Today’s dairy farmers have dramatically different scales of production, technological capabilities, and global pressures than they did generations ago. But in 1950, like today, industry leaders recognized the value of developing and educating young farmers, and the importance of meeting their needs when developing national policies.
That’s why the farmer and cooperative leaders of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) formed the National Young Cooperators (YC) Program over 72 years ago, and it motivates the program’s work today.
The YC mission of providing producers who are newer to dairy farming with educational opportunities to help make them more profitable, resilient business owners, and more effective, influential advocates is more important than ever. For those reasons and more, the program is more active than ever, providing year-round learning opportunities to producers through monthly webinars and three in-person events each year. FarmFirst launched its own Young Cooperator program in 2014, which is led by the Young Cooperator Steering Committee. Despite challenges caused by the pandemic, the committee is eager to begin planning programming for the year ahead.
Earlier in June, YCs met for the NMPF’s capstone event in Washington, D.C. with 45 dairy farmers from 15 states across the U.S. participating in the program’s annual Dairy Policy and Legislative Forum. This year, FarmFirst was represented by Nathan and Angela Wiese of Rosendale, Wis. It was their first time being in Washington, D.C., but they made it count – the two-day event included discussions about political engagement and dairy policy issues, along with training on how to be an effective advocate and spokesperson for dairy. Participants then headed to Capitol Hill to meet with their members of Congress and their respective staffs.
NMPF’s effectiveness on dairy priorities in Congress depends heavily on grassroots engagement, such as the participation by FarmFirst YCs. With fewer people directly involved in dairy than even a couple of decades ago, dairy farmers must continue to punch above their weight to maintain relevance in an increasingly urban Congress. The National YC Program equips them to do just that, providing opportunities to learn background information about the many issues affecting the industry, and empowering them to become—and stay—politically engaged.
During their Capitol Hill visits, Nathan and Angela met with representatives from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Senator Tammy Baldwin’s (D-WI) offices, as well as with Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-WI). While it can be intimidating to meet with elected officials, Angela and Nathan were impressed by certain staff members that were incredibly knowledgeable on the issues, in addition to how receptive they were to the insight the YCs shared during their meetings.
“I didn’t expect to find learning about dairy policy to be something that would pique my interest. I feel much more confident speaking about the policies that directly and indirectly affect our farm,” said Nathan and Angela.
Prior to visiting with their representatives, YCs were briefed by NMPF staff on several issues, which helped prepare them on what policies to advocate for and what specific provisions.
“We were impressed with all that NMPF is doing on behalf of farmers. They are well respected and strong advocates for dairy farms. We appreciated the time they took to explain various issues and how they impact us. Also, it is helpful to know what could be done to make positive changes for the dairy industry as we move forward,” said Nathan and Angela. “I definitely have a greater interest in dairy policy and would feel more comfortable reaching out to representatives to speak about issues in the future.”
In addition to policy advocacy, YCs also had a chance to connect and learn from other YCs from across the country representing other cooperatives. Nathan and Angela didn’t realize how much they would enjoy networking with other farmers who could relate to their livelihood, but also face unique challenges from their part of the country.
“I didn’t anticipate how encouraging it would be to network with other farmers from around the country. Finding out the variety of challenges, from weather to invasive species, was really interesting. Farmers in the west are struggling to have sufficient water available, while other farmers can’t get any corn due to supply chain issues. It made me grateful for the climate and conditions here in Wisconsin!” said Nathan and Angela. “It was definitely a highlight of the trip to be sitting around a table with farmers from six different states and finding common ground, but also sharing what makes farming unique in our particular states.”
This National YC Program is open to younger and beginning dairy farmers who own or are employed on a dairy farm that is a member of one of NMPF’s member cooperatives, such as FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative.
In addition to in-person events, the national program offers a webinar series, which is open to all eligible dairy farmers and industry affiliates and available at no cost. The 45-minute webinars, each covering a different topic, are held every month. Recent topics include transition planning, onboarding, employee retention, risk management, and an economic outlook.
With a growing interest by members, FarmFirst remains committed to building the resources and educational opportunities for members to not only develop but also enhance the skills and talents of future cooperative leaders. And when it comes to advocating for dairy policy, no one represents dairy better than farmers themselves.
For more information on FarmFirst’s Young Cooperator program, or to sign up for NMPF’s YC webinar series, visit www.FarmFirstDairyCooperative.com.