The dairy industry continues to evolve and so does its potential talent pool of employees.
In the late 1960s, it was rare to see to a young woman enrolled in an agricultural class on college or technical school campuses. That slowly began to change in the 1970s, and these days many agricultural classes have more young women enrolled than young men.
As this has taken place, the number of commercial U.S. dairy farms, and all dairy farms for that matter, continues to dwindle. At last count, only 9 percent of America’s 2 million-plus farms generate enough revenue to be considered commercially viable. These 200,000 farms generate nearly $150,000 in average annual income, while the remaining 1.8 million essentially fit into the hobbyist category.
Given these evolving demographics, dairy, and all of agriculture, will have to recruit talent just like all other sectors that lack an innate talent pipeline.
“We need smart people to join us in dairy,” said Patricia Stroup, who serves as global vice president for commodities at Nestlé. “We can teach people about the industry,” said the Pennsylvania native, who grew up on a dairy farm run by her mother while her father had a full-time veterinary practice.
“You didn’t have to grow up on a dairy farm to join our industry,” continued Stroup, who at one time worked in California at Hilmar Cheese. “We must engage these brilliant new leaders outside of agriculture.”
“We’re showing up where agriculture and dairy aren’t normally present to demonstrate why this is a great place to build a career,” Beth Ford explained. “We’re also looking at shaping our job offers to be more open to university students, not just food science majors,” added the new president and CEO of Land O’Lakes.
“Messaging through social media is one way we are reaching the next generation,” added Ford, who started her career in the oil industry. “How are we seen outside our industry? It’s determined on these platforms,” explained the leader of the nation’s second-largest dairy co-op.
“I am a product of 4-H,” shared Barbara Glenn, CEO of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). “There are places in the dairy curriculum for mentorship. Let’s put some strategic initiative behind this because these young people already have interest in dairy, whether or not they grew up on a farm,” said the Nebraska native.
Recruitment may be the starting point, but retention is equally important.
“NASDA has a ‘Next Generation Program.’ I’d recommend more programs such as this to create opportunities for the next generation of leaders,” Glenn continued.
That next generation of leaders includes women.
“We have a record number of 13 state agriculture secretaries or commissioners who are women,” commented Glenn of the top state agriculture leadership positions among the 50 states after the most recent election.
Women leading forward
Stroup, Ford, and Glenn were among five panelists on the “Women leading forward” panel at this year’s International Dairy Foods Association’s (IDFA) Dairy Forum in Orlando, Fla. Moderated by IDFA’s Cary Frye, the panel also delved into issues focused on balancing work and family, mentors, teams, and career advice.
These topics will have a great impact on dairy’s future, as women now represent nearly half of the U.S. workforce. However, a far lower proportion of women hold leadership positions in the dairy sector. In assembling this panel, IDFA believed the industry could learn a lot from these five trailblazers on the panel.
“Be brave and be who you want to be . . . not your mom, not your Sunday school teacher, or not what society wants you to be,” Stroup advised young women. “Then a career path is easy. Be brave enough to go get it,” said the Nestlé executive, who has worked nearly every step along the dairy supply chain.
Once a person picks a career path, stick with it.
“Too frequently, I see younger people take themselves out of play because they’ve made a mistake or don’t feel up to the situation,” Ford said. “The joy of the journey involves both success and failure.
“Failure is a learning moment,” said the cooperative leader. “Own your decisions and be resilient. Allow yourself to go on the journey, even with the bumps and bruises.
“Also, develop a strong network to grow your career,” added Ford. “Remember, career development involves strong relationships.”
“Find a person you look up to and admire; pick his or her brain,” said Marilyn Hershey, co-owner of Ar-Joy Farms and chairwoman of Dairy Management Inc. “Don’t worry about riding to the top. Enjoy the journey you take and the people who you meet along the way,” said the 2017 World Dairy Expo Dairy Woman of the Year.
“Also, don’t let little negative things eat you up,” said the Pennsylvania dairywoman.
“Learn how to think strategically and how to deliver strategy and objectives,” Glenn said of skills needed in today’s workplace. “When I see young people take on project management, I’m impressed. I didn’t have those skills right away.”
Well-rounded teams matter
“Diversity is good business — from both an age and a gender standpoint,” said Ford. “Be conscious of selection bias. Choose candidates and team members who are different than you,” she said, noting differing viewpoints leads to better solutions rather than gathering like-minded individuals.
“When we talk about inclusion of women, it’s not a charity situation, it’s an effective team situation,” stated Stroup. “When there is team diversity, research shows outcomes are more successful.
“But remember, diversity is a team effectiveness issue,” she said, noting it’s important to not tip the scales too far in the other direction. “I can think of a situation at Nestlé where a project failed because it was only from a viewpoint of women.”
“When I think of inclusion and diversity on the Dairy Management Inc. board, I don’t think gender, but I do think about age,” said Hershey, who has dairy farmed with her husband, Duane Hershey, for 30 years. “We need to ensure all age groups are included with focus on the younger generation.”
Life is a juggling act
The conversation of work-life balance came to the forefront, and the panelists had some rather strong opinions on the subject.
“Work-life balance is a fallacy,” said Stroup, who has worked her entire life in the dairy industry. “Work is part of your life. Life is part of your work. They aren’t flipped on and off every day. If you try to push life balance as a goal, you will always fail.
“It’s better to have a skillset match so that you enjoy your work. When you love your job, balancing family and work will be easier,” advised the woman who has worked on three continents.
“I course correct and get balance,” shared Ford. “I make sure I’m there for the priorities, which are my kids,” she said. “We can be the hardest judges on ourselves . . . if I held myself to perfection, I’d lose,” she went on to explain.
“I’ve had to learn to delegate and trust others to create balance,” said Hershey, who added to give those you delegate tasks adequate space and not to hover over their decisions.
“All you have to do is be yourself,” Hershey said of the career-path journey. “Have the courage to be yourself, enjoy the journey, and laugh a lot.”
“Attitude is altitude,” Glenn said succinctly to the audience.
“We’re not doing neurosurgery . . . no one is dying on the table,” Ford said, reconfirming Hershey’s advice.
“Also, don’t be a jerk,” said Ford. “No one likes working with a jerk, and people don’t put difficult people on their work teams.
“Have some fun and connect with people,” Ford continued. “While it’s simplistic, it’s a serious consideration for us and our teams.”