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Developing Communities of Young Producers

Phil Durst
MSU Extension Dairy Educator – NE Michigan

Young people have been entering the dairy business in Michigan because the industry is growing and providing them opportunities. They are making the choice to start a career in a dairy business, a career that they hope will be financially and personally fulfilling.

Many are coming to the industry with some formal education that helps prepare them for the business of dairy production. While formal education is vital and important, it alone does not fully prepare people for the challenges of managing a dairy business including labor management, family business relations, business planning and evaluation, and facility planning and building.

In a business with larger operations and slim margins, the demands are great. These demands often create additional stress beyond the normal challenge of working to reach goals with cattle. In addition, the demands of the business often work to isolate young people from peers.

In February 2007 in the northeast Lower Peninsula, several young producers met with the Extension Dairy Educator to discuss the issues facing young dairy producers and to recognize the increasing numbers of them in our area. We hypothesized that bringing together these producers into a group would be effective in helping them develop better management skills and knowledge and provide an outlet for them that would reduce stress.

The purposes of a young dairy producer group were to: (1) provide an opportunity to meet and network with people in a similar stage of a dairy career and similar perspectives; (2) learn from and share with each other experiences, knowledge, questions and problems; (3) see and learn new or alternative ways to manage or approach problems; (4) encourage one another; and, (5) renew enthusiasm for the dairy business by the interaction. In short, the purposes were to grow as dairy managers and to be able to share that with others and have fun doing it.

A group was started In March 2007 by assembling a list of those ages 17-35 known to the planning group. An invitation for a get-together was made by mail and backed up by personal contacts by this core group.

At the first get-together we discussed the issue of change in the industry and the need to adapt to it using a video of the book “Who Moved My Cheese”. Then we talked about getting together regularly to keep learning. They enthusiastically agreed and decided to meet monthly. Get-togethers were scheduled for the first Thursday evening each month at 7:00 p.m. and always involved food. The Young, Savvy and into Dairy (YSD) group was formed. The meetings are informal yet each with a specific educational topic brought by the Extension Educator. Conversation is encouraged through questions. There are no officers and no planning group; it is a flat structure of equals who get-together to learn.

During the warmer months with longer days, get-togethers are held on farms. We have met on farms of group members and the member hosting is responsible to tell about their operation and provide metrics about it.

The older generation is not permitted to take part. Group members are then divided up into smaller groups with instructions to cite three things on which to commend the family, and three things to recommend to the family.

One from each group presents those to the host. In this way, members learn to evaluate the pros and cons by results of different management systems and set-ups.

We also have met on farms of successful, experienced producers to learn from them specific strengths including keeping and using records, monitoring cost of production and managing employees.

During the colder months with shorter days, the group meets to discuss issues facing agriculture including animal well-being and producer responsibilities, and design of a lactating cow barn.

The group hosted a similar group from upstate New York and conducted a tour of four of their farms for those New York young producers. In April 2010, the Michigan YSD group will be making the reciprocal trip to visit the New York group and see their farms first-hand.

In January 2010, a second YSD group was started by the Educator in the Alpena area. Again, a list was compiled with the help of some key young producers and they helped to make personal contacts to invite people.

In the same month, a Facebook fan page was started for young people in dairy with the Educator as the administrator. The purpose of the fan page is to provide an additional means to contact members of these groups, increase the networking among them and with others outside the area around the topic of dairy management and to help create additional excitement.

The first group has not missed a monthly meeting in over 3 years. A total of 75 young people in dairy have attended at least once with a core group of fairly regular participants numbering 20-25 and average get-together attendance of 15-25.

The group took on the identity of “Young, Savvy and into Dairy” and go by the acronym “YSD” group or “YSD’ers”.

The following member actions have been noted:
• Persistence in inviting others to join the group.
• Bringing problems up for discussion.
• Acceptance of each other within the group based on respect for what they accomplish rather than personality fit.
• Five members travelled 50 miles one way to meet with the new group at their first get-together in order to encourage them to form a group and tell about what they have done together in the first YSD group.
• Two other members talked on a conference call with a West Michigan group that was forming for the same purpose.
• One member, seeing a call go out for those in mid-Michigan to form a group offered with a note that said “if you get enough interest and would like somebody from YSD North to come down and give a little chat about how we do our meetings, let me know. Anything to help create a new YSD group!!” It would be a hundred-mile trip one way.

