A few years ago, I saw a magazine cover that I’ll never forget. It featured a millennial-aged mother holding a child in a grocery store. The headline read “Meet Your New Boss.”
Like her, I’m a millennial and a parent. There are roughly 80 million millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) in the country, and we spend approximately $600 billion each year.
What separates me from most of my millennial peers is I’m a farmer. My wife Laura and I manage 100 dairy cows and 60,000 broiler chickens on 200 acres.
We get farming. People like the woman on that magazine cover likely do not. Yet, they matter to dairy farmers – heck, every farmer – who hopes to make a living in agriculture.
Sustainability is at the core of consumers’ expectations. People are increasingly making purchase decisions based on the food’s source: did the farmer treat their animals well? What about the land and the people who work for the farm?
Innovation Center collaboration
Dairy farmers are fortunate that the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, an organization we founded through our checkoff program to align the supply chain on topics such as sustainability, annually honors the best examples of work that matters to consumers. The U.S. Dairy Sustainability Awards recognize farms, businesses and partnerships whose practices improve the well-being of people, animals and the planet.
Our dairy is part of a partnership that is being honored this year for Outstanding Supply Chain Collaboration. (You can check out the other winners here and see the various ways that sustainability practices are in play across the industry).
Our entry – the Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership (THCWP) – involves Turkey Hill Dairy, Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. About 150 dairies like ours participate. Our goal is to decrease phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment runoff to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and to achieve 100 percent conservation compliance among farms supplying Turkey Hill Dairy.
The THCWP seeks private funds for farmers to offset the costs of on-farm conservation practices, including the creation and updating of nutrient management plans. It also helps pay for conservation and biodiversity projects, such as planting forested buffer strips, expanding manure storage capacity and building heifer barns to reduce runoff. Since 2018, the THCWP has funded 42 conservation plans and committed $800,000 to implement on-farm practices.
THCWP funding helped us build new calf and heifer barns about a year ago that are state-of-the-art compared to the facilities we were in. We’re seeing much healthier livestock because of the new barns and it’s also easier for us to be nutrient-management compliant as we now have skid loader access to manage manure. We also secured additional funding from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to build a new manure storage facility.
I wish more farmers knew about resources such as these that can assist them with reaching their goals.
A changed mindset
I’ve thought a lot about my grandfather lately. His generation followed a mindset that God gave us the earth to work and, therefore, we should work it. The benefits/importance of conservation and sustainability practices weren’t understood. After he retired in 1994, we leased the land, though there wasn’t a commitment to its protection during that time.
When I left for college in 2006, I began understanding the farmer does not have a business without a consumer. After graduation, I looked at the farm through that lens and could see how not understanding the benefits of following sustainability practices for 30 years took its toll.
I had to do things differently. Not only was it the right thing to do but it was necessary to have a fighting chance of building trust with the consumer. And, I knew I’d one day pass along the farm to my own children. I wanted them to start from a positive place and feel good about what they were inheriting.
Ever since, we’ve been pushing to implement more practices. Our dairy is at least an hour and a half away from the top of Chesapeake Bay, yet we understand the responsibility our farm and those around us have as caretakers of its watershed.
Earning this Innovation Center award has given us a chance to share our story in new venues. We have an opportunity to reach people who have been pushing against us and saying we’re not doing enough.
Maybe they’ll see that dairy farms like ours are part of the solution and that we have much in common – we’re all striving for the same sustainable future.
To learn more about your national dairy checkoff, visit www.USDairy.com or send a request to join our Dairy Checkoff Farmer Group on Facebook. To reach us directly, send an email to TalkToTheCheckoff@dairy.org.