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Dairy Defined Podcast:

Dairy’s Future Found in New Markets, New Leaders

May 30, 2023

Dairy’s future will be increasingly global and diverse, as emerging markets increase demand and women take on greater leadership roles in the industry, this year’s chairwoman of the NMPF Young Cooperators program said in a dairy defined podcast.

“The U.S. really had a competitive edge, as far as the quality and safety of the products,” said Lorilee Schultz, who milks 60 registered Holsteins and manages more than 200 acres at Mil-R-Mor Farm in Orangeville, IL, said of her time briefly working with the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service. The member of Prairie Farms cooperative is very active in community leadership and has a special interest in teaching kids about agriculture, including interactions with more than 200,000 school children through the Adopt-A-Cow program, a free, years-long virtual experience where students care for a calf and interact with a dairy farmer.

That investment in dairy’s future will also be critical as new leaders emerge through programs such as NMPF’s YCs, which will be in Washington next week for their annual congressional fly-in, she said. Schultz, 38, said one of her messages to lawmakers will be that “If we want to retain the talented young people that we have in our rural communities, we really need to make sure that we’re investing in those communities, making sure we have things like good schools, access to healthcare, quality and affordable childcare.”

And for dairy’s next generation of leadership – especially for women, who are currently under- represented in top industry positions – it’s critical to get involved, Schultz said. “It’s really important to have our voices heard,” she said. “I just want to encourage everybody to know that they can be involved in leadership and make a difference.”

The full podcast is below. You can also find the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts. Broadcast outlets may use the MP3 file. Please attribute information to NMPF.


Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. Today we speak with Lorilee Schultz. Lorilee milks 60 registered Holsteins, and manages more than 200 acres at Mil-R-Mor Farm in Orangeville, Illinois. The Prairie Farms member is very active in community leadership and has a special interest in teaching kids about agriculture, including interactions with school children through the Adopt A Cow Program, a free, years long virtual experience where students care for a calf and interact with a dairy farmer. But today we’re talking to her about why she is this year’s chair of NMPF’s Young Cooperators Program, which develops the next generation of dairy leadership. She’ll be in Washington next month for the YC fly-in in conjunction with NMPF’s board meeting. Welcome, Lorilee.

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Well, thanks for having me on.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So people can do a lot with their lives, Lorilee. Why are you a dairy farmer?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Well, that’s a great question. I did not actually initially plan to get into dairy farming. My grandparents have always dairied and I always enjoyed it, but it was more of a summer hobby. And I went to Iowa State where I double majored in economics and agricultural business, while I minored in animal science and journalism. And I was kind of thinking about going into ag marketing or communications, something in that field. And then in 2006, my grandparents actually moved their dairy basically from a suburb of Chicago to our current location in Orangeville. And that just kind of opened up a lot of new opportunities. My grandpa had commented that he wished I would be able to join them in the new location, and I really just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to turn what had been a hobby into a career where I could learn from some of the best in the business, my grandparents.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So before you committed to the dairy farm, you had some interesting work experiences. Can you share some of those with us?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Sure. Well, I had three really different internships while I was in college. And they all taught me different things. My first internship was with Hoard’s Dairyman as an editorial intern. And I got to spend the summer traveling all over writing articles for the magazine. And that was just a great experience, meeting with all different types of people. And I think that really taught me to be curious, ask questions, and also learn how to listen, I guess. And then my next internship that I did was with the USDA Foreign Ag Service, and I was actually an intern in an Ag Trade office in Guangzhou, China, for four months. And that really just totally opened my eyes up to how truly global our industry is. A lot of what I did there did focus on the dairy industry. And it just was amazing to me to learn how so many systems work together to get food where it needs to go around the world.

And I also really gained an appreciation for the reputation that U.S. ag products have around the world for their quality and safety, that people really do value that. And then my final internship was actually in an ag marketing office, which is what I kind of thought that I would be interested in going into. And I sat at a desk all day, every day, wasn’t really challenged enough, and I decided that really wasn’t what I wanted to do. And so the dairy farming option seemed to be something that would be a continuous challenge for me and allow me to work with my family and with the cattle that have always been a really important part of my life.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Let’s back up to Guangzhou for a minute. It’s World Milk Day this week. Tell me a little bit more about what you learned there about dairy and the importance of U.S. agriculture and U.S. dairy farmers to the world.

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: China is really struggling to feed their population right now. I think they’re trying really hard to improve their systems. But at the end of the day, at least when I was there, the U.S. really had a competitive edge as far as the quality and safety of the products. I think there just really is a lot of demand there for dairy products. It’s not something that they’ve necessarily traditionally consumed. And they maybe don’t consume it in the same way that we do in the U.S. They don’t eat a lot of cheese, for example, but they love their ice cream, drinkable yogurt, and they also incorporate a lot of dried milk in some of their different bakery products and such.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So you have a perspective on global agriculture through some of your previous work.

