Extension Couple Exude Dairy Knowledge, Passion

6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

INDIANA, Pa. — When it comes to 4-H and Extension within Pennsylvania, particularly dairy, one couple is often at the top of everyone’s go-to list — Gene and Carol Schurman.

Gene Schurman’s family had a small Holstein herd in Clymer, N.Y., and though he was not in 4-H as a youngster, he became heavily involved in FFA, having Guernseys as his projects.

After graduating from Cornell University in 1972 with a major in animal science and minor in agriculture education, he moved to Penn State for graduate studies in dairy science.

Carol Ocker, the future Mrs. Schurman, was raised on a registered Ayrshire farm in Shippensburg, Pa., and unlike her husband, was extensively involved in 4-H, showing her Ayrshires.

She studied animal industry with a dairy emphasis as an undergrad at Penn State, meeting her future husband in her senior year.

She said she remembers that she was one of the first women in this major and decided to stick with it despite the qualms of others.

“I didn’t really have a career path then, other than ag,” she said. At the time, Extension “wasn’t really hiring 4-H agents. Typically, the assistant county agents handled 4-H.”

The couple married on Nov. 24, 1973, a few months after her graduation, and she got a nonagriculture job for a short time while he finished his studies, graduating in March 1974.

Next, he landed a position as an assistant county Extension agent in Franklin County, Pa., focusing on 4-H and dairy — one of the first Extension positions devoted to dairy.

Gene Schurman recalled that at that time, the average herd in his territory had 50 milking cows in a tie-stall — “a pretty even mix of Guernseys, Holsteins, Ayrshires and Jerseys” — and Plain Sect farmers had most of the herds.

“A few farmers were starting to build their own parlors,” he said, recalling that the contract builders that are used today didn’t exist yet.

Then, on July 1, 1977, Carol Schurman landed the job that would take her and her husband to Indiana County, which has been their home and stomping ground for nearly 40 years — and counting.

She was hired as Indiana County’s first 4-H Extension agent. She recalls that since Extension couldn’t foot all of the bill for this new position, the county’s 4-H parents persuaded the Indiana County commissioners to pitch in, something Carol believes is still happening today.

“There were very few other 4-H agents in the state” at the time, she said. “When I started, I had to maintain the 4-H program and grow it, basically oversee it.

“The whole way through, I’ve had to find new ways to grow, like bringing embryology lessons into the classroom or teaching ag science,” she said, referring to her initiatives in county schools.

Today, her efforts have grown to include 25 classrooms and more than 500 students, all aimed at growing the county 4-H program by introducing agriculture to general audiences.

Carol Schurman has also been instrumental in organizing county and regional 4-H camps. Indiana County holds three annual three-day camps for all children, not just 4-H’ers.

Tagging along to Indiana with his wife in 1977, Gene Schurman started that fall as an agriculture teacher in the Purchase Line School District.

Because ag teachers were in such high demand at the time, he was hired without a teaching certification, which meant he spent the next two summers taking classes to obtain it.

In 1982, he decided the time was right to leave teaching and re-enter Extension as Indiana County’s “official county agent-dairy,” he said.

The position included tasks that ranged from holding winter meetings and workshops to helping farmers troubleshoot such problems as stray voltage.

“Anyone with a milking equipment problem, Gene Schurman was your man,” his wife said.

Over his years with Extension, Schurman had other dairy agents in adjoining counties who worked alongside him, but in his final years with Extension, they all left the profession, essentially making him the southwest Pennsylvania dairy Extension agent.

With governmental cutbacks and the elimination of program funding, the last 10 or so years in Extension took a slight turn for Schurman as he was challenged with finding his own funds and conducting more research.

“I had a lot of minigrants for dairy risk management, forward contracting of milk and feed,” he said. “It was just a tough sell. I would invite farmers to come in for brown-bag lunches, show them what the market was doing, what you should do, what you shouldn’t do.”

Additionally, he worked with multiple researchers during various dairy-related trials, including a nationally recognized study on calf and heifer growth, which determined that most calves are deficient in growth and lacking in protein.