A survey of the members (n=18) conducted in September 2008 showed that 100% reported the meetings over the past season as beneficial, that same percentage said that through it they had developed a greater respect for their peers and were willing “to contribute more to the development” of their peers. They want each other to succeed.

These measures along with the attitudes and actions of the members indicate that more than forming a group, a real community has formed and continues. In addition, the actions and words of the members indicate that the community is effective in driving development of knowledge, abilities and confidence.

A second group also has formed and is meeting monthly with 20-35 in attendance each time. These young people are excited about getting together and immediately began offering to host the group at their farms.

Seven members of the first YSD hosted a hospitality at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference for all young producers at the conference. Many attended the hospitality. Members of YSD were there to talk and share with others what they are doing and why they enjoy it and profit from it. The hospitality also served as the launching of the Facebook fan page “Young, Savvy & into Dairy”.

The Facebook fan page has been successful to date. There are currently 350 fans signed on. Although primarily from Michigan so far, they represent many other states and six foreign countries as well. These have made over 140 posts to the fan page including posting and responding to Discussion Questions, posting short write-ups about themselves and their dairy connections and posting comments and questions to each other.

McMillan and Chaviz (1986) proposed that a sense of community is “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members' needs will be met through commitment to be together.” They defined four key elements of community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.

The development of community is a process that begins with forming a group, and evolves into a community through openness, sharing, respect and mutual benefit. Over 3 years of monthly interaction has molded the first group into a community that continues to look to bring others into it. Prior to this group, in many cases, members did not even know each other, now, based on the care they show for one another, it is obvious that a transformation has occurred.

It is believed that through time, interaction, being on each other’s farms and talking over problems with each other, that the second group will also become a community.

In their paper, Kallioranta et. al. (2006) talk about forming virtual communities of individuals who work with and market forest products connected by a specific web focal point on the Internet. They discuss the reasons for it and construct elements that would define virtual communities. And while they admit that their groups are “not yet true communities, they contain many community elements”. The same could be said of the YSD fan page fans at this point.

Through the two groups, this Extension Educator meets with 35-50 young dairy producers each month for 2 to 2.5 hours each time. Conservatively, this represents over 1,000 person-hours annually of meeting educationally with young producers.

In addition, it means that over a 3-year period, producers who attended 80% (28) of meetings would have over 60 hours of educational contact time with the Extension Educator. That educational contact and the relationships that are being built provide a tremendous platform for effective education and impact potential on the dairy industry for a long time to come. Technology allows us to link across distances with others with similar issues, needs, and perspectives to form a virtual community. When Jody from Texas shares about the stress on the farm, and Brent from Tennessee reports on prices for commercial dairy cattle at a recent sale and when Chris from Michigan posts a question about motivating employees and people from all over respond with what works, a community is forming.

To a large extent, this age group represents a new audience for Extension. At least 80% of those who have attended the YSD get-togethers have not previously been Extension meeting attendees. Yet, since their involvement with YSD groups, in some cases they have also begun coming to more traditional Extension meetings. While this clientele segment is reachable, they are apparently more likely to respond to methods that have not been traditionally used.

The response to both physical communities and the virtual community has shown the receptiveness, even hunger, among young dairy producers to learn and grow as dairy managers.

Meeting that need is an essential component for farm success and farm preservation. Forming communities of these young producers help to meet that need.

Johnson, MD, S. 1998. Who moved my cheese? Putnam Press. ISBN 0399144463.

Kallioranta S., R. 2006. Vlosky and S. Leavengood. Web-based communities as a tool for extension and outreach. Journal of Extension, 44(2).

McMillan, D. W.; Chavis, D. M. 1986. Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology. 14(1), p. 6.

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Inviting young producers to join the “Young, Savvy & into Dairy” Facebook fan page

This fan page provides opportunity to get to know other young people in dairy, share questions and experiences with them and be part of a group.

When new fans join, I ask them to introduce themselves to the group by telling a little about themselves, their connection to dairy and what they do. Discussion questions are regularly posted and include:

• What seems to work best to motivate employees to do their best?
• Who has been a good influence on you?
• What is something you have done to improve communication on the farm?
• What is your next building project and what problem is it meant to solve?
• What does “savvy” mean to you in the context of the dairy business?

Fans also can post pictures and there are occasional boxes with educational material posted.

To get to the fan page, search pages for “Young, Savvy & into Dairy”. We welcome your involvement.