For several Washington dairy families, Thanksgiving provides an annual opportunity to engage with their urban neighbors and help to put dairy products and other Thanksgiving staples on the holiday tables of thousands in need each November.
“It puts a face on the local dairy community,” says Stephanie Littrel of Dunrenton Ranch in Deer Park, Washington. “Anytime we can educate people about the dairy industry, that is good. Most don’t know what we do every day or how safe dairy products are.”
The Littrel and Ziehnert families are among the handful of remaining dairy farms north of Spokane, which is Washington’s second-largest city. Both families have been actively involved in Tom’s Turkey Drive in various capacities for many years. Tom’s Turkey Drive is an event that brings together Pacific Northwest agriculture sectors and local food bank Second Harvest along with other sponsors to create and deliver Thanksgiving meals to community members in need.
“It is a privilege to share the rich flavor of dairy products and the memories that come with it at Thanksgiving,” says Richard Ziehnert of Darilane Farms in Elk, Washington. “Our family has often packed boxes and put them in the truck as part of the pre-event preparations.”
Ziehnert’s granddaughter, Ashley Kenny, has also been actively involved with promoting dairy at this event since she was a teenager.
“In high school, I was our area’s dairy ambassador and somehow got roped into making mashed potatoes on the KREM 2 news morning show as part of the pre-event media coverage,” Kenny says. “Darilane Farms has also been involved in pre-event media coverage on the farm and some at Second Harvest.”
Kenny says events like this do more than deliver dairy products to community members in need and that they are essential to the longevity of the farm.
“These events increase consumer awareness of simply who we are. We’re families – moms, dads and kids. That basic understanding of the humans behind food production is vital to the continuous renewal of our social license to operate. When the local television station airs footage of our farmland and our stewardship of it, urban residents see the benefit of farming to maintain the beauty and productivity of the land. Even if it’s just subconscious, we have to make every effort and take every opportunity to plant those seeds of awareness regarding our care of the land and animals,” she says.
Her grandfather agrees. “[Participating in this event and those like it] says we care about our hungry neighbors. It also promotes a positive attitude toward farmers by our urban community.”
Littrel also agrees that events and community outreach opportunities like Tom’s Turkey Drive are “huge” when it comes to maintaining a dairy farmer’s social license to operate.
“We all need to work together as a community and make it work for all of us,” she says. “The lines of communication need to be open, and we need to build good relationships. I believe that education is key since sometimes misinformation is out there.”
Along with her husband, Scot, and other family members, Littrel has participated in television interviews, packed Thanksgiving boxes at Second Harvest prior to the event, and delivered boxes to recipients on the day of the event.
“I love interacting with the people,” Littrel says. “There have been so many memorable interactions, and these people have made a difference in my life. I look forward to doing this every year with my family.”
While she is helping deliver boxes from the event venue to recipients’ cars, she often is asked questions about farming, but that’s not all.
“Sometimes they ask questions about what we do when they find out we are dairy farmers, but mostly we just talk about how similar our lives are,” Littrel says. “Dairy farmers and non-dairy farmers need to get to know each other, and events like this help with that. We are all just people living in the same community, and our lives are similar.”
Relationships within the community and with the media pay dividends when it comes to increasing awareness of dairy farming, Kenny says.
“Over the last decade or so, I have really been able to know local television and radio professionals, which gave me an opportunity to talk about farming and dairy production in a positive light,” she says. “For example, being engaged in Tom’s Turkey Drive created an opportunity for me to intern with Second Harvest several years ago. The relationships I made with the non-profit and media sectors are ones I maintain to this day. More importantly, I was able to see firsthand how farmers’ hard work fills tables for families who need a little help.”
Kenny, Littrel and Ziehnert encourage other dairy farmers to get involved with events in their local communities.
“Start small,” Littrel says. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, and when you’re ready, keep going. There are a lot of options, including volunteering at your local food and/or clothing banks, giving presentations about agriculture to schools and other groups, etc.”
“Be sure you have a good story, and don’t be afraid to tell it,” Ziehnert adds.
For farmers who may be hesitant to get involved, Kenny has some advice: “Just show up. I think it’s like anything in life where if you show up, you’ll be glad you came. There’s something special about seeing the kindness in others who want to donate time or money to getting our dairy products into the hands of those who need help. Meeting the people who take home donated dairy products and other nutritious food is the most humbling experience for a farmer. Their gratitude is worth more than the best milk prices.”
“We tend to get caught up in the day to day of chores and farm upkeep, and it’s rare that we get such a close look into the value our dairy products bring to family,” Kenny says. “This is an opportunity for us to share the heart of farming, which is to feed the community. It’s not often we get to talk about and even show our neighbors where that gallon of milk in their refrigerator comes from. I think the media coverage genuinely sparks positive conversation about the ag community in our area. Just the reminder to consumers that we exist is also a bonus.”