With Penn State’s recent belt tightening, some Extension agents were offered retirement incentives while others were laid off. Gene Schurman took one of the incentive offers and formally retired Dec. 31, 2011. Carol Schurman currently has no plans to retire.

A May 30, 2013, story by the Indiana, Pa., Gazette reported that county commissioners have agreed to contribute funds to pay a new dairy agent, thus working around the hiring freeze enacted as part of the budget cuts.

Looking back on his nearly 30 years with Indiana County Extension, Gene Schurman said that when he started, there were “around 230 dairy farms in the county. In 2007, there were 110 dairies. In 1982, herds averaged 11,300 pounds of milk with 50 cows. In 2007, herds averaged 19,000 pounds with 85 cows.

“Our (Plain Sect) population helps to keep herds small, but we’ve had a few big herds that have gotten bigger,” he said. “Dairy was the No. 1 ag income in ’82. But in the mid-2000s, horticulture took over because of nurseries like Pikes Peak and Musser Forests.”

Plus, Indiana County promotes itself as being the Christmas tree capital of the world.

Although many dairies are modernizing and growing, Gene Schurman said he believes the Plain Sect farmers in northern Indiana County will continue to thrive with their 60-cow herds.

He also thinks nutrition and genetics have evolved the most during his tenure, plus the creation of software and the progression of research.

“We can now fine-tune rations. We’re the world leader in ingredients.” he said.

“Housing and management have changed. We use freestalls now with sand and natural ventilation, adequate space and cooling. We always had that summer slump, but not anymore,” he said.

“Western Pennsylvania’s big problem is land availability — hills, steep terrain limits how much forage we can produce. We’re getting to a point where we’re about maxed out on space,” Schurman said. “With the price of grains, every inch is going into corn and beans.”

Carol Schurman’s position has also evolved. With ever fewer farms and dairy 4-H’ers, she’s begun to devote more time to the growing equine club, including judging and quiz bowl.

Plus, for at least the last 15 years, all 4-H volunteers have had to undergo screenings and background checks. This process has become more extensive over the past year as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal at Penn State.

“When I started, there were no computer programs for data management or keeping track of members,” she said. “We didn’t have email either. Now, we even have a county Facebook page.”

Students can also complete their 4-H project books online now — all developments that have kept 4-H and Extension relevant to those they serve.

“The basic stuff will never change — teaching life skills, developing future citizens that have the skills to be productive. How they started 4-H 100 years ago is the premise of what we do today,” Carol Schurman said. “Some of the stuff is just delivered different. I don’t think 4-H will ever die, but we have to find new ways to reach volunteers and members.”

Because of their hard work and dedication, the Schurmans have received numerous awards, including:

Carol, 1986, National Association of County Agricultural Agents Achievement Award.

Gene, 1987, NACAA Search of Excellence Award.

Gene, 1989, National 4-H Recognition Program winner for his tractor safety program.

Both, 1992, Pa. Dairy Promotion Board Dairy Promoter of the Year.

Gene, 1993, Pa. Dairyman’s Extension Award.

Both, 2004, Image Award from the All-American Dairy Show.

Carol, 2012, National Association of Extension 4-H Agents Excellence in 4-H Club Support Award.

Additionally, the couple have established the Eugene and Carol Schurman Endowment for Indiana County’s 4-H program, and they have set up a 4-H scholarship through the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State to help an active state 4-H member pay for a college education.

While the Schurmans’ Extension positions could easily take up more than a 40-hour workweek, they’ve managed to stay involved in the dairy industry in many other ways, including the Indiana County Dairy Promotion, National Association of Milk Bottle Collectors, All-Dairy Antiques and Collectables Show, Pennsylvania’s centennial 4-H history, and assisting with animal check-in and show clerking during the Pennsylvania Farm Show and All-American Dairy Show.

And from 1988 to 2003, Gene Schurman chaired the Holstein committee at the All-American, becoming the dairy superintendent in 2003, a position he still holds today.

Having worked with the Schurmans for nearly 40 years, Lawrence Specht, professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State, summed up their work by saying, “they’re two of the very best in the business. ... I just wish we had a lot more of them to go around.”

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