Carissa Itle Westrick is the director of business development at Vale Wood Farms, a family-owned dairy and milk processor in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She became the international face of the farm when a picture of a calf with a face marking shaped like the number 7 went viral on the Internet.
The male calf was named “Baby Ben,” after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who wears number 7 on his jersey. The calf gained media attention after Itle Westrich posted a picture of him to the farm’s Facebook page.
How long did it take from the time you first posted the photo on Facebook to when you first started receiving interview requests?
It was a 24-hour window. It happened that quickly. That evening, he was on the Pittsburgh news, and that evening, the local station came out to get a picture of him. It was really a matter of hours, pretty remarkable.
Did the local station just show up at your door?
Actually, they did! I’m going to say it was probably seven o’clock at night. They saw the story, saw that it was going to be on the Pittsburgh news that evening, and kinda took a chance that someone would be around.
How did their unscheduled arrival make you feel?
It was fine. I have to say, we do make ourselves accessible to the local media. I think that it helps all of us to represent the dairy point of view, whether it’s a story about dairy pricing or whatever farm or dairy news is current at the time. We really do make ourselves available to local stations for that stuff. We have a friendly relationship with them.
Was there anything odd or surprising to you about the local station’s visit?
Not particularly so, because that was still early enough that I thought for this story to grab the attention of the Pittsburgh stations was exciting enough. I had emailed a picture to the Pittsburgh station just on the off chance that, you know, with the Steelers right there in town, they might be interested.
We’re about 70 miles from Pittsburgh, so it’s a bit of a stretch, or a bit of a distance, I should say. So, yeah, that was exciting for us to get the Pittsburgh pickup.
How did it feel to get this much attention?
That part was more unusual for sure. Unexpected, definitely. When I came into work the next morning, my phone was ringing off the hook.
Was posting that picture worthwhile?
We’re in the position where we market our own brand of milk, and we do home deliveries in addition to store deliveries, so we really do pride ourselves on providing people with that link back to the farm. I think that sometimes consumers do choose our products because they know we’re a local family and a local business.
So maybe we feel more of a responsibility to keep them updated on harvest season or what’s going on at the farm or we’re featuring these ice cream flavors, that kind of stuff. We always post cow photos and that kind of stuff to our Facebook page.
It was just obviously a first, and probably a last, haha, for one of our photos to be that widely distributed. It was really amazing. This story was not just a national story, but international, in the Netherlands and in England – it’s just crazy.
What advice do you have for producers who might find themselves the subject of international attention?
I worked in D.C. after college. I happened to be working with National Milk Producers Federation at the same time they were working with Dairy Management Inc. to develop what has now developed into the “Telling Your Story” campaign that trains dairy farmers to communicate their messages to the media.
I had the advantage and the really unique experience of being on staff during the development of that program, and sort of came to appreciate the tiered, mixed-message structure.
And after my time at National Milk I decided to return here to my home farm in Pennsylvania. So I did have some tools in my toolkit that perhaps not every farmer does, but at the same time, these are programs that are out there and accessible to any farmer to use.
What was most surprising about the response to Baby Ben?
Within a couple days, our link was shared to some animal-rights organizations and they very quickly seized on that opportunity to realize that, because our Facebook page was getting so many hits, they wanted to communicate their messages through our Facebook page as well. That was part of the story that we weren’t really prepared for.
How did you respond to that?
For the most part, I chose not to engage. Their issue, I think, is with animal agriculture in general and not with us individually. As a farm, we do work very hard to be a part of our community. We host all kinds of farm tours, open houses and farm events.
We really go out of our way to engage the public and talk to them about where milk comes from. We have a tour that we feed thousands of elementary school kids through every single year. We really work so hard to do everything right that it was just very unusual for us to be just kind of lumped into the “bad animal agriculture” umbrella.
It wasn’t that they had a problem with us individually. They just realized a lot of people would be clicking on our link, and used that opportunity to present their own messages on our page. They just wanted to get their messages out to people. And some of the messages were nasty and almost personal in nature.
In fact, one of the commenters said something like, “Well, Vale Wood Farms, I bet that this little publicity stunt isn’t going as you had planned,” or something like that, and that one was laughable to me, because we didn’t plan any of this, you know? This is a random cow spot – this isn’t some kind of strategy on our end!
Have you made any new connections or had any interesting experiences as a result of the story airing?
Something that we’ve found is that it’s made our local community proud, because we live in a small town that doesn’t make the national news very often. It’s really created a sense of community pride. We’re tickled that the community feels that this is something special for them, also.
Has Ben Roethlisberger come by to visit his calf?
Not yet. He’s too busy playing football, or something like that. PD
The photo of Baby Ben that went viral, and a photo of Carissa Itle Westrick. Photos courtesy of Carissa Itle Westrick.