MADISON — Dairy farmers and agricultural professionals cast their eyes on the future and sustainable growth at Dairy Strong 2017: The Journey Forward, a conference meant to challenge and inspire participants.
More than 700 people from across the country listened to speakers, engaged in panel discussions and explored educational programs that focused on a wide range of issues in the dairy community, honing in on challenges and opportunities. The third annual event was held Jan. 18-19 at the Monona Terrace Community & Convention Center.
Mike North, newly elected president of the Dairy Business Association (DBA), called Dairy Strong a big success.
“It brought together a lot of people to discuss important, high-level issues, such as immigration and conservation,” said North, president and founder of Commodity Risk Management Group in Platteville. “The speakers really opened eyes to a lot of possibilities, and I think everyone who attended came away with lots to think about and plenty of ideas.”
The conference, started by the association, brings a diverse mix of farmers and other agriculture professionals together to celebrate the dairy community, learn from each other and chart a course for the future.
“This year’s theme was ‘The Journey Forward,’ which was especially fitting because Dairy Strong is about bringing the entire dairy community together and looking ahead,” said Maria Woldt, director of industry relations for DBA, who coordinates the conference. “Farms of all shapes, sizes and management philosophies were represented and there was content for everyone.”
‘Embrace the chaos’
The future is particularly uncertain in the world of politics, said conference keynote speaker Dana Perino, political commentator and author who was press secretary for former President George W. Bush.
“Embrace the chaos because that’s what you’re going to get. Conventional wisdom was thrown out the window during the (presidential) election and it’s not going to come back in now,” Perino said.
Perino encouraged members of the agricultural community to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C.
“Make sure you keep telling your story – farmers have great stories to tell – because if you don’t, someone else will come in and fill that vacuum with their own perspective,” she said. “(President) Trump is the kind of guy that if you get in front of him, you can persuade him to listen to what you have to say.”
Futurist Jack Uldrich shared with attendees that keeping up with technology changes is difficult but necessary if farmers want to stay relevant.
“You need to future-proof your business and be aware of the extraordinary change that will be happening before your eyes,” said Uldrich, best-selling author of “Jump The Curve” and other books. “You may think some of this stuff is a long way off, but it will be here closer than you think.”
Augmented reality will also play a growing role for farmers, Uldrich said. For example, customers will be able to see a product on the shelf in the grocery store and learn everything about it, such as the farm’s sustainability practices and the product’s carbon footprint. “All of this means more change for your farm,” he said.
Conservation a common goal
Sustainability issues are vital to farmers and have gained a heightened focus in the public’s eye. Members and consultants of a newly formed farmer-led conservation group in northeastern Wisconsin shared their insights about the role farmer-led conservation groups can play. Peninsula Pride Farms president Don Niles, owner of Dairy Dreams in Kewaunee County, said the group got its start after Dairy Strong 2016.
“I heard what Yahara Pride Farms (in Dane County) was doing and started talking with some people, and with help from the Dairy Business Association it just blossomed from there,” Niles said. “We have 40 percent of (Kewaunee County’s) cows and tillable acres as part of Peninsula Pride.”
Peninsula Pride Farms, which represents dairies with cows from 60 to 6,000 cows as well as crop farmers, held two field days in 2016, started a cover crop challenge to encourage farmers to use cover crops and designed and launched a Water Well program to help families dealing with E. coli well contamination, no matter the source.
“There are a lot of resources available for farmers and if there’s not something in your county, talk with your Extension agent and they may be able to help you connect with someone,” said Jamie Patton, an agricultural agent from the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Shawano County who conducted one of Peninsula Pride Farms’ field days. “We’re all working toward the same goal – preserving our natural resources.”
Hispanic influence grows
Two panel discussions explored the Latino influence on the U.S. dairy community — one sharing the view from immigrants and the other how the growing Hispanic population will affect the food industry overall.
Cody Heller of Central Wisconsin Ag Services said the dairy community relies heavily on Hispanic employees so it is vital farmers understand their perspective and recognize their differences – a point driven home during a discussion with three immigrants working in agriculture.
Joaquin Vazquez, a herd manager with Vir-Clar Farms in Fond du Lac, said building a relationship with an employer is important to an immigrant’s success. “Once you build that solid relationship, everything falls into place. Speaking English is very important since that helps with the communication,” he said.
Ignacio “Nacho” Escamilla, who works at Heller Farms in Alma Center and provides translation services for Central Wisconsin Ag Services, said dairy farm owners also need to realize the cultural differences between their Hispanic employees and themselves. For example, the Mexican Mother’s Day holiday on May 10 is very important as is the Our Lady of Guadalupe holy day on Dec. 12. Employees may prefer to work Thanksgiving Day or another holiday and instead have those two holidays off.
“Americans think Cinco de Mayo is a big day for us; it’s not,” Escamilla laughed.
Food plays a central role in the lives of Hispanics and as their population increases, it is vital U.S. farmers and processors understand their spending habits to take advantage of this growing economic power, said Jose Castro, manager of insights and strategy for Univision Communications Inc.
“Hispanics are an economic engine. One out of every four babies born in the United States right now is of Latino descent,” Castro said during a panel discussion about their influence on the food industry. “That right there tells you a lot about their growth.”
Add to that the power of Latino wallets – they spend more on groceries than any other group, according to the Nielsen company – and it is clear why dairy farmers and industry affiliates were eager to listen to a discussion on the growing influence on U.S. food and agriculture.
“Food is very social for Latinos,” said Stephen Chavez, the publisher and founder of the LatinoFoodie blog. “Whole families go shopping together and you have more generations under one roof so everything involving the shopping, preparation and eating, of course, involves everyone. Plus, we love our dairy.”
According to Nielsen, which tracks buying habits, Hispanics spent $6 billion on dairy foods in 2016. “When I cook, I use full-fat dairy products. We’re not using soy or almond milk; give us the real thing,” Chavez said.
In addition to the speakers and panel discussions, there were also several breakout sessions focused on a wide range of issues, and an innovation stage area where ag businesses shared 20-minute updates on emerging technologies and innovations. In addition, there were multiple networking opportunities for farmers and ag business professionals.
“Those times to get together and talk with others in the dairy community are really valuable,” North said.
For more information on Dairy Strong go to dairystrong.org
— Dairy Strong
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