Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Hi there, and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Today we’re talking to Val Lavigne, a dairy farmer from Schaghticoke, New York and chairperson this year for NMPF’s National Young Cooperators program. The national YC program has provided up and coming leaders with a better understanding of issues facing farmers and their co-ops. This week, the national YC program is hosting its capstone event in Washington, DC, where YCs will take what they’ve learned over the course of the past year and put it into action at the program’s annual fly-in. But first, let’s catch up with Agri-Mark member, Val Lavigne. Val, thanks for joining us today. Do you mind sharing a little bit about yourself?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: So we are not traditionally dairy farmers from the start. I did grow up, when I was very young my grandparents had a beef farm not far from where I reside now. They do not currently have any beef anymore, but that’s where I got my farming start. When I was around four years old, my parents and myself as an only child started raising calves and heifers on a rented farm up the road from our house. We grew into milking our own herd, 55 cows in a tie stall when I was around eight years old. My parents are first generation farmers, so that’s a really cool experience that I’ve had the pleasure to witness, because it’s not a very easy feat getting into farming these days, especially if you don’t own the farm that you end up being on.
As I grew older, I became super involved in 4-H with multiple different species of animals, but I did always show dairy calves. And I also became a dairy ambassador through our county dairy princess program, which eventually grew into being the county dairy princess, and that’s through our local promotion. And I also ended up being the New York State alternate dairy princess from there.
I attended SUNY Cobleskill as a dairy science major after graduating high school, and I went on to internship on a 800-cow dairy. I spent nine months there learning about being on a different farm. That was one of my parents’ major things when I was growing up. They really wanted me back on the farm, but they wanted me to go experience farming somewhere else to open my mind to different things, learn from different people, and enjoy things on a different scale.
From there. I actually became a milk inspector and field representative for dairy marketing services, where I did milk inspections and also just field representative things for dairy farms in our area.
I was always semi-involved with the farm through that time. And in 2015, my husband and I had twin girls. After a few months of trying to juggle the full-time field rep position and infant twins, we decided that it was too much, and I actually went back to our family farm part-time, did book work. I kept my milk inspector license and did some part-time inspections just for independent farms. That went on until 2018. We had our son and I stayed, again, just part-time on the farm. I started an Instagram and Facebook page called Dairy Gal Val in October 2020, just because my love for promoting the dairy industry was still there and is still there today, and that was the next logical step in my mind for promoting the industry that I have such a strong connection to and love so much.
In September 2021, I ended up back closer to a full-time position on our dairy farm, back with the cows on a regular basis, doing milkings every week, doing all the herd’s work as well as the book work. So that’s where I stand today. We also have a catering business that we’ve had for about nine years now. My husband, my mom, and I are the main employees of the catering business as well. We enjoy doing that. It’s a tricky business to have on the side of a dairy farm as the busy catering season just so happens to coincide with the busy cropping season. So when you’re short staffed on the farm, it does create some trickiness in there. However, we’ve managed to navigate it pretty well so far.
So today we milk about 200 cows in upstate New York near Albany. We are a family run farm. We do have a few employees, but for the most part, the family does a lot of the work and we’re happy to. It’s an industry that I love and something that I’m so happy to be able to raise my three children on the farm with the cows and the other animals, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: What are some of your biggest challenges as a beginning farmer, and how are they different from what a more established producer would face?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: So our main challenges on the farm are right now inflation is just out of control. It’s taking a huge toll. Even with record high milk prices right now, they’re very much offset by the crazy fuel prices and inflation of all the other costs that go into farming. Labor as always is a challenge, and just public misconceptions of the industry are a common challenge always as well. More established farms that aren’t as new as ours, they tend to be a lot larger in this area if they’re more established. They have more labor, so if they have labor turnover, it’s not the family having to just take extra shifts to cover. They usually have other employees that they can roll through, so that makes a big difference.
