When I applied for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) Young Cooperators Program as a new(ish) Prairie Farms co-op member a little over a year ago, I really had no idea what I was getting into. But I was curious to learn more about dairy cooperatives and get a better understanding of NMPF’s work on their behalf. The past year has been a whirlwind of learning and growth — both professionally and in understanding some of our industry’s challenges in diversity and leadership. Let me give you some insight into the experience.
I’ll start with a little background. NMPF has 25 member cooperatives across the United States, many of which have their own local Young Cooperator (YC) programs. Prairie Farms does not, but it participates in NMPF’s national program. That’s how I found myself in Colorado last fall for four jam-packed days of YC programming and events, held in conjunction with the Joint Annual Meeting of NMPF, the National Dairy Board, and the United Dairy Industry Association.
I also attended a legislative fly-in in Washington, D.C, in June and more YC events at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., and the World Dairy Summit in Chicago, Ill., along with virtually “attending” several webinars throughout the year from my skid loader cab. Here are a few things I think really set the YC program apart from other activities I’ve been involved in:
The people: YC participants are all farmers, and they are incredibly bright and very business-savvy. At the same time, they are very engaged with their local communities. It’s been great to meet new people and hear their stories about the incredible work they are doing. It’s also validating to be able to connect over our shared challenges and frustrations.
The programs: The combination of in-person meetings and webinars covered a wide range of useful topics, from building resilient farm businesses to milk pricing modernization. The legislative fly-in gave us an opportunity to meet with our elected officials on Capitol Hill to discuss important issues that directly impact our farms.
The networking: Attending the Joint Annual Meeting was a direct conduit to interacting with some of dairy’s most important leaders. In addition to meeting with our own cooperative leaders, we also heard from the people at the forefront of tackling issues such as climate change, animal welfare, childhood nutrition, and global trade.
One observation from my journey that I didn’t notice at first but which became apparent as time passed was the lack of women in important leadership positions in dairy. While progress has occurred within key areas and many organizations, progress has been mixed.
I get it. We have a lot of cultural baggage that has dictated where women have and haven’t historically participated. But we are at a moment where it’s critically important to the future of our industry to actively recruit more women to leadership within our cooperatives and other organizations. Here’s why:
- Representation: Does our leadership reflect our membership? Thirty percent of dairy operators are women, but representation in dairy leadership is significantly lower. A diverse co-op board better reflects the consumers we serve. For example, how many people on your co-op board do you think do the grocery shopping for their households?
- Profitability: Research shows us that more diverse boards are more likely to make more money. When we have different perspectives at the table, we can challenge ideas to their fullest potential.
- Social license: Consumers are increasingly aware of the values the companies they buy from represent. What message are we sending consumers when our boards are not diverse?
As I finish out my year, I hope I can help move the needle on getting more YCs (women and men) to the next level of leadership within the dairy community. The experiences I’ve gained have certainly made me a better farmer, and they have given me a whole new appreciation of how different organizations work together to achieve objectives that keep our industry relevant and thriving.