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Mm-hmm.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And now you’re in the U.S. You’re a part of this system, but you’re a younger farmer, 38 years old, and you’re a beginner farmer and you’re a smaller farmer, and these are all challenges.

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Right.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: How do you meet these challenges? And how are they different from what a more established producer might face?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Yeah. Well, I think every dairy farmer has different challenges. As many dairy farmers as you’ll talk to is as many challenges as you’ll come up with. But one thing for me that has been interesting is just navigating the relationship between the generations here on the farm. It’s a little bit different that it’s my grandparents’ farm versus my parents’ farm that I’m working on. And so it’s just kind of that balancing act of having respect and appreciation for all of the past hard work and great ideas that have gone into the business, and then also being able to implement the changes that I would like to see going forward. We have a beautiful facility here. It’s a very labor-intensive facility, but it is a little bit challenging to be able to make investments without owning the land. And that’s something that isn’t going to happen in this generation for now.

I think it’s true of many young farmers that we find it hard to continually invest in our businesses and make the improvements that we want when profitability in the dairy industry is so variable. And a lot of us are raising young families, and so there’s just a lot of moving parts there compared to some other businesses that don’t have those wild swings in profitability from year to year.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And so next month you go to the halls of Congress. In fact, it’s going to be within a couple of weeks. You’re the chair of the YCs. They’re doing their fly-in. These are members of Congress. These are policy makers. Given your experience and your challenges. It’s a farm bill year. What do Congress members of Congress need to hear from the NMPFYC’s?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: There’s a few things I’m hoping to highlight while we’re there. And one is the Dairy Pride Act, and that is relating to milk labeling and removing some of the confusion around that. As a new mom, for example, it’s hard to be able to know what to feed your family and know exactly what you’re getting. And I think for a lot of consumers, when they see dairy alternatives, in their minds, they’re thinking that that’s nutritionally equivalent and that’s just not true. And so I think we really need to provide some clarity to consumers around that through the Dairy Pride Act and some of those labeling issues.

Another issue that’s kind of near and dear to my heart is trade. We’re moving towards 20% of our milk in this country being exported. And I think that we really need to make sure that we’re retaining and growing our access to markets. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I’d hate for us to lose some of the progress that we’ve made if dairy becomes a pawn in some of these geopolitical disagreements.

And then also sustainability. That’s kind of going to be a big part of the farm bill. I think everybody wants to be able to do our part in making a better environment for our future generations, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And farmers really are the experts at doing more with less. We’re constantly gaining efficiencies. I don’t think we can be expected to continue to shoulder that burden alone. It’s going to take some collaboration in order to make the changes that we’d like to be able to do things like putting carbon back in our soils and improving our air and water quality. So we’re going to need some support from our legislators to make that happen.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So those are also pretty important and worthy topics. Beyond dairy farming, is there another message that you want to be able to share with lawmakers as someone who’s living in rural America?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: I just would like to remind lawmakers that at the end of the day, if we want to retain the talented young people that we have in our rural communities, we really need to make sure that we’re investing in those communities, making sure we have things like good schools, access to healthcare, quality and affordable childcare. And I think that’s all going to be important. And I think rural communities are the backbone of our country, and keeping those strong is going to help the entire food system.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Well, and a lot of fixtures of those rural communities are the local dairy co-op. You’re a Prairie Farms member. What would you tell other beginning farmers about the value of being engaged at the co-op level and beyond through programs like the YCs?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: I think it is important that we look beyond our own farms. It’s easy to just be in our individual bubbles. And obviously there’s so many things that we’re dealing with every single day. It’s hard to take that step beyond the farm gate to be involved. But at the end of the day, if we don’t do it, our voices aren’t going to be heard. And we want to be in the rooms where decisions are being made. And so I think it is really important for us, if we can, to take a step beyond our own farms and make sure that the whole dairy industry is going to be successful long term. And I think that’s what programs like the Young Cooperators are really doing is helping ensure the future leadership of the dairy industry.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Anything else our listeners need to know today?

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: One topic that I’ve always found important is the role of women in leadership in agriculture. There’s been some research done at the University of Wisconsin that shows that women only make up about 7% of rural cooperative leadership in the U.S., but we also know that women are at least 30% of decision makers on farms, and that number is just continuing to grow. So I just want to encourage other women to take that step. I know it’s kind of hard to … Sometimes you don’t necessarily feel qualified, but if we don’t do things that we’re maybe slightly underqualified for, we’re never going to grow ourselves. And I think it’s really important to have our voices heard. So just want to encourage everybody to know that they can be involved in leadership and make a difference.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We’re speaking with Lorilee Schultz of Orangeville Illinois, who is a member of the Prairie Farms Cooperative, and this year’s chair of NMPF’s Young Cooperators Program. Lorilie, thanks so much for joining us today.

Lorilee Schultz, Mil-R-Mor Farms: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: To learn more about NMPF’S National YC program, go to our website and look for it under programs. And for more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcast, and Amazon Music under the name Dairy Defined. We’ll talk again soon.