A Conference for Dairywomen, Created by Dairywomen

11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Dairy farming is not just a man’s world. More than 100 women gathered in Harrisburg last week to network, to learn and to focus on the crucial roles they play in the dairy industry.

While dairywomen often spend much of their time surrounded by cows and dairymen, on Nov. 7 many of the women instead left their farms for a day to attend a Women in Dairy conference hosted by Penn State Extension. It was a day well spent as the group took part in workshops, panels and meals, learning about ways to better their farm operations — and a little socialization with their fellow dairywomen didn’t hurt either. The attendees ranged in age from 8 months through their 70s.

Self-proclaimed dairy goddess, Barbara Martin, Lemoore, Calif., kicked off the event with her story showing that despite hardships and the “terrible downturn in 2009,” dairywomen can find a way to help their family farms remain profitable.

After Martin and her family had relocated from southern to central California in 2006 and basically started their new herd from scratch, Martin became increasingly frustrated with the rules, regulations and volatile milk prices they faced.

On top of that, she saw an increasing need for producers to share their stories with the public in an honest, open, simple-to-understand manner.

So she started finding her “dairy goddess voice” with the use of Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s a great way to disprove so many misconceptions out there,” she said.

In 2008 she opted to take a cheese-making course, but had yet to find her true “dairy goddess” calling at that point.

“It’s never too late to learn something new,” Martin said.

And then came 2009. With milk prices dropping quickly and her family farm struggling to make ends meet, the idea of implementing her new cheese-making knowledge kept nagging at her.

“We (dairy farms) have all of the risk and no profit. I’m not against the co-ops, but we dairywomen need to get back some of the control,” she said.

To help strengthen her growing activist voice, Martin started blogging about everything from rallies to life on the farm.

Her blogging venture led her to make an investment in a logo, even before developing a cheese operation.

“Yes, a logo without a product,” she said. “Worst case scenario, I’d use (the logo) as a blog heading.”

But this driven dairywomen didn’t stop there. She took matters into her own hands, met with a former cheese-making professor and inspectors, and got the ball rolling on her new cheese plant.

“I came up with a French-style fromage blanc cheese that my friends and family loved. It was a specialty, (it) was cheap. It’s a cheese for a foodie on a budget,” Martin said.

On Aug. 12, 2010, Martin received her plant certification and pasteurization license. By Aug. 19, 2010, she made her first cheese sale.

“Fresh cheese takes three days to go from cow to package. In the first month, we processed 100 gallons of milk. By August 2012 we were processing 250 gallons per week,” she said. “We’re doing very well. We’ve increased production every week. Now we need to decide if we want to expand or stay the same — totally hands-on.”

At the present time, Dairy Goddess Farmstead Cheese and Milk sells at 13 farmers markets and 16 stores from central California to Los Angeles.

Martin said that despite what others implied, concerning her running a farm business as a woman, she built her “own business with my heart, blood, sweat and tears,” and helped her dairy farm remain profitable.

In addition to Martin’s story at the conference, four workshop sessions were tailored to women’s roles in dairy.

Communicating on the Farm

Coping with generational and gender differences was the topic of a session delivered by Gary Snider, vice president of consulting services with Farm Credit East.

“The parents have to remember that the new generation has energy and motivation like the parents did when they started,” Snider said, referring to farm transitions in which parents are slow to allow their children to make changes on the farm.

Parents have to realize that their own energy made the farm succeed in the first place, and the second generations’ energy will likely do the same, he said.

To compound family farm transitions, a lack of communication can also lead to respect and trust issues. The first generation simply wants to be respected for their accomplishments, Snider said. The second generation wants to be trusted with additional responsibilities so they can prove they are capable of inheriting the operation.

If the first and second generations are different genders, communication can be further hindered.

“Women want details. Men don’t want to be bothered with details — (they would rather say) let’s act and get on to the next issue,” Snider said. “(But) without details, women feel left out and results can be a surprise. Women hate surprises,” he said. “When women probe for details, men feel nagged, and men don’t like to be nagged.”

So how can the woman in this situation help, particularly if the first and second generations are her husband and son?

“Be the officer of the peace,” Snider said.

According to Snider, “mom” needs to organize forced discussions — to get husband and son around the kitchen table and force them to discuss their opinions, views and desires, and especially to have them praise each other for their successes.

Most importantly, the officer of the peace needs to “remind us that family is sacred,” he said. “Let us know when we are being disloyal — (that) loyalty to family members is expected and demanded.”

Besides having these scheduled, frequent discussions, family members need to work at being trusted and respected.

“Ask for what you need. Do what’s asked of you,” Snider said. “One negative experience can erase a dozen positive experiences. Keep your word. ... For there to be loyalty, there has to be a high degree of trust.”

If listeners took nothing else away from the day, another lecturer, Rebecca White, hoped women left understanding that they could “control the controllable” as it relates to farm finances.

“Control your reactions to the uncontrollable,” she said.

White, a senior project associate with the Penn State Extension Dairy Team, acknowledged that many financial influences can be difficult to control. She emphasized that farmers — women or men — need to try to not control the uncontrollable, such as beef and milk prices, interest rates, weather, global markets, people or government.

But keeping tabs on your farm’s numbers is essential to being able to react to the uncontrollable.

When it comes to maintaining the bookwork on a farm, some people see it as “women’s work,” while men are “to work in the fields and take care of the cows.” But White told the women in the room that they too can keep feed records and monitor income over feed costs — two pieces of data that help with the bookwork and finances.

These are “profitable actions you can implement today and in the future to increase your farm’s profitability,” she said.

“You always have choices. Move forward. Change your business — production level, expand or shrink, making and selling your own products, moving the farm or even selling. But don’t be a victim and ride out the storm,” she said.

To conclude the conference, a panel of women spoke about “Enjoying the Ups and Surviving the Downs of Being a Woman in Dairy.” They all agreed that taking time for yourself and your family is key.

“I feel myself being pulled in many ways and if I’m not careful, I can get myself in a knot,” said Phoebe Bitler, co-owner of Vista Grande Farm.

Maria Forry, partner in Oregon Dairy Farm, said, “Set realistic expectations. Be real with yourself. Birthdays, graduations, they only happen once. Be there.”

Darcie Stoltz, vet and owner of Dairy Production Medicine Associates, summed up a common feeling by stating: “I wanted to be superwoman, (saying to myself) I can be the best mom in the world, the best vet in the world. I can cook all the meals. I can sew all the clothes. Once of the hard lessons over the years was learning that I didn’t have to be superwoman,” Stoltz said.

The Dairy Goddess blog is located at http://dairygoddess.wordpress.com/.

For more information on determining your farm’s income over feed costs, margins and feed inventory, contact Rebecca White at raw43<\@>psu.edu.

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