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Dairy Defined: Cooperatives Help Dairy Farmers Do What They Do Best: Produce Milk That Nourishes the World

August 24, 2020

Farming isn’t short of challenges these days. From record price volatility to tragic weather events to the ongoing crisis of coronavirus that’s shaping every aspect of lives and economies, milk producers face so many unprecedented situations that the word “unprecedented” itself seems inadequate to describe the full scope of the situation.

But for most dairy farmers, at least some of their burden is lessened by their membership in a cooperative, which provides them with services, support and representation on important issues. That membership gives them more time and energy to focus on what they do best: operate their farms to provide the high-quality products the nation and world needs.

Dairy co-ops aren’t all the same. They range from nationwide powerhouses to local groups with small customer bases, from Fortune 500 companies to regional treasures. But all of them are much more than just the truck that stops to pick up a farmer’s milk. (Although dairy cooperatives do add up to a lot of trucks — according to a twice-a-decade USDA survey, cooperatives handled 85 percent of U.S. milk in 2017, a number that’s held steady for 25 years.) They’re also a farmer’s:

  • Milk marketing agent and product developer, seeking the best buyers and ensuring that milk becomes a product a consumer wants to buy;
  • Supply-chain manager, helping provide lower cost goods and services that make farms more successful;
  • Financial analyst and economist, helping farmers manage risk and understand milk pricing issues;
  • Technical expert providing input on best practices, including animal care, environmental and other programs, both public and private, working on behalf of all cooperative members to address customer and marketplace concerns; and, the co-op also is a
  • Voice on policy, navigating state and federal laws and regulations to work for positive solutions.

All of this is directed by the farmers – the cooperative’s owners – through democratic voting structures that give everyone in a cooperative a voice within the body they own, one that previous generations of farmers have set up to fight for them. That’s the truest, most basic form of representative government, one in keeping with the most cherished American political traditions. Cooperatives give farmers a vehicle to help themselves by effectively performing tasks on behalf of their members that would be more difficult – or impossible – to manage alone. That frees up farmers to face the challenges that inevitably fall on their own shoulders – the tasks of caring for their cows, building their businesses, leading their own communities, and serving the world through the essential products they provide.

These days, doing all that takes a lot. Cooperatives have proven their value this year in large, and dramatic, ways – by helping to better align supply and demand that contributed to a record price rally and turned some very dark days into days that, while still difficult, have improved farmers’ financial standing. They have proven their value in thousands of small, individual ways as well, from timely market insights to the day-to-day, basic task of ensuring that milk producers have a guaranteed market at a time when farmers are increasingly realizing that can’t always be taken for granted.

Farming can be a lonely calling. But co-op farmers don’t face it all alone. Especially in dairy, where cooperative membership is the norm, farmers routinely pool resources, collect expertise, and provide services that help one another succeed. And in that spirit, they then can speak with a united voice on matters that affect them all. We at the National Milk Producers Federation are proud to be the voice of dairy cooperatives in Washington, harnessing the power of farmers who individually meet the challenges they face each day – and together contribute to the successes of all.