And also, being a semi-newer farm, as my parents are first generation farmers, we purchased a farm back around the year 2000 and left the farm that we had rented for so long. We have just been consistently trying to upgrade our facilities, upgrade our equipment to keep getting better and growing with the industry as we can.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Your peers elected you as chairperson of the National Young Cooperators program this year. How did you get involved with YCs, and why did you choose to take on a leadership role within the program?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: I became involved with the YCs. For a few years now I have attended some of the webinars that the National Milk YC Program puts on. My mom is actually a member of our local promotion board, and she does travel to the National Milk annual meeting every October, November, and I’ve actually gone with her a few times. So I’ve always had that interest in National Milk. I had the opportunity to apply for a position to go to the National Milk meeting last summer through our Agri-Mark Young Farmers, which I’m super involved in. So I interviewed, got the position, ended up going and learned that there was a chairperson and said, “Well, why not?” It’s one of those things. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so you might as well get what you can get out of it instead of doing the bare minimum. I’ve never been the person to sit back and take a backseat on things, so it was just my natural want to be able to do more, represent the young farmers around the country, and get to basically get as much as I can out of the program as possible.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: You are on Capitol Hill this week meeting with your members of Congress about some pretty important issues for dairy. What do lawmakers need to hear?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: I’m super excited about meeting with the lawmakers this week. Some of the huge things which I think you’re seeing through most other industries as well, inflation, rural infrastructure, labor shortages, immigration are huge things. They affect dairy as well as many other industries around the country. Dairy specific, I believe milk pricing and milk identity is a huge part of being able to give the dairy farmers the tools that they need to be successful in the future and keep feeding America as well as the world.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: As we noted in your intro, you are an Agri-Mark member. What does cooperative membership mean to you? And how does Agri-Mark help you reach your goals?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: Cooperative membership is so important, I feel, as a dairy farmer. It gives us a consistent market for our milk. We don’t have to worry about markets flipping, disappearing, all of a sudden waking up one day and not having a place for our milk to go. It’s a security, and I feel that that’s a huge benefit as farmers are already in a very stressful position just trying to get through every day. So I feel that having that relaxation of knowing, “My milk is going to get picked up. I’m going to get paid for it,” is a huge benefit.
I also really love the fact that our co-op specifically has its own brands. And just knowing that our brand is there, it’s out there, I can tell our neighbors, “Hey, our milk goes to Cabot Dairy products, Cabot cheese, Cabot yogurt, Cabot sour, cream, things like that. So when you’re at the store, if you see Cabot products and you purchase them, you’re supporting your neighbor.” That is a huge thing to me as well, just having that brand and being able to identify as something.
I have been super involved the last few years in the Cabot YC program, or Agri-Mark YC program. I am currently the YC secretary and will be the YC president starting in the summer. We have a really cool conference every year that we get together. We get to have speakers, learn different things about the industry. And I feel that that’s so important as a young farmer to get off the farm, meet other young farmers, learn different things about your co-op, because if you’re just on the farm all the time, you don’t necessarily learn these things that you do get the experience of while going off the farm and hearing these people speak, hearing our staff members speak, things like that.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: What are your future plans?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: Our future plans are to just keep the dairy growing and becoming as profitable as possible, to provide a place where hopefully one day when my husband and I completely take it over and then eventually my kids will take it over, hopefully, is the end goal. I’m hoping that at least one out of the three is interested in coming back to the farm that we have worked so hard to create through my entire life.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: Anything else you’d like to share with our listeners?
Val Lavigne, Unc Brock Farm: My last words of wisdom that I would like to leave is take opportunities as they’re given to you. Don’t leave things that you wish that you had done on the table. Get the most out of what you can in life and never stop learning.
Theresa Sweeney-Murphy, NMPF: And that’s it for today’s podcast. For more on NMPF’s Young Cooperators program, please visit nmpf.org. And for more of the Dairy Defined podcast, you can find and subscribe to us on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the podcast name Dairy Defined. We’ll see you again next time.