SHIPPENSBURG — Local dairy farmer Bob Keefer and Shippensburg Borough Fire Chief Randy O’Donnell swapped roles this year in the Farm City Job Exchange, each learning something of the other’s responsibilities.
They also learned their very different jobs are more similar than they thought.
O’Donnell said farming and firefighting are both 24/7 jobs requiring good management skills.
“The technology changes all the time,” he said. “There’s a lot of on-the-job training — it was a good eye-opening experience for both of us.”
“Everyone is trying to do a good job and giving 100 percent,” Keefer said. “I saw that at every one of the fire companies I went to.”
The job exchange was Nov. 13. O’Donnell and Keefer were among the guest speakers Nov. 25 at the 57th annual Farm City Banquet at Newburg United Methodist Church.
Also speaking at the banquet were George Greig, Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture, and Chris Parker, minister-counsellor (agriculture), Australian Embassy, in Washington.
O’Donnell is a Shippensburg native and a 1984 graduate of Shippensburg Area Senior High School. He said he first became interested in fire service in elementary school through the West End Fire and Rescue Co.
O’Donnell joined WEFR in 1979 and quickly rose through the ranks. He was named borough fire chief in 2010 and is now working on a recruitment and retention program to maintain the community’s volunteer system.
He has worked for the Naval Support Activity Fire Department for the past 26 years, currently serving as battalion chief.
O’Donnell and his wife, Carmen, have been married for 21 years and have two sons — Brandon, 18, and Trever, 14 — who are both active at WEFR.
Keefer grew up on a dairy farm and said he always wanted to carry on the family tradition. He bought 27 head of cattle in his senior year of high school, and he purchased the family farm in 1977 and expanded his herd to 80 cows. He purchased the adjoining farm and expanded to 120 head in 1981.
Expansion has continued over the years, and Keefer and his wife, Barb, now have 543 producing cows, 481 replacement heifers and two milking parlors. They own 151 acres, rent 853 acres for crops and have 15 full-time employees.
Keefer on Nov. 13 toured each of the three fire companies (Vigilant Hose, Cumberland Valley Hose and WEFR) that comprise the Shippensburg Fire Department. At Vigilant’s new station on Walnut Bottom Road, he learned that each company has a specific job.
“Shippensburg’s fire companies have become specialized over the years,” O’Donnell said. “Vigilant puts out fires and brings water supply in rural areas. CV Hose is a ladder company; they do search and rescue in a house, salvage items and ventilation. WEFR is a rescue company; they respond to vehicle accidents and silo rescues, and also help with fire suppression.”
Keefer also had an opportunity to try on turnout gear during his tour at Vigilant. The gear, valued at $10,000 per firefighter, weighs between 40 and 50 pounds.
“They (firefighters) are really giving back to the community as volunteers, and I commend them for that,” Keefer said. “I didn’t realize that the three fire companies that we have in Shippensburg are so organized together — they have a lot of educational programs and spend a lot of man hours going to schools and preschools. I was impressed.”
O’Donnell was equally impressed at Keefer’s dairy farm on Ritner Highway.
“It’s a huge operation – very high-tech,” he said. “There is technology I never would have thought of ... computer programs track the cows’ milk production and can adjust the feed. It’s an amazing and efficient operation. The complex was so neat and clean. It was really interesting.”
Keefer said each cow has a transmitter that identifies her, measures every milking and records individual information such as milk production and a 10-day average on activity. That information is important because, for example, decreased production could signal illness.
All records are sent automatically every Sunday night to a national database for dairy improvement.
“Everything is in the computer,” he said. “It’s not a cheap tool. It was an investment.”
The Keefers also invested in an anaerobic digester, which has cut their electricity bill by 95 percent.
Keefer said an anaerobic digester uses cow waste to make electricity.
“We collect manure in a pond,” he said. “The pond has a rubber roof, and we make methane gas. Methane gas runs a motor that runs a generator, and the generator produces enough electricity for this whole farm.”
Before using an anaerobic digester, the Keefers spent between $5,000 and $7,000 per month on electricity.
Shippensburg’s Farm City program was started by the late Fred Dillner.
“Fred’s presence is dearly missed,” said Ray Thrush, Farm City chairperson.
“We strive to hold onto his ideals in bringing together the business and agriculture community through fellowship and education.”