Dairy princess pioneer charts unique course

Chenango County Dairy Princess Shelby Benjamin, who was recently crowned New York State Dairy Princess, greets Rayah, a 5-month-old Holstein calf, at Tiger Lily Farm in Oxford on Friday.

New York’s first Black dairy princess is changing the face of upstate agriculture.

New York State Dairy Princess Shelby Benjamin said she plans to use her crown to modernize the dairy industry’s image and illustrate how it fits with 21st-century values.

“I love talking to people, answering questions and getting out there, so this was perfect,” Benjamin said. “Every farm has a different story. One thing I’d like to do is tell each farmer’s story all throughout New York.”

“Because I grew up on the consumer side, I can put it in terms and tell the story in a way that is more friendly to the consumer,” said Benjamin, a Norwich native who, unlike most dairy princesses before her, did not grow up on a farm.

“For the dairy world, I think it’s good that I represent a whole other demographic,” Benjamin said. “I hope that when people see someone that looks like me in a higher role that they’ll feel more connected. It’s not that I stand out, it’s that I don’t fit the mold.”

“I may not look like your typical farmer and I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’m hoping to show that the dairy industry is open to learn and grow,” she continued. “I grew up in a town where there’s not a lot of people that look like me, but I’ve never had any interactions in the dairy world where people asked why I was here.”

Benjamin, who spent more than half her life showing horses, said she showed her first heifer six years ago and “just fell in love.”

“She is a genuinely nice, helpful, friendly young lady,” said Deborah Brown-Moon, owner of Hidden Pond Stables in Norwich, where Benjamin began taking riding lessons at age 3. “She has a bright future!”

Benjamin was crowned Chenango County Dairy Princess in the spring and competed against the cream of the crop from 10 other counties and took the state title in a virtual ceremony in Syracuse last week.

At 22, Benjamin was older than many of her fellow county dairy princesses, a role typically held by teenagers.

“They grew up on farms, so they’re a little more of a traditional dairy princess,” Benjamin said. “I didn’t, so that’s why I got a later start.”

Benjamin said she spent years preparing for the competition, brushing up on dairy product knowledge and honing her interview and public presentation skills — all requirements of the dairy princess pageant process.

Benjamin wrote her speech about the limited availability of chocolate milk on SUNY campuses. A 2020 graduate of SUNY Oneonta, Benjamin played forward on the women’s basketball team and said she always sought chocolate milk as a post-workout recovery drink and was frustrated when she couldn’t find it on campus.

“If I don’t recover quickly, I’m kind of dead to the world for two to three hours, and that’s crucial time for a student athlete, when you have to plan out your every hour,” Benjamin said. “The chocolate milk definitely helped keep me going and not have to have a nap. It helped me stay on schedule.”

“When a student finds their passion, you can just tell,” said SUNY Oneonta women’s basketball coach Daphne Thompson. “When you ask Shelby about her cows, she just lights up. This is something I know has resonated with her for a long time.”

Because of the pandemic, the pageant process involved fewer informal interactions with the judges that Benjamin said she would have excelled in.

“The judges usually eat with us — breakfast, lunch and dinner — but because we couldn’t do that, the interview was a little more weighted,” Benjamin said. “That was a little more intimidating because I had to make sure I really got ‘me’ across. Obviously I wanted to win the state pageant for myself, but I also wanted to win it for the county and everyone that helped me through it.”

Guiding her through the process was Sheila Marshman, a member of the New York State Dairy Promotion Advisory Board and part of the sixth generation of ownership of Tiger Lily Holsteins in Oxford.

“Shelby really has a unique story to tell the consumer,” Marshman said. “We’re very much looking forward to spending the year promoting the industry all throughout New York state.”

Benjamin, who was acquainted with the Marshmans through their work on the local 4-H circuit, said Sheila Marshman approached her two or three years ago and suggested she pursue the crown.

