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Enhancing member communication through interns

PD Editorial Intern Amanda Meneses Published on 09 August 2013

Some would say the best part about living on their family farm were the discussions of weather, livestock and crop yield around the dinner table. For 18 college students this summer, the dialogue goes from dawn to dusk.

A cooperative with members farming all across the country will inevitably run into challenges in maintaining relationships.

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Under the Organic Valley brand, the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, or CROPP cooperative, discovered a way to enhance relationships with its members while developing young farmers in the process.

Eighteen interns were chosen to be part of the co-op’s first-ever Farmer Support Program. Through farm visits, education and data gathering, the program will sustain the relationship between farmers and the cooperative.

Organic Valley farmers and universities with sustainable agriculture programs received an internal newsletter advertising the new Farmer Support Program internships. Applicants submitted an application and were interviewed before being chosen for the position.

The interns, who are all already engaged in organic farming, reside all around the country from California to New York, representing universities such as California Polytechnic State University – San Luis Obispo, Penn State, Cornell University and more.

Interns are responsible for visiting 10 farms each week in their region throughout the duration of the internship. The interns will visit approximately 80 farms over the summer.

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The farm visits are designed to be a casual interaction between the intern and the farmer. However, the intern is serving an important role in collecting feedback from the farmers and educating farmers regarding the cooperative.

Main goals
The CROOP cooperative plans to accomplish three main goals through the Farmer Support Program. The first goal is to build relationships with farmers and to share with them resources available to them as cooperative members.

“We have a lot of farmers who live quite a ways from Wisconsin,” Allison Walent, manager of the Farm Support Program, says. “The Farmer Support Program helps farmers better access the resources that are available to them.”

Resources – including on-staff veterinarians, a ruminant nutritionist, agronomist and an animal welfare specialist – are all available to give consultations for the co-op’s farmers.

The responsibility of the interns is to share with the farmers these resources so they are aware of the benefits of the cooperative.

The second goal of the program is to develop leadership skills of the interns. The interns are responsible for calling the farmers and setting up visits. By directly engaging with farmers and production agriculture, the co-op hopes to stimulate passion for agriculture in its interns and secure the younger generation as future farmers.

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The final goal, and the most crucial in Walent’s opinion, is to bridge the gap between generations. CROOP cooperative realizes that farmers hold so much knowledge about the organic industry.

The Farmer Support Program is a chance for farmers to share that knowledge with the next generation, fostering a mentor relationship between the farmer and the intern.

Training interns
The Farmer Support Program officially launched June 10, 2013, when all 18 interns met at the Organic Valley headquarters in La Farge, Wisconsin, for their five-day training.

Training topics included how Organic Valley ran as a business, the history, the cooperative structure and the programs and resources available to farmers through the CROOP cooperative.

Erika Holm, a senior at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire and current intern, described the training in one word: intense.

“The training was five days of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. nonstop training,” Holm says. “Then afterwards, we would go out to dinner as a group and continue to talk about Organic Valley.”

In addition to the intense training, interns met with George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, and even ate dinner with the board of directors.

“He [Siemon] was extremely excited about this program,” Holm says. “It was nice to see that even the CEO had an interest in the interns.”

Every week the interns check in with Walent over a half-hour phone call. Interns also have a partnership with pool managers who work from and are familiar with their region.

Additionally, interns are using an online discussion forum where they can all chat together about their experiences on the farm visits to “really create a community and learn from one another,” Walent says.

The experience
Blaise Knapp, a junior at Cornell University and current intern, is looking forward to having a chance to see all the farms in his region, since he has not had the opportunity to explore western New York.

Knapp knows he will gain a greater knowledge of the organic dairy industry in his area by traveling to different farms.

Holm is most looking forward to making connections with the farmers in her region. She knows the connections made this summer will be “an endless resource for when I farm someday.”

Years after graduation, Holm plans to return to Organic Valley to work in the production and operations field. Her ultimate goal is to one day start farming with two of her sisters.

Walent acknowledges the interns will work largely unsupervised, allowing the opportunity for growth as responsible employees.

“They’ll certainly gain knowledge of farming practices in their region. I’m hoping they’ll be able to build personal networks in their regions with the farmers,” Walent says.

“Certainly, they’ll learn from one another about the differences between regions and how farming varies. And I hope they develop some really great soft skills that they’re able to take with them.”

Holm describes the internship best by saying, “It’s really about cultivating a relationship between the farmer and the cooperative.”

Organic Valley has found the answer to the question: How can we bridge the gap between generations in agriculture? The answer lies within the farms the interns will visit this summer through the Farmer Support Program.

Ultimately, Walent hopes the interns “will go on to careers in agriculture and perhaps someday be farmers themselves.” PD

Meneses is an editorial intern with Progressive Dairyman.

00_meneses_amanda

Amanda Meneses
Editorial Intern
Progressive Dairyman

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