Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) is celebrating its 20th year in 2012, including its 20th Business Conference. Progressive Dairyman interviewed with Shelly Mayer (right), dairy producer and PDPW executive director, to talk about how the organization has evolved and what it means to be a “professional dairy producer” today.
Q: Why was PDPW formed 20 years ago?
A: MAYER: In the early ’90s, Wisconsin was losing much of its dairy infrastructure. Facilities were aging and reinvestment wasn’t happening. While many producers hung their heads or looked for someone to blame, a handful of men and women sat around a table and asked what could be done to control their destiny.
They determined that if dairy producers were to succeed, they needed more and better educational resources. So they each plunked down whatever cash they could and started planning their first business conference.
That’s what it was from the start – A recognition that producers had a responsibility to lead change, to keep themselves on the cutting edge of production and business practices. No one could do that for them and the industry would not succeed unless they created those resources.
Q: Describe PDPW’s membership today.
A: MAYER: PDPW is a network of producers and dairy professionals from across the nation and beyond. Our members come from 18 different states and represent every type and size of dairy operation.
That’s the great thing about being a professional dairy producer: We can be diverse in our business practices and share the common bonds of milk and a commitment to continuing education.
Q: What do you think spurred PDPW’s growth?
A: MAYER: It was the energy in the air at those first few business conferences that had everyone talking. The dairy producers who came to PDPW were looking to improve themselves professionally. They had a positive attitude and a sense of responsibility to be the best they could be.
That attitude was contagious and more and more producers came. Then our friends in the industry noticed and wanted to be a part of our conference too. By the year 2000, we were drawing 800 people and had to move the conference to the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin, where we still are today.
Q: How do you keep the programs fresh every year?
A: MAYER: We respond to the needs of our members and ask for feedback in everything we do. Committee Day each April is a time for us to gather input from producers.
PDPW has four standing committees and four workgroups that help direct our programming and plug producers into important discussions on key industry issues. If we don’t stay grassroots and producer-led, we lose the most valuable aspect of PDPW. So we’re really conscious of that every day.
Q: How have the educational needs of dairy producers evolved?
A: MAYER: In the beginning, producers were asking for cutting-edge resources to help them produce more and better. Then members began asking for added help on becoming better businessmen and businesswomen, and we created programs in managerial accounting, HR and transition planning.
All the while we continued offering production education. Programs like calf care, Hispanic milker training and herdsperson training are very popular every year. We’ve seen tremendous growth in the range of people we are training – from entry level to middle managers to executive level training at programs like our annual Managers Academy.
The other important evolution has been the growing focus on dairy issues work. Beyond the professional development programs, we’ve become very involved in equipping producers to take part in the important discussions of the day – the big issues that will shape our industry’s future.
Our public policy committee sets the direction for this and is really a training ground for producers who need to be involved in industry issues.
Q: What are some of the key issue areas in which your members are working?
A: MAYER: We’re involved wherever the voice of a professional dairy producer is needed. Today, a big issue is keeping our milk and meat free from residues.
As the Food and Drug Administration begins taking a closer look at milk and meat, as tests become more sensitive and as more consumers want to know how their food is produced, PDPW has been leading the industry’s charge to address on-farm protocols. We’ve developed relationships with veterinarians, worked with our processors and went back to the FDA with a plan to educate producers and implement SOPs on the farm.
We’re proving that professional dairy producers will not tolerate repeated violations and want to improve performance. It was producer voices, combined with action, that convinced the FDA that increased regulation doesn’t necessarily protect the consumer. Rather, proper protocols can, and we will do it.
That’s just one issue … There are scores of others like it. What we’ve created is a model for how to address an issue through outreach and education, before more regulations are unnecessarily imposed on our industry.
Q: Does PDPW work by itself to address these issues?
A: MAYER: Absolutely. We complement other organizations such as our universities, our checkoff programs and our lobby groups. All of these entities need professional dairy producer voices to be effective in their roles. So we need to continue developing producer leaders who are equipped to serve.
Q: Does PDPW lobby, either in Wisconsin or at the national level?
A: MAYER: No. We are an educational organization. We educate producers so that they can get involved in issues wherever a dairy producer’s voice is needed. The thing is, by the time an issue has escalated to the point of legislative action, the issue becomes a more public and sometimes emotional fight, and we’ve lost our best opportunity for education.
PDPW works educationally on all levels and complements the work our lobbying organizations do. We need both types of organizations in our industry. We need to work together, because both functions are important as our industry faces more and more emerging issues.
Q: Can you give me an example of an issue like that … something coming down the road?
A: MAYER: Funny you should say that – Road issues will be big for the dairy industry. After food safety, community relations issues, such as how we use roads and natural resources, are big. Non-farm neighbors are less sure today about what happens on a modern farm as they’ve ever been.
This lack of understanding leads to all kinds of local issues that escalate without education. Sometimes it’s just a matter of educating local communities about the seasonality of what we do. Also, it’s researching solutions before the solutions are handed to us.
With respect to road issues, we worked with other groups to fund a study about road usage, so that as this issue accelerates, we have facts and potential solutions to present to community officials who have to deal with the disagreements.
Q: Are your members funding these projects?
A: MAYER: They are through their membership and attendance at our events. Another big portion of our support comes from our corporate and mission sponsors.
These are the companies and organizations who recognize the value of producer involvement and leadership in the industry, that success in our industry begins on the farm with producers who are continuously improving and striving to maintain public trust in what we do.
Q: Do you ever run into roadblocks raising funds because you have ‘Wisconsin’ in your name? Does the geographic tie limit you?
A: MAYER: We run into that occasionally. I always explain to people that our roots are in Wisconsin and the need for professionalism knows no borders. The issues we work on are industry-wide. If there is an animal well-being event in one state, it impacts the entire industry.
We all share a common brand – milk. If you get hung up on the W, maybe you could think of it like other famous brands that grew taller than their roots – Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) or the YMCA, for example.
I also should mention that PDPW started the Professional Dairy Producers Foundation , which intentionally does not carry the ‘W’ in its name because we want others in the industry to feel ownership of it. PDPW started the foundation, we gifted it to the industry and we continue to nurture it.
The idea is for professional dairy producers to have a charitable organization where we can raise funds for education for generations to come. That’s what professionals do – they leave an industry better and stronger than it was when they first began.
Q: What is PDPW’s key to success in the next 20 years?
A: MAYER: To keep that producer-driven passion. Heck, we’re in our 20s. We’ve only just begun! PD