In touting the need for unity among the American colonists seeking their independence from Britain, Ben Franklin pointedly observed that “we must hang together, or else we’ll surely hang separately.”
The stakes for America’s dairy farmers, 250 years later, aren’t quite as dramatic or revolutionary. However, the message is the same: We in the dairy sector must work together to marshal our resources to achieve shared objectives in the face of larger, often daunting forces.
The U.S. dairy community has a laudable history in that regard, as the cooperative movement in agriculture in the early 20th century took root in dairy farming more so than in any other major commodity group. Thanks in part to that model, few other major ag commodities are as diverse in production model, management style, and geographic location as dairy. And that variety has been fostered by a collaborative spirit channeled through the cooperative system.
A recent NMPF Dairy Defined column reflects on the continued importance of cooperatives in helping producers market their daily milk harvest, using farmer-managed business distribution enterprises for themselves and their peers in a production chain increasingly defined domestically and internationally by large retail businesses. Cooperatives themselves are as diverse as the farmers they serve, but each provides a platform in which those farmers can speak with one voice.
Beyond co-ops, the ongoing, inevitable consolidation of farms affecting all ag commodities means we must continue to find additional methods of working across business boundaries and regional borders. Farming’s economic footprint is as important as ever, but smaller numbers of farmers create an imperative to devise new and better ways of channeling our political outreach.
Garnering grassroot comments
For NMPF, this means we’ve placed a renewed emphasis on teamwork with the state dairy policy organizations that exist in more than half of the 50 states. State dairy associations, just like cooperatives and individual farmers, vary widely in their resources and scope. But they offer an important grassroots presence in many states and a channel for farmers to coordinate their resources aimed at the public policy.
The past two years, NMPF has organized a national summit of state dairy associations to allow them to meet face-to-face to exchange ideas and find common ground — last year in person, this year virtually. We have a private Facebook chat group for state associations and are exploring other means of sharing information among all stakeholders. We plan on arranging more virtual and in-person events in the future, particularly in years when we have new members of Congress to educate, as well as new or more urgent issues to discuss with elected officials.
This effort won’t achieve its optimal potential unless farmers across the country get and stay involved in policy issues important to them. Cooperatives and state associations alike offer opportunities for grassroots engagement at the local and national level, but such organizations can only open the door. The next step in hanging together must be taken on an individual basis. That’s particularly true in an election year, but there will be plenty of work ahead in the years to come. Everyone needs to be involved.