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What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the dairy industry in the future?

By Reagan Koester

Several years ago, there appeared a cartoon in an Indianapolis, Indiana, newspaper. The cartoon showed a small boy and girl looking under a bush and observing a container holding four-quart bottles of milk. The caption read “Oh look, a cow’s nest!” The article accompanying the cartoon showed the results of a survey in which over 50 percent of those surveyed in a local community thought that milk came from Sammy’s, a local grocery store. The people interviewed had no idea that milk actually came from a cow. This could be dismissed by saying the individuals in a large city are too removed from agriculture to understand the process, but what harm could come from it? Now several years later the cute little cartoon is no longer a joke. The population of the United Stats is becoming so removed from agriculture and concerned with the food they consume that it is becoming what I consider the biggest challenge to the dairy industry. With milk misinformation normalized on TikTok at our fingertips, my generation certainly does not have as strong a connection with dairy as past generations.

Without a doubt, during these unprecedented times in history, the dairy industry is certainly facing major challenges on the supply side. Sustainability, high interest rates, labor shortages and even cow burping are all significant challenges currently facing the dairy industry. Yet, I feel the biggest challenge facing the future resides on the demand side regarding influential negative social media posts seen frequently by my generation, causing trust issues for future consumers.

Sure, dairy organizations  have worked hard to push back on social media as they promote our industry. But this falls under the umbrella of indirect communication. To truly gain my generation’s support and positively promote the modern dairy industry, direct communication promoting shared values from dairy producers and agribusiness professionals must take place. Even though for the most part farmers have the trust of the public, the challenge of overcoming agricultural ignorance and misinformation is immense. I believe grassroots initiatives from dairy producers and agribusiness professionals directly to future consumers is required.

It is imperative to reach the youth to shape their minds early with positive promotion. I annually teach over 400 fourth-grade students about raising dairy cattle at the Vanderburgh County Ag Awareness Days. And do not fear, the pandemic did not keep me from my quest. I created a virtual video about dairy by-products picked up by the local news which received 1,500 views. I created a video of our robotic dairy for Purdue Extension that is used in schools with corresponding educational classroom materials. During the stay-at-home orders, I also conducted several live Zoom tours of our dairy. The feedback was that this was a highlight for many youths during those monotonous days.

Furthermore, I am a social entrepreneur and have founded three original community service projects focused on food insecurity, foster children relocation and “Grit and Glam” for foster teenagers. I am sure to include dairy information with these projects that impact not only the recipient but also several youths I recruit to conduct the projects.

Families are also a target audience. I organized and presented information about the dairy industry at a Chick Fil A restaurant to young mothers and children. The local county fair is also a fun place to promote dairy with fun dairy facts and promotion. Also, my family was chosen for the Indiana State Fair Farm Family of the day twice where I promoted dairy to young fairgoers.

It is also important to keep key influencers updated. I gave private tours to U.S. Senator Mike Braun, the Indiana State Bar Association, was a three time Senate page advocating for youth dairy education and wrote FFA, 4-H and dairy articles for the Posey County News.  I was selected by AFA with 11 peers from across the nation to lobby directly on Capitol Hill to U.S. Senators and Congressmen advocating for the Farm Bill and dairy industry.

Additionally, one of my favorite activities is presenting an information speech about our robotic dairy. It was  national qualifier in Business Professionals of America and placed at state in both FFA and 4-H. However, I feel my most successful peer outreach was in Speech & Debate. For my category, I had to include props and humor. I was fortunate to be Sectional Champion and a Quarterfinalist at State! It was so rewarding to have teens from across our state, and future consumers, thank me for helping them have a more accurate understanding of the dairy industry.

Likewise, I keep myself informed by being an Indiana 4-H State Ambassador representing 130,000 members. Not only do I promote the dairy industry to youth, but I travel the state meeting industry professionals and attending workshops on farm management, veterinary medicine and agribusiness focused on the dairy industry.

Finally, I have continued finding common values on Purdue’s campus with peers. Given the Boiler Gold Rush Orientation Week nickname “Barn Girl” as fellow freshman were flabbergasted when sharing my major, I knew the importance of focusing on the dairy industry with college peers. I volunteer promoting the industry through Dairy Club and am beyond excited to serve on the Ag Week Task Force during Milk Monday!

In reality, it takes a layering approach to both indirect communication and direct communication such as the examples that I have given. Most of us in the dairy industry have a strong passion. Now it is up to us to get involved through grassroots efforts to make a difference and share our love and knowledge with future consumers.

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