Neither sheep nor college were high priorities for a young Richard Kuzemchak, who was focused on continuing his family’s small crop, beef and hog farm in Indiana County, Pennsylvania. But that all changed when an inspirational ag science teacher encouraged him to look outside the box he created.
“Sheep was an adventure,” he said.
Kuzemchak was inducted into the Livestock Hall of Fame during the Keystone International Livestock Exposition on Thursday, Oct. 3, at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg.
At 14 years old, Kuzemchak was faced with picking a direction for his FFA project. He credited his high school agricultural science teacher for encouraging him to take up sheep as a project. That same teacher also took Kuzemchak and his classmates to Penn State and introduced them to some of the professors, which is when Kuzemchak decided college was for him.
He lived in a dormitory during his first semester, but it didn’t feel like home. “I was a duck out of water,” he said.
By his second semester, he was living at school’s sheep barns, back when they were still located on campus. He continued to work and live at the barns throughout his undergraduate years, tending to the Southdown, Cheviot, Shropshire, Hampshire, Horned Dorset, Polled Dorset, Suffolk and commercial ewe flocks.
Living at the barns felt more like home, he said.
Kuzemchak worked under the guidance of Carroll Shaffner, a prominent figure in the American sheep industry, known for his expertise in breeding stock. Kuzemchak spent the summer of 1965 traveling to shows across the country with Shaffner. “It was quite the learning experience,” he recalled.
He absorbed all the knowledge he could from the university’s experts on livestock management and nutrition, and from attending plenty of shows and sales. As a student, he was a member of the Block and Bridle Club, securing the title of grand champion sheep showman from 1965 to 1968 at the club’s Little International Livestock Show. He was also a member of the meat and livestock judging teams.
After graduating, he joined the U.S. Marines, serving stateside for two years and earning the rank of sergeant. Soon after, Penn State came knocking with an opportunity. Shaffner, his mentor, had become ill and the university asked Kuzemchak to step in as substitute until. That part-time gig led to Kuzemchak’s full-time appointment as shepherd in 1971.
His role as shepherd included assisting with teaching the sheep production class. He also oversaw the feeding and breeding of the flocks. But his most important job was managing sheep research protocol.
“Those professors took a chance on me,” he said.
During his 38 years as shepherd at the barns, Kuzemchak upheld the competitive legacy of the university’s herd. In addition, during that time, the focus shifted from seven breeds to two — purebred Dorset and a crossbred commercial flock. The cutback was prompted by high maintenance costs of the breeding stock and attending multiple shows.
“We were able to focus on one breed and that made things a lot easier,” he said.
Emphasis on the Dorset breed worked to the college’s advantage. The breed produces lambs twice a year. This aided the barns in keeping up with the demands for lambs at the meat lab and their sheep sales, Kuzemchak said.
By 2006, he had helped the university’s Dorset flock earn top honors at seven different sales, including national champion ewe and reserve senior champion. The flock traveled to the Ohio State Fair, Indiana State Fair, Eastern States Exposition, and North American International Livestock Exposition.
“It set the stage for our production sale,” he said.
The 2006 production sale, which was organized with the assistance of a livestock merchandizing class and sheep barn workers, drew in 124 buyers from 22 different states and Puerto Rico.
Today, in his retirement, Kuzemchak stays in tune with the industry as a member of the Keystone International Livestock Exposition and Pennsylvania Farm Show Sheep committees. He consults several sheep operations on management and nutrition and judges at regional and county sheep shows on the East Coast. And he said it was an honor to be welcomed back to Happy Valley as the sheep judge for Block and Bridle’s 100th Little International Livestock Show.
Being inducted into the Hall of Fame at this point in life, Kuzemchak said he is humbled and nervous because the honor means he will be joining the ranks of many professionals he has looked to for advice throughout his career.
“For me to be singled out is quite an honor,” he said.