Dairy Academy offers intense training
The men, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, crowd into the double-16 parlor at Joe and Vern Becker’s dairy, a 1,000-cow commercial operation just north of Litchfield in central Minnesota.
Most of the men have been front-line dairy case managers selling milk, cheese and ice cream at big-box grocery stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex for years, some for decades. But only a few have ever stood at the business end of a working dairy cow.
John Fetrow, a University of Minnesota veterinarian, pulls one of the milker units into the pit so the visitors can insert a finger into the teat cup. A look of amazement spreads across each face as the gentle pulsations squeeze the men’s fingers.
Welcome to the Midwest Dairy Association’s Dairy Academy for Retail Excellence.
The daylong event starts at 7 a.m. with three hours of classroom PowerPoint presentations, con-tinues with a tour of a modern cheese plant and a lunch with dairy farmers, and culminates with a tour of a commercial dairy farm.
"Retailers are the first line of communication with shoppers, and they have the opportunity to communicate milk’s message, taking it from the farm to the fridge," says Cindy Sorensen, vice president of strategic information and relationship management for the Midwest Dairy Association.
Front-line retail workers often get questions about animal care, sustainability, on-farm practices and differentiation between products, she says, but few have actual on-farm or in-plant
experience. The Dairy Academy gives them the opportunity to see, touch, and yes, even smell, during in-person visits, Sorensen says.
The information they gain can be transforming. "Most of my colleagues had no idea of all the regulations and oversight farmers have to go through," says David Reed, dairy and frozen food manager for County Market in North Branch, Minn.
"Many of them thought there would be ways around the regulations, especially when it comes to antibiotics. But when we learned of the testing required and that farmers have to pay for the whole load of milk if a residue happens, [we realized] farmers are going to make sure they’re providing good-quality milk," he adds.
To emphasize that point on the Litchfield dairy tour, Fetrow asked one of the herd owners, Vern Becker, how many cows were being treated with antibiotics. "Today, we have three cows in the hospital pen, waiting for the antibiotics to clear," was the response.
"Three out of 1,000," Fetrow repeats, adding: "There’s probably more of us on this tour today on antibiotics than the cows here. It’s just not true that dairies are awash in antibiotics."
Myth busters like this are the core reason Midwest Dairy offers these academies for retailers. The one held in Litchfield in late April was the seventh event that the group has conducted.
The event hosted nearly three dozen dairy department managers from Jerry’s Enterprises, which operates CUB Foods, County Market and Jerry’s Foods stores in the Upper Midwest and Florida.
Midwest Dairy is the regional dairy promotion group for 10 states stretching from North Dakota and Minnesota south to Arkansas and Illinois, along with the eastern third of Oklahoma. The region represents 12% of the nation’s milk supply (23.5 billion pounds), 9,500 dairy farmers and 38 million consumers.
The daylong learning events are typically hosted at or near a dairy processor within driving distance of a large metropolitan area. Previous academies have been offered in Des Moines and Kansas City.
Prior to each event, registered attendees are asked to complete an online survey of their basic dairy knowledge. They are also urged to provide questions and areas of concern so the lecturers can meet their needs.
A survey is sent a week or two after the event to gauge learning progress. Attendees are awarded a certificate of dairy excellence if they score at least 80%. "Over all of our academies, we’ve seen a 12.3 point increase in test scores pre-event versus post-event, and we’ve never had anyone fail to reach the 80% level," Sorensen says.
For one attendee, the academy reaffirmed much of what he already knows. Dale Spielman grew up on one of the larger dairy operations in Connecticut, though he’s 20 years removed from the farm."
Spielman manages the dairy and frozen foods departments of Lake Street CUB Foods, a 62,000-sq.-ft. store in south Minneapolis. "We have a very diverse clientele, about 20% Hispanic, 20% Somali, and everybody else a wide mixture," he says.
Grocery competition from other big-box stores, convenience stores and now even drug stores is intense. Anything that helps him better relate to his customers is a plus.
At the Dairy Academy, Spielman met Charles Krause, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Buffalo, Minn. Krause and his family are pictured on a dairy processor banner ad that Spielman has in his store.
"It was nice to actually meet Charles," Spielman says. "Now, when customers ask me if these photos are real farmers, I can say that I know who these people are. That’s a good thing."