There is no denying it—the conversation around dairy has changed. Consumers are now more interested than ever in where their food comes from – including how the animals are treated on the farm, what the environmental effects of farming are and how dairy products get from farm to store.
National Dairy Month is the perfect opportunity for farmers to open their doors and make a stronger connection with the community—highlighting dairy’s many benefits.
To provide some tips and best practices, we’ve asked farmers from across the Midwest to share insights on what they’ve done to connect with consumers and bridge the farm to table gap. Whether you are a dairy farmer looking to host your first community event, or you’re a seasoned pro and are simply looking for some ideas on how to take your event to the next level, we hope these insights provide inspiration as you connect with your community this June and beyond.
“Whether during National Dairy Month or any time during the year, it’s important for dairy farmers to share their story through opening their farms to consumers,” said Lucas Lentsch, CEO of Midwest Dairy. “A visit to a farm is a perfect way to joyfully bring dairy to life and give consumers an excellent dairy experience.”
Among the farm families we spoke to include:
- Jennifer Holle: Northern Lights Dairy – Mandan, North Dakota
- Melissa Reed: Hildebrand Dairy – Junction City, Kansas
- Pat Bakeberg: Goldview Farms – Waverly, Minnesota
- Matt Berning: Berning Dairy – Galena, Illinois
- Doug Ode: Royalwood Farms – Brandon, South Dakota
- Aubrey Fletcher: Edgewood Dairy and Edgewood Creamery – Purdy, Missouri
Question: How does your event make a difference to the community or to the dairy community?
Holle: These days, most communities are removed from the farm and people have no idea anymore where their food comes from. Therefore, we try to be very open and transparent during our events so that people can see that we are not only providing a nutritious, high quality product, but we do so by using the best practices and technologies for the safety and happiness of our animals.
Bakeberg: Our Breakfast on the Farm event brings the urban community and the dairy community together. Kids these days are so far removed from the farm, most have never seen a cow in person, let alone pet one. It’s a day to highlight the dairy industry, show the people how well the animals are cared for and how much work really goes into a farm.
Question: Why is it important to host an event during National Dairy Month, or other times during the year?
Reed: If we don’t tell the story of our farm we’re leaving the door open for someone else to tell the story for us. By opening our farm to the public, we’re showing transparency, sharing stories and giving people a good feeling when they think of dairy farming.
Bakeberg: For the first event we held, we were expecting around 500 people and well over 750 people attended. It has continued to grow every year and last year we had around 2,000 people attend. The need is there to have conversations with the public and they want to learn. Many of the kids believe the chocolate milk comes from the brown cows. Or, when asked where milk comes from, they say the grocery store. Anytime you can capture the attention of the public and show them the benefits of dairy products, it is time well spent.
Berning: It is important because it connects people with agriculture. It is an opportunity for the community to not only see what goes into farming first-hand, but to also have a hands-on experience on the farm.
Question: Can you share a few tips or best practices for other dairy farmers who might be interested in hosting an event for National Dairy Month?
Holle: Talk to a farmer that has already done an event and follow in their footsteps. We have helped a few other farmers around North Dakota host their own events by sharing tips.
Reed: Facebook is a powerful tool and by far the best way we market our events. We also suggest planning on the weather being hot and sultry. That said, we’ve moved our Dairy Month event from the afternoon to the evening and have seen interest in our event go way up compared to past years.
Bakeberg: Work with your state or regional dairy association – they have resources that can help. Also, having a good core event committee is crucial.We are on our 10th year, and we as a committee knowwhat needs to be done. Work with your industry leaders (such as your nutritionist or vet) to help out and get additional resources. And the last key: volunteers, volunteers, volunteers! It takes a lot to make the day go smoothly. We work with our local FFA and 4-H to help with the breakfast.
Berning: We talked to the dairy farm who hosted this event last year to hear how they did it—what worked and what didn’t, and we’re using those tips for this event. And while this is the first Dairy Month event we’ve hosted, we have hosted several school groups before, and we learned to keep it simple.
Fletcher: Be as prepared as possible. Plan for more people than you think will come and have everything set up in advance so you can do any last-minute tweaks. Also, you will get off-the-wall questions, just be honest and informative. People will get excited when they see cows and or calves. Have food. Whether you invite food trucks to the farm or set up your own, people get hungry. Keeping them on the farm as long as possible only increases the chances of educating them about dairy. Since we have the creamery and make cheese, we serve up grilled cheese sandwiches and fried cheese curds each year. They are a huge hit!
Question: In your experience, what has worked best? What hasn’t worked as well as you expected? Why?
Holle: Reaching out to local businesses and vendors is a great place to start. About four months before our event we send a letter to all our businesses and vendors asking for their help – whether it be providing door prizes, setting up a table at our event, monetary, or just to share any ideas they have. Don’t try to do too many things on the day of the event. Focus on showcasing the farm.
Bakeberg: We do guided tours around the farm and make stops at different educational booths. We create a punch card for the kids and if they stop at every booth and get the card stamped they get a free gift before they leave. This encourages them to go to the different booths and learn about various aspects on the farm and about dairy.
