About 25 years ago, I was a 30-something dairy farmer with a young family and a farm that had survived the 1980’s financial crisis. Since many of my peers left agriculture during that decade, surviving was a victory for me.

Looking forward, I set some goals. One of those was to improve my marketing abilities. In the context of our business, I planned to focus on the feedlot steers we marketed and the dry edible beans we grew. Both were volatile markets at the time. Milk was picked up daily, we got a check like clockwork twice a month, and the price fluctuated less than 20 cents most months.

Focused on dairy

But since the dairy made up the majority of the top and bottom line of our profit and loss statement, I decided to learn as much as I could about how milk was priced. I was fortunate to learn from Larry Hamm, a professor of ag economics at Michigan State, who told me there were only two people in the whole U.S. who fully understood the complexities of Federal Milk Marketing Orders, and they were both sequestered in the basement of USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. That’s not really true, by the way.

The more I learned about milk marketing, the more questions I asked. Which ultimately led to my looking for a new place to market our milk. We ended up at Independent Cooperative Milk Producers Association (ICMPA) in Grand Rapids, Mich. They had a few members in Michigan’s Thumb where I live. Over the next two years, many of my neighbors followed our farm to ICMPA.

My push forward

In 1994, a longtime board member at ICMPA decided to retire. He requested that his seat be filled with someone from my area to represent the new members. He’d never met me, and he didn’t know it at the time, but he gave me a push forward. At the same time, management brought a small group of us together to surface some names of possible board members.

One man in the group stood out to me. He had served on the farm credit board. His two sons were returning to his business so he had the time to devote, but instead he encouraged me to step up. He said, “With the passion you have for the dairy industry, you’d surely be a good addition to the board.”

By stepping back, he gave me a push forward.

I was elected to the board that year. In the five years I served on that board, I learned a lot. I met some great people and asked a host of questions.

In 1998, a great experiment took place . . . four of the largest milk co-ops in the U.S. came together to form Dairy Farmers of America (DFA). In a number of co-op boardrooms around the country there was trepidation.

“What would this big, new 800-pound gorilla do?

“Could we compete or would we be swallowed up?”

My second push forward

Our ICMPA watched, listened, and learned. We realized DFA members had opportunities that we, as a one-state co-op with one balancing plant, could not provide. So in early 1999, our board voted and members ratified a merger into DFA. Part of that merger included placing one member of the ICMPA board on DFA’s executive committee. For reasons I will never fully understand, they chose me. They gave me a big push forward.

There were others who pushed me, like DFA’s former chairman, the late Tom Camerlo. Tom mentored me, asked me to serve in several ways, and encouraged me to stretch and grow.

A couple years into my time with DFA, I suddenly found myself a single dad. I remember almost telling the board at the next meeting I would be resigning and not be back. I felt the need to just circle the wagons and be there for my family. Something held me back, and after that meeting, I sat down with my four kids, two who were not quite teenagers yet, and told them, “I plan to leave the board to stay home with you.”

They disagreed with me strongly. One said, “You have good friends at DFA; we will be just fine while you are gone.” Another added, “Grandma is just down the road if we need anything.”

Sure, I missed a few soccer or hockey games, but they were right. They were okay. They stepped up, grew up a bit quicker than expected, and they gave me a big push forward. I want to thank them, for without their push, I’d not be here in 2017 as a retiring board member.

Let me go back to a gentleman here who was on Independent’s board before me, and he will continue on at DFA after I leave here tomorrow. He’s given me a few pushes forward, sometimes taking a step back himself. Occasionally, those pushes might have felt like a kick in the behind, but those nudges were exactly what I needed at the time. Thanks, Dwight Nash, you’ve been a true friend.

Be thankful

I’m thankful I serve a great God who grants second chances. I was privileged to meet a lady who said she would never marry a dairy farmer while growing up on her own family’s dairy. But several years ago, she did. She is here with me tonight. There have been times when I’m sure she wondered if I was married to her or my milk co-op. We board members spend a fair amount of time away from home. Sue, thanks for your understanding and patience.

Pay it forward

Now I want to ask every member of this co-op, especially the longtime leaders, for a favor as I retire. As you travel home tomorrow, think of a young 30- or 40-something in your district or area who has a passion for this industry. They’re probably busy with family and business. They are not about to kick the door down asking to be elected right now.

Our CEO and board president have started programs to encourage the next generation of leadership. But the future leaders of this co-op and all dairy organizations need us to come alongside them, encourage them, let them know they are good enough. That you don’t need gray hair to lead. That serving with a purpose and with passion is more important than worrying about politics and per diems.

It may mean taking a step back as we give them a push forward. But without those who did that for me, I’d have missed the great friendships and learning experiences of the last 22 years.

Remember, give ‘em a push!