Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast, and happy National Co-op Month. In case you didn’t know, October is the month when the cooperative movement, more than a century old in the United States, is celebrated. If you’re not sure whether you’re a member of a co-op, think about it. One third of all Americans are, and whether it’s a credit union, your local hardware store, your electricity provider, or one of thousands of other businesses and services, you likely interact with a co-op every day. They even have their own hall of fame, and that brings us to today’s guest. Rich Stammer, the semi-retired former CEO of AgriMark, an NMPF member cooperative, is a member of the Cooperative Hall of Fame for the dedication he showed to building communities and encouraging the self-help volunteering spirit of cooperatives during his time there. Rich, thanks for joining us.
Richard Stammer: Thank you for having me, Alan.
Alan Bjerga: What does it take to get into a hall of fame? It usually implies some sort of excellence. For a cooperative, what is excellence?
Richard Stammer: I wish I could answer the question of how you get in the Hall of Fame. I mean, there’s so many great people in the co-op movement, it’s really an honor to be in there. Why I’m in there, I can’t tell you. I’ve been dedicating my life to co-ops and been very involved, but you need a lot of advocates, I guess, who recognize that. To answer your question, what’s excellence for a co-op, that’s really an easier question. It’s serving the needs of your members. We exist for our members and we’re there to serve a need. Basically co-ops were all founded because individuals had a need, a need for banking services, a need for marketing services, a need to buy stuff.
Alan Bjerga: And dairy, historically, is heavily reliant on cooperatives. I think it’s 85% of US milk is marketed through a co-op. How does that contribute to some of the uniqueness of dairy within agriculture? Because a lot of other commodities don’t have that history.
Richard Stammer: I would say it’s somewhat the other way around, it’s the uniqueness of dairy that has contributed to us being so co-op heavy, rather than co-ops being there… Or dairy forming co-ops, there was a real need in dairy because of lots of the uniqueness of dairy products, very highly perishable products, seasonality of consumption and demand. I mean, we use the old sell it or smell it, so you had all these dairy farmers making this product every single day of the year, that they had to find a market for. The buyers of milk, they would need it sometimes, sometimes they wouldn’t, and so there was a real need for co-op, for dairy farmers to get together to be able to sell their milk and be able to sell it every single day of the year, even though there wasn’t a demand for it.
Other commodities, like grains, you can store them. You harvest once a year, you can store it. Dairy, you make milk every day, you have to sell it every day. Also in dairy, because it was such a staple of nutrition for people, the government got heavily involved in dairy to be sure that there was an adequate supply for consumers. So they formed price support programs and marketing orders and things like that, and dairy farmers needed representation in all those things, individual farmers couldn’t represent themselves. So it was really those needs of dairy to have a market for their milk every day of the year, and to represent dairy farmers, it’s why they formed cooperatives and why cooperatives are so important.
Alan Bjerga: When you look at the ideals stated for cooperatives, self-help, self responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, solidarity, that sounds awfully high minded and idealistic compared with some of your day to day, maybe less lofty challenges. How do they work together?
Richard Stammer: First of all, without the cooperative model, you couldn’t have all those things working together. But sometimes it’s a real challenge, I’ll tell you when you talk about things like legislation or federal orders or things like that, because we’re advocating for our members, we may actually be advocating for some things which aren’t the best for our cooperative business. They may make our cooperative business less profitable, but we’re there first of all to represent the members. And so we do that, we represent their interests first. Being a marketing cooperative, which AgriMark and Cabot are, we have to meet the needs of consumers as well as our members, and sometimes those needs are in conflict with each other, okay? So you have to balance all of that, that need of, you got to satisfy your consumers, you have to satisfy your members. You have to be able to sell your products to the consumers to satisfy the need to market your members’ milk. So at times you juggle a lot of balls to make it all happen.
Alan Bjerga: You were talking about Congress and legislation a moment ago. You hear calls sometimes, periodically in Congress or other organizations, to weaken cooperatives. What would be the implications of those types of measures, specifically in the context of dairy?
Richard Stammer: The real threat to us, to all cooperatives, is when Congress starts talking about messing with the Capper-Volstead provisions of cooperatives. That’s what allows farmers to get together to jointly market their products, and it allows co-ops to get together to jointly market their products to represent their members. That would be a huge blow to all co-ops, particularly to dairy, though. Thing of National Milk is we can get together and work on stuff, and not have to worry about antitrust things and stuff like that. If you eliminated our Capper-Volstead immunities, that would be a huge threat to all co-ops. Particularly to dairy, I think, since we’re so co-op heavy.