Berning: Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm kids or people with information, rather give them an opportunity to experience the farm, get close to the animals and make it as much of a hands-on experience as possible. Let them touch the cows, feel the feed, feed the cows and let them ask lots of questions. It’s the personal experiences that allow them to connect with agriculture and learn about where their food comes from.
Ode: We try to add little things every year to freshen it up and keep people coming back. Last year, we held a raffle and gave out several pounds of butter.
Fletcher: Our most successful farm events happen when we can have small group discussions. We have farm tours all day, where 30 people can ride our tour trailer. This smaller group allows us to be able to answer questions and have dialogue back and forth about the farm or dairy.
Question: Do you have any specific examples of something you did, or feedback you’ve received on how your event was able to make stronger connection with the community and highlight dairy’s many benefits, whether it be taste, nutrition or on-farm practices?
Holle: Let the experience be as “high touch” as you can. On the tour wagons, you can ask, “Who likes the ice cream?” And then explain how the milk goes from the cows, to the plant, to their house and they can make all the connections because they see the whole process while on the farm. We have a lot of displays since we have people of all ages there, they all need to understand the full circle.
Reed: Visitors ask us a variety of questions about their milk. We love that they are turning to us, the farmer, for answers about topics including animal welfare, milk quality and antibiotic usage. We’d much rather visit with them regarding these topics than have them searching online where they may stumble upon false or inaccurate information.
Bakeberg: One stop we have on our tour is a station focusing on milk quality. We have the local state inspector educate the public what goes into making sure that milk is the safest product out there. We also get good feedback on the vet station. They educate how we take care of the animals and us strict guidelines with antibiotics.
Ode: Guests often say their parents were dairy farmers or farmers in general, and how we do things today is different than it was 30 or 40 years ago, which allows us to have discussions about how things were done then versus how it is done today. Cows are cared for much better today – we use fans, sand beds, and misters to keep them cool. We milk them three times a day, so there is less stress on the udders.Every load of milk that leaves the farm is checked for antibiotics. The public often doesn’t realize the care, attention and processes we go through.
Fletcher: People from all over come to our event, and it offers the perfect opportunity to share the many benefits of dairy and having dairy as a part of their regular diets. We have great help from Midwest Dairy, who typically set up a fun, informational booth as well as hand out fun and creative dairy-related information. People enjoy going out to the pasture where the cows are grazing. Our farm is quite picturesque, and I feel that helps people feel good about farmers, and we get to share with them our unique on-farm practices.
Question: How has conversations with consumers changed over the years? What were the common questions you used to get 10 years ago versus the common questions you get today?
Holle: Conversations lately have gotten vaguer. Ten years ago, they were more specific because people understood farming a little more. But as the number of dairy farmers has decreased over the years, so has the knowledge of dairy in general. You have to be ready for any type of question.
Bakeberg: Adults like to ask questions about things they have read on social media. From the kids’ aspect, the questions really have not changed. You get the common questions, like does chocolate milk come from those brown cows and why do you take the calf away from the mom?
Ode: Before they were asking about things in the barn, now they are asking about things like tail docking, dehorning, reproductive shots. Questions are also more health conscious than they were before. We get a lot of questions about the milk – how often it’s picked up, where it goes?
Fletcher: When we first started the creamery in 2015, we were flooded with questions about GMOs, hormones and raw milk. The misconceptions about modern-day farming are quite skewed to the general public. When we explained the concepts behind their questions some understood and others less so. We explained to them that we are real farmers and this is our livelihood. We take great care of what we do, or we wouldn’t be able to keep doing it. We still get a few of those questions from time to time, but the majority of people now are interested in how we make cheese and how to milk cows or raise calves.
Question: Any pieces of advice or words of encouragement you can offer farmers who might be hesitant to host an event?
Holle: Get on the phone, talk to a dairy farmer that does events, and just follow in their footsteps. It really isn’t as overwhelming as you may think and as long as you have the basic bases covered, then everyone will have an awesome experience on the farm. Also, lean on your businesses and vendors. Most love to do community work and they will have awesome support and ideas that you can implement.
Reed: While preparing for an event is hard work, the rewards are well worth the efforts. We find the community is far more welcoming of our farm and comfortable with what we do, knowing that we are happy to open our farm to the public.
Bakeberg: Just do it. It’s very rewarding to see the smile on the kids’ faces. It is hard work, but with a good committee it makes it a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Berning: It is so important to get involved and do things for the community, and opening up your farm is a great way to make those connections. Talk to other farmers who have done it and take their advice when it comes to hosting your own on-farm event. That will make it much easier.
Ode: Just do it. It’s hard work, but it’s good to be proactive in showcasing your place and dairy farming as a whole.
Fletcher: Be real and be transparent. Consumers are genuinely curious about their food and where it comes from. With so much false information so easily accessible, be thankful people want to hear straight from the source. And remember no question is a dumb question. Most people have never been on a farm and have no idea how any of it works. If you can help educate one person to choose dairy, I think the entire day is worth it!