FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative completes transition

Dan Hansen
Now Media Group


FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative was established in 2013 following the merger of Family Dairies USA, Manitowoc Milk Producers Cooperative and Milwaukee Cooperative Milk Producers.

'We had a three-year transition plan with our directors when the cooperative was officially formed,' noted David Cooper, FarmFirst general manager, 'and that transition was completed during our 2016 convention.'

Three years ago, FarmFirst had a 20-member board of directors, which is now at nine members. 'We have nine districts, and every year three districts are up for election, so as we got to those districts that had more than a single director, then those individuals could either run or retire from the board,' Cooper explained. 'Our executive committee also was reduced from five to four members.

Three new officers also were chosen at this year's meeting. The new president is John Rettler, Neosho. Peter Kleiman, Wilson, MI, who formerly served as president, was elected vice-president. Ken Wunderlin, Livingston, is the new treasurer, and Kathy Bauer, Fairbault, MN, was re-elected secretary. 'All officers have served as officers or directors for at least five years,' Cooper noted.

Five board members retired this year, and were honored at the awards banquet for their years of service and their dedication during the transition. They are: David Allen, Reedsburg; Wayne Hansen, Van Dyne; Lee Klumpers, Waupun; Mark Ryan and Dave Schmitz both of Fond du Lac.

Successful beginnings

The theme for this year's meeting was: 'We are FarmFirst,' which celebrated the successful beginning of the cooperative since its merger while showcasing the organization and people the cooperative represents and works with. 

'We chose that theme in order to discuss in more detail what FarmFirst is because the transition has been completed and we are three years into the new organization,' explained Cooper. 'It really came down to what elements make up FarmFirst and how we represent our members and how we take feedback from our members.'

He noted that the cooperative holds fall member meeting and sends ballots to members so they can choose their leadership, which is a grassroots opportunity for all members to be involved, and select delegates to come to the annual meeting.

'This year we talked a lot about change in general – what we've seen in the industry, how sometimes we have to accept change and how best to respond to change. Learning how change can be a positive thing is important,' Cooper stressed.

Producer workshops

The day before the annual meeting producer discovery workshops were held. Attorney Michelle Birschbach focused on common problems that could adversely affect farm transition.

'We've got young cooperators who will be taking over farm operation and ownership from someone in the family. We have older members who are looking to that ownership transition in the future, and we want to help them prepare,' said Cooper. 'With tax laws changing and family dynamics changing, that preparation is important.'

In another workshop, John Newton from the National Milk Producers Federation shared insight regarding the current status of dairy policy, price and industry economics.

'Thus far, 2016 is proving to be challenging, as USDA is currently projecting U.S. milk production to increase by another 1.6 percent year-over-year with an average all-milk price of $15.30 to $16.00 per hundredweight,' said Newton.

He also noted there have been declines in value throughout agriculture commodities over the past 12 months. Crude oil is down 40 percent, pork is down 36 percent, beef is down 30 percent and the overall commodity price index is down 16 percent.

'Yet, firm domestic consumption of milkfats helped to keep U.S. milk prices higher than prices received in New Zealand and the EU,' added Newton. 'Prior to 2015 the average contribution of fat to the class III milk price was approximately 40 percent. During the past year, due in large part to the record high butter prices in 2015, fat represented nearly 52 percent of the class III milk value.'

FarmFirst changes

The delegates also approved a change in the bylaws to help younger members. 'We added a section for our young cooperators to more clearly define how they will fit into the organization,' Cooper said.

He added, 'We're asking one of the members of our steering committee for the program to sit in on board meetings as an ex officio member to be able to learn more about the cooperative, and to be able to bring the perspective of our young cooperators into our boardroom, and that's going to add more dynamic conversation about policy issues that we might have to deal with.'

A survey taken during the meeting showed that members want to be engaged but often don't know how to go about doing it. 'Our role in the future will be putting our members in the position where they can respond to legislators and consumers in a positive, proactive light,' Cooper explained.

'I think we can help members grow their confidence to be able to speak up for all the hard work they do, and why they love being in agriculture,' he said. 'What role we have in helping them develop and support that is going to be critical for their success and for our success as a cooperative.'

Cooper felt the annual meeting was a positive experience for the members. 'I think it was an opportunity for people to come in and help make changes that will keep us moving forward,' he said.

Reflecting on the current lower milk prices, he said,' Obviously we're at the heart of those low prices, and that means dairy producers have to change some of the ways they do business.

'They're going to have to make cutbacks that may be very difficult, but that must be made to be sure they can continue with their business,' Cooper acknowledged. 'But they've made these decisions before, they'll make them again, and they'll be successful, and we'll be here to support them.'