The Marshmans sponsored Benjamin’s dairy princess application, helping her to fulfill some of the practical requirements she otherwise lacked.

Benjamin, who grew up in the city of Norwich, said she never lived on a farm and only owns six cows. The dairy princess competition requires its potential princesses to own at least 20 head and ship milk from their operation.

The Marshman family farm, in business since 1856, is home to about 800 head and sells its milk locally through the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative.

“Every day, you can learn something new in this industry,” Benjamin said. “I think that’s one of the best things — that it’s always evolving, you’re always learning new things. I just want to tell the farmers’ stories to the world and answer any questions consumers have.”

In working through the pageant process, “I realized I know a lot more than sometimes I think I know,” Benjamin said. “I got to show a unique side of dairy. These other girls all grew up on farms. They didn’t grow up as a consumer going into stores and wondering why we pick what we do. I felt like I brought a different edge to it.”

To boost her agricultural acumen, Benjamin, who majored in sports management at Oneonta, is taking business classes at SUNY Morrisville, where Sheila Marshman teaches ag marketing, business and retail management.

Helping her along the way is Lily, the seventh generation of Marshman family farmers and the Chenango County Dairy Ambassador.

“I’m not old enough for the dairy princess yet, so I help out our Chenango County dairy princess,” Lily said.

“I grew up in the consumer world, so I go to talk to some farmers and they use technical words and I have to ask Lily for help,” Benjamin said. “I love that I get to bring Lily on these opportunities together, too, so I can help get her ready for her dairy princess years.”

The pair will travel together across the state, as COVID restrictions allow, to hand out ribbons at fairs and shows, visit schools and meet with other key players in the industry.

Whether their visits are in-person or virtual, Benjamin and Lily said they plan to continue the social media campaign launched by last year’s dairy princess court amid the pandemic.

“The girls last year started off the year with one event a month before then everything shut down,” Benjamin said. “They were trying to figure out different ways to do it and they did start doing amazing things — the Youtube channel, Facebook — so now it’s us keeping it going and adding our own spin to it.”

“So many people have gone to InstaCart or grocery pickups now — they don’t even go into stores anymore, which is where we would put a lot of our promotional stuff,” she continued. “With consumers not going in, how do we still get that information out? Taking it to social media is honestly the next best thing, even if the pandemic didn’t happen.”

Benjamin said she also plans to promote the environmentally sustainable practices behind dairy farming.

“Sometimes people think farmers are using the land to feed their cows and they’re harming the land, but they’re not going out and buying new land every year, so if they don’t take care of their land, they’re not going to have crops to feed their cows,” Benjamin said. “If they’re not feeding their cows, they’re not going to be able to perform at their best, so it’s a whole cycle of making sure the environment is taken care of and the cows are taken care of.”

“Here in the dairy industry, we have to do more to tell our story about how cows are actually your biggest and your first recyclers — everything from the grass that they eat to how the farmer recycles the manure, recycles the water,” Sheila Marshman said.

The idea that the agriculture and green energy industries are at odds with each other is “just not true,” Marshman said, “particularly when you think about the environmental regulations that farms have,” including from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Our work requires that we have water, soil and animals of the highest quality,” Marshman said. “We need some help communicating that to the consumer that we’re already doing this.”

Benjamin and Marshman said they hope to disprove the myth that farming isn’t accessible to those who didn’t grow up in the industry.

“I tell my students that the only way you can get a farm is if you marry into one or if you inherit one,” Marshman said. “Look at us — we didn’t really branch out our tree.”

After her reign is over, Benjamin said she hopes to continue her work in dairy marketing and promotion, specifically with the American Dairy Association’s Refuel with Chocolate Milk program, but looks forward to helping to guide those who inherit her crown.

“One of the nice things about this program is that you have friends all over the state for years and years,” Benjamin said. “You’re never really done being a dairy princess. You might not wear your crown and sash, but you’re still part of it.”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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