Milwaukee Cooperative Milk Producers, based in Brookfield on the outskirts of Milwaukee, has the longest history of the three dairy co-ops that will likely make up a new cooperative entity called FarmFirst. (See related story.)
On Nov. 2, the general managers of Milwaukee Cooperative Milk Producers, Manitowoc Milk Producers Cooperative and Family Dairies USA announced that their respective boards had unanimously recommended a three-way merger of the co-ops to their members.
Talks on the merger have been ongoing for the past year and a half.
The oldest of the three dairy co-ops is the one that is in the state's most urbanized areas. Milwaukee Cooperative Milk Producers was formed in 1916 to protect farmers from unscrupulous milk buyers.
Jim Bird, general manager of Milwaukee Milk, said that back then milk handlers "worked off street corners" and often cheated farmers. The group began as a way for farmers to band together and protect themselves from those pitfalls and eventually evolved into a full-service cooperative.
Today, that co-op represents about 500 farms and has a smaller geographic area than in the past. Fifty years ago there were 2,000 members.
"We've seen a lot of urban sprawl and many of our farmers have closed or moved further north," he said during a press conference announcing the merger.
Bird said he has been with the co-op for 36 years and has been general manager for 26 years. Prior to his tenure with Milwaukee Milk Producers he worked as a Dairy Herd Improvement Association field representative and before that he worked in a cheese plant.
Over the years, Bird said, his co-op has worked very well with Manitowoc Milk Producers Cooperative. Together, those two co-ops own Fox Valley Quality Control Laboratory in Neenah.
They continue to be involved in the Lakeshore Group and the Midwest Dairy Coalition and have done a lot of work on federal order issues, Bird said. "We very much believe in nutrition and promotion activities."
Manitowoc Milk Producers Cooperative, based in Manitowoc was established in 1933 and represents more than 2,650 farms. The cooperative provides required Federal Milk Marketing Order services to members and is co-owner of that milk quality testing laboratory for components, cultures and somatic cell counts in Neenah.
Dennis Donohue, general manager of the co-op, said it started out 79 years ago as a local, county co-op when members were having a difficult time marketing their milk.
Donohue, who has been with the co-op for 32 years, said it has a rich history and he can't wait to see it continue with the proposed merger.
His organization is a member of the National Milk Producers Federation - the cooperative group that came up with the plan that has become the dairy title of the Farm Bill that is under consideration in Congress. The other two are not NMPF members.
Family Dairies USA, based in Madison, started out in 1971 when it was affiliated with Farmers Union. It was originally called Farmers Union Milk Marketing Cooperative but broke ties with its parent organization in 1998 and changed its name.
"Our history comes back to families getting a fair price for their milk," says David Cooper, general manager of Family Dairies.
The non-partisan, regional dairy co-op represents about 2,300 farms today and is "dedicated to bringing fairness and equity to its family farm members in dairy policy matters and providing excellence in dairy marketing services at reasonable prices," Cooper said.
The focus over the six years Cooper has been general manager has been education and outreach. "We want to make sure producers are educated about dairy policies."
Cooper said the "revolutionary changes" proposed for dairy in the Farm Bill require study and it will only help the dairy farmer-members if they belong to a larger, stronger entity.