Empowering dairy farmers: knowledge, tools, ideas shared

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 2021

GORDONVILLE, Pa. — Empowerment. One word with power in it.

“I got to thinking about introducing this session and thought everyone knows what empowerment means, right? Give power. But then I looked up the opposite of empowerment,” said Kristine Ranger, a consultant in Michigan working with farms and writing and evaluates grants. She traveled to Gordonville, Pennsylvania  with National Dairy Producers Organization board member Joe Arens to the farm of Mike Eby, NDPO chairman, for the ‘Empowering dairy farmers’ barn meeting Friday, April 23, 2021.

What is the opposite of empowerment?

“Here are the words in the dictionary,” said Ranger. “Disallow, forbid, hinder, inhibit, preclude, prevent and prohibit. Have any of you been experiencing any of that as you try to build a livelihood with your dairy farms?”

Good question.

From there, the daylong barn meeting moved headlong into weighty topics, but stayed focus on the positive concept of encouraging producer involvement in seeking accountability and transparency in the systems that govern dairy.

Although the sunshine and spring planting kept in-person attendance low, the event was livestreamed on visual and audio with producers listening in from all over.

Traveling from Michigan to the Lancaster County, Pennsylvania farm of Mike Eby (center) for an ’empowering’ farmers meeting were Joe Arens (left), NDPO board member and Kristine Ranger, a knowledge consultant working with farms. Ranger worked with Eby to secure a grant for the in-person meeting and multi-media production. In addition to serving as NDPO (National Dairy Producers Organization) chairman, Eby is executive director of Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), represents the south district on the PA Farmers Union board and is a member of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee collaborating with 97 Milk education efforts.

A thought that kept surfacing in this reporter’s mind listening to the panel of speakers was this: The longer something goes uninterrupted, the more vulnerable it is to become corrupted.

In fact, it tied in directly with Arens’ personal account following Gary Genske on the program. Arens urged producers to look at annual reports and ask questions. “That’s what NDPO is all about, to support your efforts to get to the cooperative boards of directors about what they should be doing at the co-op level,” said Arens, a member of the NDPO board for two years.

“Members own the milk. Members have the power, but the whole thing has been tipped upside down,” said Arens.

“We need to do something to change this,” said Arens. “Get in front of your board members… They are talking about expanding plants, not talking about producer price. Their one and only responsibility is that price on the milk check settlement statement.”

“If producers do not hold their co-ops accountable, then silence is your consent,” said Genske, a certified public accountant since 1974 based in California with a dairy in New Mexico.

He kicked things off at the barn meeting, presenting details about the roles and responsibilities of cooperatives, boards and members. He shared his insights into improving dairy farm milk prices.

Genske is a longtime member of the NDPO board. He highlighted the marketing concepts of 100% USA seal for milk and dairy products, returning to the true standards for fat and components in beverage milk that are still used today in California, and moving toward aligning milk production with profitable demand.

Gary Genske was the kickoff panelist, presenting virtually from his office in California.

The Genske Mulder firm does the financial statements for 2500 dairy farms each year and 10,000 farm tax returns annually. He sees the numbers and knows the deal.

Walking attendees through the various aspects of USDA regulation and the Capper Volstead Act, Genske gave producers the tools and encouragement to accept their responsibilities as cooperative members.

In October, he had a successful lawsuit in Kansas City. After requesting documents from the cooperative in which he is a member, and being denied or provided documents that were mostly redacted, he took the issue to court.

After a two-day hearing, the judge ruled in Genske’s favor on his request for documents, as a cooperative member, with a stated purpose.  

In short, Genske said, “We have to put people in the position of taking care of the members… We want to cull cows not dairy farmers.”

Bernie Morrissey, chairman of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee talked after lunch about the 97 Milk effort when farmers empowered themselves to market whole milk, since no one else was; and all kinds of prohibiting, hindering, forbidding, preventing and precluding had been going on regarding whole milk availability and promotion.

“This is it,” said Bernie Morrissey. “The dairy farmers made me successful, so this is me giving back.” He talked about the whole milk education effort and the push to legalize whole milk choice in schools. If ever there was an example of the opposite of ’empower’, it would be the treatment of whole milk by industry and government, especially since 2008. The steep decline in fluid milk sales from 2010-2018 is starting to stabilize as consumers and policymakers are getting the message. Each step is hard work.

“It started with Nelson Troutman who painted the first round bale, just like that sign: Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free,” said Morrissey pointing to the large banners and holding up the Drink Whole Milk School Lunch Choice Citizens for Immune Boosting Nutrition yard signs.

With a joint effort underway now for a little over two years – working to educate lawmakers and consumers about whole milk, and pushing efforts to legalize whole milk choice in schools — Morrissey said “It’s working. Things are happening.”

With the FMMO map on the screen behind him, Dick Bylsma of NFO talked about the history, purpose and hot FMMO topics of the day. He said the most empowering tool a dairy producer can have is the right to vote on milk order changes, instead of being bloc-voted by the cooperative.

Dick Bylsma of National Farmers Organization (NFO) traveled from Indiana to brief producers on joint efforts between NFO, Farmers Union and Farm Bureau to empower dairy farmers by getting their individual votes back in Federal Order hearings. He traced the history of Federal Milk Marketing Orders, and the genesis of bloc voting at a time in history when there were hundreds of thousands of farmers and communication was slow.

“It’s time to end bloc voting,” said Bylsma, and he laid out some of the efforts underway around that proposition, also highlighting the purpose of the Federal Orders.

These are just some fast highlights from a day of deep learning. More from these speakers and additional speakers on co-op involvement, systems accountability, checkoff reforms and referendums, and other empowering topics — including more from Genske about ending the silence and exercising rights and responsibilities with communication tools that work for cooperative members — will be published in a future edition.

Similar in-person meetings recently encouraged producers in Michigan and northern Indiana, said Ranger.

For dairy producers who are interested in knowing more, want to get involved, but aren’t sure how, NDPO chairman Mike Eby suggests joining in on the NDPO weekly national Tuesday night call at 8:00 p.m. eastern time at 712-775-7035 Pin 330090#. Every dairy producer in America has a standing invitation.

To hear past calls and learn more, click here

To view a video or listen to a recording of the empowerment meeting, click here

Look for more in a future edition of Farmshine.

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