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Dairy Helps Get Rural America Vaccinated, With Co-ops Leading the Way

May 3, 2021

The robust pace of U.S. COVID-19 vaccinations is the most important story in the country right now – and not just because vaccinations make the U.S. healthier and safer. They’re also important to building back economies – in the case of dairy, they get people into restaurants, keep schools open for in-person learning (and nutritious school lunches), and revive outlets for dairy-farmer products that have been hampered by pandemic-era life.

But herd immunity, the threshold at which the spread of the virus is broken, doesn’t happen on its own. It takes a lot of shots in a lot of arms — and a lot of trust, as people who for whatever reason may be hesitant to receive a vaccine shy away from inoculation. This is frequently the case in rural areas, where many lives are naturally socially distanced, human interactions are fewer and access to health care facilities and educational materials may not be as readily available.

That’s where dairy farms and their cooperatives come in. Dairy farmers are leaders in their communities, as well as significant employers. They’re also usually part of a cooperative, which has expertise and resources that can be applied in many areas, including public health. They’re no stranger to shots – people who work with cows knew the word “coronavirus” for decades before it became socially distanced coffee shop conversation – and they know how to organize a vaccination effort.

For all these reasons, and more, dairy has emerged as a key part of outreach to medically underserved rural areas, making sure those regions – and with it, the nation — has its fair chance to overcome COVID-19. Below is only a sampling of grassroots efforts in the dairy community to keep America safe and get it moving again.

  • Farmers and cooperatives across the country are putting together vaccination events for farmers, staff and farmworkers in the fields where they live and work. Natural Prairie Dairy, a member of Select Milk Producers Inc. organized a vaccination event for 300 of its employees at its organic dairy farm in Dalhart, Texas. And Michigan Milk Producers Association has been driving employees to vaccination sites when necessary: “We worked with the local health department and got all employees that wanted a vaccine scheduled on a few different dates,” said Gertie van den Goor, an MMPA member and dairy farmer outside Marlette, MI. “We drove everyone who needed transportation up there, and most of them were able to go during work time. We have around 80-90 percent of our employees fully vaccinated.”
  • At Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Association, employees receive a $50 Amazon gift card upon receiving a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine; at Dairy Farmers of America, co-op employees are offered two hours of pay for each vaccine they receive; and at Lone Star Milk Producers, employees can take paid time off to get their shots;
  • Northwest Dairy Association/Darigold, Prairie Farms and Associated Milk Producers Inc., among others, have organized vaccinations at their processing plants;
  • And at NMPF, we’re offering our COVID-19 vaccination resource toolkit, with materials in English and Spanish, to make sure that people who have been putting themselves at risk every day as part of the essential dairy workforce have access to the information they need. That’s in addition to the wide range of materials we’ve developed and publicized on how to maintain a safe work area and ensure best practices throughout the pandemic.

To get the nation where it needs to go in COVID-19 protection, it’s going to take efforts big and small, from organizations that care, across the country. To be successful, those organizations need to be ones that live in the same places as the people are who need vaccinations and are led by people trusted by those who may be vaccine-hesitant, or simply find it harder to get to one. As a 50-state, 24/7 industry, dairy is in these places and well-positioned to make a difference. It’s already happening – and it will continue to do so until the return to something resembling normal that everyone craves has arrived.

Together, we can do this. And dairy’s an important part of “we.”