Change Brings 'Nontraditional' Dairy Educator to Indiana County

7/26/2014 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

INDIANA, Pa. — It’s no secret that a lot of dairy farmers avoid change like the plague — whether it’s changing what crops they grow, the way they raise cows, the farm’s ownership or even allowing expansion.

But, as Winston Churchill once said, “There is nothing permanent except change.”

And change is precisely what’s hit the Indiana County Extension office. At the end of 2011, Gene Schurman, the county’s dairy educator for nearly 30 years, took a retirement incentive from Penn State during times of belt tightening.

Then last year, the Indiana County commissioners agreed to foot part of the bill for a new dairy educator, thus bypassing the Extension hiring freeze.

The educator hired almost a year later says he is “very different from Gene. He focused on nutrition. I focus on reproduction.”

That new educator, Andrew Sandeen, has been part of the Penn State Dairy Extension Team only since April 1, but his roots in the industry are as diverse as the many colors of cows.

Sandeen comes to southwestern Pennsylvania by way of Oregon, Nebraska, Washington, Ohio and, most recently, Tanzania.

“The dairy industry has been such a welcoming community,” he said. “I have a tremendous respect for the dairy industry, the producers as people and for the dairy cow.”

Sandeen may not have grown up on a dairy farm, but shortly after high school, he discovered his interest in dairy and set out to make it his career.

“I certainly have a nontraditional dairy background,” he said, referring to his suburban Salem, Ore., upbringing.

He attended Oregon State University with the intent to become a large animal veterinarian specializing in dairy.

Sandeen got his first hands-on dairy experiences when he interned at a dairy farm near college and worked at the Oregon State dairy barns. He was also president of the university’s dairy club.

“The summer between my junior and senior year, I interned for a vet clinic,” he said. “After two weeks, I realized that wasn’t want I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

The large amount of school debt and low starting salary he would have faced were discouraging, he said.

In 2001, Sandeen graduated with a degree in animal science and headed to Ohio State University — specifically to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster — for his master’s degree.

Focusing on dairy reproduction and immunology, he spent the bulk of his time in the lab determining why the corpus luteum responds to prostaglandin differently on day five of a dairy cow’s heat cycle compared with other days.

Facing challenges similar to other college graduates, Sandeen struggled to find the “perfect job” after he graduated in November 2003. He ultimately ended up in southwest Nebraska doing embryo transfer work for a small vet practice.

Sandeen then migrated to Vancouver, Wash., and the American Jersey Cattle Association, where he worked as its Northwest representative, covering six states and serving as an animal classifier.

“I enjoyed the work, but being in my apartment for 60 nights a year was hard to take,” he said. “That much travel isn’t for me.”

Sandeen then landed a position that expanded his dairy experience in a different direction — government and policy.

Starting in mid-2008, he went to work for the Washington State Dairy Federation as a program manager, thanks to a grant it had received jointly with Oregon to implement sustainability standards in animal welfare, energy use and environmental stewardship.

“There was a lot of money available for energy and environmental projects,” he said. “Especially (methane) digesters,” noting that there are more of them in the Pacific Northwest than in Pennsylvania.

Additionally, he acted on behalf of the state’s dairy farmers as a representative to Washington state lawmakers.

“It was a good experience. Not all lobbyists are bad,” Sandeen said.

While in Washington, Sandeen met his now wife, Misha. For the past four years, the two have lived in Tanzania — Misha’s birth country — working for an organization specializing in translation and literacy.

In February 2014, Sandeen interviewed for the Indiana County Extension dairy educator position via Skype from Africa. After landing the position, Sandeen, wife Misha and daughter Zarya traveled to Pennsylvania, making Indiana their home.

By the end of June, Sandeen was still trying to get his bearings on the dairy industry in southwestern Pennsylvania, noting that things have not only changed in the industry a great deal during the four yours he’s been in Africa but also that this area is quite different from the dairy industry he was used to in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of the key differences he’s noticed include many more upright silos and tie stall barns in Pennsylvania. He also believes that Pennsylvania dairies are more diverse, having old and new facilities, all of which work for the varying types of producers using them — something he’s hoping to learn more about.

When it comes to nutrition, the same basic ingredients are in both areas, but northwestern farmers bale alfalfa more than making haylage. He’s seen that Pennsylvania farmers use more soybeans and less cottonseed.

“There are a lot of Northwestern U.S. herds that have flush barns,” he said, adding that he hasn’t been to any in Pennsylvania yet.

“There were no Plain Sect farmers to speak of” in the Pacific Northwest, he said.

Sandeen believes the Northwest was a bit ahead of Eastern farms in adopting the organic movement because of the funds available through sustainability-friendly legislation. Because of this, they also had a jump on the BST-free movement.

To better understand the types of farmers he’s serving in Pennsylvania, Sandeen is currently constructing a survey “to see where the area is at with reproduction,” he said. “Then I can pinpoint areas for workshops.”

Sandeen said he expects there to be an adjustment period for producers to become used to him, partially because he’s a reproductive specialist versus his predecessor’s expertise in nutrition, but also because a lot of farmers spent three decades working with Schurman.

“I’m not a salesperson. I don’t want to push people to do what they don’t want to do,” Sandeen said. “I want to help them find what they need and help them get to where they want to be.”

If a producer has a question, concern or just wants to meet the new Extension educator, Sandeen says to call, email or invite him to the farm.

“I’m willing to do dinner or whatever it takes to meet the people,” he said. “I’m really invested here. I don’t want this to be a three- to five-year job. I want this to be long term.”

Sandeen can be reached at 724-465-3880 or ats15@psu.edu.


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