Keeping the Frogs in the Bucket

March 01,2011
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Last month marked the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. As with all such commemorations of historic figures, there was no shortage of documentaries, articles, and blog postings about what made his leadership style, and his career – both as governor, and then president – so successful.

After all the opining, the one thing that becomes apparent was President Reagan’s great ability to be tactically flexible, and strategically principled, in the pursuit of a few major goals, such as tax reform, defeating the USSR, and changing how government operates. Put a simpler way, Reagan knew what he wanted, focused on the ultimate goal, bent but didn’t break, and didn’t sweat the small stuff.

Such an approach has served many companies, industries, and other managers very well in the pursuit of their objectives. It’s an important lesson, as the dairy industry heads into a crucial juncture in the public policy arena.

After more than a year of deliberation, we are poised to make significant changes in federal dairy policy – changes that will improve the safety net for farmers, offer simple yet effective risk management tools, bring greater certainty and clarity to milk pricing, better manage supply with demand, and provide us the opportunity to reach the fastest-growing markets for milk, both domestic and international.

All of these improvements are contained in
Foundation for the Future, the series of sweeping revisions that is the product of nearly two years of hard work and input by dairy farmers and cooperatives from across the country. Congress has begun the process of taking these concepts, and writing them into legislation that someday soon will be introduced on Capitol Hill and passed into law.

We are near the culmination of a process that rightly has entailed a great deal of conciliation, give-and-take, and not agonizing over the small stuff. As is always the case with the construction of a multi-faceted and complex vehicle, concessions had to be made, and compromises reached. The goal was never going to be, and never should be, perfection. Even if everyone in the dairy sector could agree what perfection looks like, no one achieves it; it’s a mirage that may look deceptively simple, but usually becomes maddeningly evasive upon further inspection.

So we’re near that point, but we’re also at another point: where as the final details become clearer, and as people are asked to be flexible, they get cold feet. Or put another way, they get jumpy, like frogs in a bucket.

Thus, our task ahead in 2011 is to keep our eyes on the ultimate prize – dairy policy reform that benefits everyone. And in so doing, we need to keep all the frogs – or at least as many as is feasible – in the bucket that is dairy reform.

It’s natural and inevitable that as the opportunity approaches for concrete change in decades-old policies, some people will get jumpy. Regardless of how badly-needed any change is, change always asks people to take a leap of faith into uncharted waters. It’s human nature to prefer the comforts of the known, rather than confront the questions about the unknown.

But we need to keep our focus on the things we need from tomorrow’s dairy policy that today’s policy can never offer. The rise (again) in feed costs, even though it’s been accompanied by rising milk prices, demonstrates that dairy producer profitability cannot be measured any longer simply by the milk price. We need a policy that considers, and protects, margins. That’s what Foundation for the Future offers.

We’re at the point where some have questioned how such margins can be precisely quantified, for their region, or even their specific farm. The point to keep in mind is that our approach has to be national, it has to apply to farms of all sizes – without any limitations – and it has to focus on the big picture. The same applies for all of the other changes contained in Foundation for the Future. To worry about the small stuff risks paralysis by analysis, and the demise of everything that so many have worked for in recent years.

My official title at NMPF is President and CEO, but truth in labeling would generate a title more along the lines of “Frog Bucket Carrier.” President Reagan understood the need to keep all the frogs in the bucket in order to get the job done. That’s the job here, as well.