareness for this group of farmers. The farmers will benefit, and the public will, too.”Gilmer’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Perry Mobley, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Beef, Dairy, Hay and Forage Divisions, says the website idea is “ahead of its time.””I wish more producers would realize the benefit of having non-farm families understand what they do on a daily basis,” said Mobley. “Maybe more producers will see the Gilmers’ example and develop their own ideas of how to communicate regularly with consumers.” In the meantime, Gilmer now sees his idea in a whole new light. “This is for educational and entertainment purposes only,” he says now. “It’s not going to put food on anybody’s table.”
Maybe not, but it may one day save the farm.For more information on the Edopt-A-Cow program and special rates, visit www.gilmerdairyfarm.com.