MADISON - In a room filled with 1800 dairy enthusiasts, the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin celebrated their 25th anniversary in Madison last week.
The celebration event was a part of PDPW’s annual conference and it was an illustration of the excitement that exists in today’s Wisconsin dairy industry.
The anniversary banquet featured the introduction of board members who have served during the last 25 years and of others who have been a part of building this dynamic organization.
Dr. David Kohl, Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech, opened the banquet by reflecting on the organization’s 25-year history of growth.
It was appropriate that he should greet the large gathering of dairy producers since he was also the keynote speaker at the organization’s first conference held in Wisconsin Rapids when just 38 people attended.
“My history with PDPW started with a phone call from (dairy farmer) Linda Hodorff, asking if I would kick off an initial meeting because there were some visionary dairymen in Wisconsin who wanted to increase their financial and business acumen," Kohl said. "It’s amazing how that’s evolved to conferences of over 1800 people from all over the world. It’s been exciting to see where we started, and where we are today. Whether you are a 40-cow or 4,000 cow dairy farmer, whether you are a beginning producer or a ‘vintage’ producer, there’s a program for everyone.”
PDPW started in the nineties when milk production in Wisconsin was dropping and farms were getting outdated. Farmers were retiring and their sons were not enthusiastic about taking over.
At the same time, cheese plants in Wisconsin were also looking to modernize or get out. Those that chose to stay in the business knew they would need to modernize but hesitated about investing in plants in a state where milk production was beginning to dwindle.
Groups of dairy farmers interested in remaining in the business were beginning to meet at kitchen tables around the state to try to figure out ways to face these challenges.
Pete Kappleman, one of the original PDPW founders, says “We had everything that made Wisconsin ideal for dairy (land good for raising alfalfa, climate good for cows) but farmers were not looking at their farms as businesses."
With seed money from five farm families, PDPW had its first informal meeting around Linda and Doug Hodorf’s kitchen table at Eden.
“I believe PDPW is one of the factors in helping ‘turn around the Titanic’ of a declining Wisconsin dairy industry in the 1990’s to today’s growing industry with a positive outlook for the future,"said Linda Hodorff, of the organization's evolution. "PDPW sets the gold standard for dairy education in our industry, both in quality and innovation. When I hear people talk about the thriving Wisconsin dairy industry or the leadership Wisconsin shows around the country, I have to point to many PDPW members. The boards and staff of PDPW have taken this organization way beyond what any of us could have ever dreamed of at the beginning.”
One of the families who contributed seed money to help the organization get started was the Koepke family who operates a dairy farm on the Dodge-Waukesha County line.
Although he has officially retired from dairying and has turned over the reins of the Koepke farm to the younger generation, Alan Koepke is still proud of how the organization has helped to turn around dairy in Wisconsin.
“We decided never to be a lobbyist organization," Koepke said. "We would work with those organizations but we wanted to educate on how to dairy better.”
Seeing where PDPW is today brings tears to his eyes.
"PDPW is one of the most important things I have done in my career in the dairy industry. It’s not about a bunch of old people looking for seed corn hats. It’s young people coming to make their business better,” Koepke said.
As a founding member, Koepke was on the PDPW board from 1992 to 1997.
PDPW is led by Shelly Mayer, a Slinger dairy farmer who has served as PDPW’s only Executive Director in the last 25 years.
“With lifelong learning, PDPW helps enable its members to grow as leaders," Mayer said. "Leadership is the building block for strong families, strong communities, strong churches and strong schools. Leadership is the fabric of our country.”
Mayer knows PDPW is on the right track because she has seen its members grow in their leadership skills and dairying skills. She has also seen the dairy industry turn around in Wisconsin. And she has witnessed the growing enthusiasm among young people in the dairy industry again. With this enthusiasm, she is assured Wisconsin will have no problem hanging on to its title as America’s Dairyland.
The keynote address at the celebration was delivered by Tom Thibodeau, the Viterbo University’s Distinguished Professor of Servant Leadership. He told PDPW members, that they "understand servant leadership because theyare servant leaders.”
He went on to list the virtues that connect farmers: faith, family, farming and flag.
“You need to learn to live in the eye of a hurricane – to be calm leaders in the midst of turmoil,” he told the crowd.
Many of those who are long-time members of PDPW say they enjoy the idea of networking with other producers and learning from each other.
“We are an industry different than all others," Thibodeau said. "We want all to succeed. If others succeed, we all succeed.”
He shared a story about a corn farmer who consistently had the highest yields. A reporter was amazed to find out that this top corn producer was sharing his seed with his neighbors. The reporter asked why he would share his “trade secret” with neighbors and if he wasn’t afraid his neighbors would out-produce him if he provided them with seed.
"The farmer told the reporter that pollen spreads from one corn field to another. If he didn’t provide his neighbor’s with good seed, the wind might blow pollen from inferior corn across the fence line and hurt the production of his corn," he said.