Alan Bjerga: Discussing Capper-Volstead, a piece of legislation that turned 100 years old just this year.
Richard Stammer: Yep.
Alan Bjerga: Your career hasn’t been going on quite that long, Rich.
Richard Stammer: It seems like it, but…
Alan Bjerga: But you’re talking about some bedrock principles here and I’d be very interested in your thoughts as far as the role of the co-op and the service of the co-op, and how it has evolved over the course of your career, which is probably closing on to about half the length of the Capper-Volstead Act.
Richard Stammer: Yes. I would say co-o s are just as important or maybe more important, as they were 50 years ago, but certainly the role of co-ops has changed immensely over that period of time. 50 years ago, we were mainly taking our farmers’ milk and selling it to somebody else. We were sort of bargaining co-ops. We may have had balancing plants to balance the market, but otherwise we were basically selling the milk to other people and representing our farmers in legislation, and things like that. Today co-ops, there’s fewer co-ops, they’re bigger, but we’re heavily involved in manufacturing. A lot of the consumer products companies really exited manufacturing to concentrate on marketing, and co-ops picked up that role of manufacturing. So co-ops today, dairy co-ops are heavily invested in manufacturing, which, providing a member a market for our members’ milk.
When it comes to the representation side of the business, back 50 years ago, we had a price support program. Basically the price farmers got was determined by the price support program. And the big role of co-ops was really working with dairy policies, and primarily on the price support program, fighting to get higher price supports and things like that. It was back then when marketing orders were formed. And again, to move the milk, be sure consumers got their supply in milk, farmers were treated equitably, and co-ops were heavily involved in the market order program. So the price support program has gone away, there is no more price support program. So something we were so involved with 50 years ago, which took up a huge amount of time, it’s not even there anymore.
Alan Bjerga: But it sounds like there’s a lot of other areas where the co-op is more important than ever.
Richard Stammer: Right, and so that role is switched. We still have farm bills, but they’re not as dramatic as they used to be back at that period of time. But a lot of representation of co-ops has switched now, as more and more people moved away from the farm, didn’t know anything about farming, co-ops have played a bigger role in informing consumers about dairy and farmers, and what they do. We have attacks from animal rights groups. Dairy farmers take great care of their animals, but getting that message out to consumers with all the negative things that come down, is an important role of co-ops. We have a program, our farm program, basically to ensure animals are treated right, to have a measurable way of animal care, and to get that message out to consumers about how well we care for our animals.
You have more and more challenges on the environmental side of our business. And dairy co-ops have become very involved in sustainability efforts, and again, showing how sustainable dairy farms are and how we take care of our land. We are much more involved in getting messages out to consumers, representing farmers and environmental laws, and there’s so many areas. Labeling, we have imitation dairy products coming up, and so we have representation in labeling, we have representation in environmental laws. That whole area probably wasn’t really there 50 years ago, but that’s changed tremendously.
50 years ago, nobody in a dairy even cared about the international market. I mean, we were a domestic industry. Today we’re heavily reliant on the international market for our price, and dairy co-ops have, again, played a big role in trying to get equal trade agreements, being involved in trade themselves. So they’re still very important today as a market for our member milk, but they serve so many other roles.
Alan Bjerga: Let’s talk a little bit, before we let you go, Rich, about some of your roles. Where are you up to these days?
Richard Stammer: Well, I’m mostly retired. Right now I’m heavily involved in going to grand kid sports. I have twin sons who are seniors in high school, who play basketball, soccer, and baseball, so we’re were making all their games, maybe the last year. And I have a granddaughter who’s also heavily involved in sports, so we do a lot of that.
Alan Bjerga: We’ve been speaking with Rich Stammer, a former CEO of AgriMark, and a member of the Cooperative Hall of Fame. That’s it for today’s podcast. Thanks a lot, Rich.
Richard Stammer: Thank you, Alan.
Alan Bjerga: We have, by the way, on entire page dedicated to cooperatives on our website, nmpf.org. Just go to our about menu and click on about cooperatives. For more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to it on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the podcast name, Dairy Defined. Happy Co-Op Month.