Local Dairy Farmer Gives Back to 4-H
By J. Scott Angle
Every spring, a swarm of children, some not even 10 years old, cart away tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Don Bennink’s cows with no more collateral than a pledge to bring them back within 48 hours.
This annual rite of spring for 4-Hers and FFAers has been happening at North Florida Holsteins for so long that Bennink can’t get more precise than “about three decades.” 4-H mom Jo Sullivan says simply, that in Gilchrist County, “It’s a thing.”
For Bennink, this is part of providing for the future of agriculture. It’s about giving kids opportunity. It’s also about keeping promises. It’s about taking responsibility for what’s been put in your care.
It was a thing nearly 20 years ago, too, when Lauren Ellison was coming of age. Although she was in 4-H “straight out of the womb,” she said, hosting a heifer at home was not an option.
Ellison enrolled in Bennink’s program, called the free-lease agreement because of its price tag. Bennink’s staff mentored her and her peers as they walked, washed, clipped, fed, learned the body parts and refined their showmanship skills.
At her first show with a Bennink heifer, Ellison got pushed around the ring by an animal 10 times her weight. Part of the experience, Bennink says, is the opportunity to fail and then to come back.
Ellison came back every year through high school. She got so good at handling heifers that Bennink offered her a job teaching the 4-Hers and FFAers. Today she’s in a dairy career at Suwannee Valley Feeds in Trenton.
The free lease program is Bennink’s service to the industry, just like his participation on the Florida Farm Bureau Dairy Advisory Committee is. It’s part of what has made him an agriculture legend, a Florida Ag Hall of Famer, a lawyer-turned-dairyman who opens his farm to youth, to veterinary school interns and to graduate students from around the world.
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Gilchrist County 4-H agent Jessica Altum Cooper enlists 4-Hers in the free lease program. She teaches showmanship, like how to dress and how to keep to the dairy’s feeding schedule when a cow is in your care.
Altum Cooper connected Jo Sullivan’s daughter Cayce to North Florida Holsteins. Cayce earned the trust of a Bennink cow through weeks of halter training and grooming to earn the privilege of taking the cow to the Suwannee River Youth Livestock Show and Fair at age 9.
She was thrilled to compete and couldn’t wait to do it again. For the next three years, though, injuries--none of which occurred at Bennink’s dairy nor at 4-H—kept Cayce from participating in the free lease program. They did not keep her from winning ribbons at the fair.
Altum Cooper identified other opportunities for Cayce to compete. Cayce won a blue ribbon for her iridescent photo of a mushroom. She won another for her buttermilk biscuits.
This year, Cayce returned to the ring, health and competitive spirit intact. Her Bennink cow won first in class, and Cayce placed third in showmanship.
Cayce is only 13. If she had to choose a career now, it would be as a veterinarian. But she says she doesn’t want to choose—she wants to do everything. One choice is clear, though. She’ll choose 4-H and Bennink’s generosity for years to come.
J. Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).