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3 Open Minutes with Carla Wardin

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 31 December 2014

Carla wardin

Dairywoman Carla Wardin is one of five farmers recently selected by the U.S. Farming and Ranching Alliance to represent agriculture to consumers in 2015. Wardin was considered for the position after submitting written and video applications and being handpicked as a finalist.

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Online voting and a panel of the alliance’s stakeholders eventually selected her as a member of the second class of representatives, known as Faces of Farming and Ranching. Her role involves public speaking, media interviews and social media outreach. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley interviewed her to find out more about her dairy and her message to consumers.

q

Tell us a little about yourself and your dairy.


WARDIN:
My husband and I did not start out farming. I grew up on this farm, and I’m the sixth generation here. He’s a fifth-generation dairy farmer. We met at and graduated from Michigan State University then worked in the corporate world for six years. When my parents started talking about retiring, we said, “Maybe we want to dairy farm.”

So we quit our jobs in Connecticut and moved back to Michigan. We bought their centennial dairy farm; it was the best decision we’ve ever made. We immediately had children in order to complicate the process. And we now have 7-year-old twin boys and a 4-year-old son. We milk 400 cows now. We grow corn, alfalfa and pasture grass on 185 acres.

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q

What would most people be surprised to learn about you?


WARDIN:
I think most people would be surprised to learn that I wasn’t always on the farm. I went and lived in Connecticut, Illinois and North Carolina and then chose to come back to live somewhere where it is 2 degrees on a November morning. As a result I never complain about the weather because I say I knew what it was going to be like here and I came here on purpose, so no complaining.

q

Tell me how your experiences make you uniquely qualified for your new role.


WARDIN:
I think that it really allows consumers to identify with someone who was away from the farm and then came back. I know what it’s like to not be part of a farm when you’re standing in the grocery store and looking at all the labels and thinking, “What should I buy for me? What should I buy for my family?” Having not been an active producer and then going back to being a producer allows me to have even deeper conversations with people.

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q

Describe your consumer outreach efforts to date.


WARDIN:
When we first moved back, I started having tours come to the farm. We’ve had everyone from preschoolers to Chinese student groups through Michigan State University. And then from there on I wanted to extend my reach, so I started my blog that’s called Truth or Dairy. I promote it on Facebook and on Twitter.

I also really love going into the community. I go into the local schools and do dairy lessons for students, everyone from kids who have parents who are already farmers to kids who have just driven past our house. You know for some that’s the closest they’ve gotten to a farm before.

q

Since you’ve been out amongst consumers, what do you think they have on their minds these days as it relates to dairy?

WARDIN: Adult consumers definitely have different issues on their minds than child consumers. If you talk to any adult consumers, they ask about milk quality, hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, organics, raw milk. Those are the top issues for anybody in dairy. But if you talk to the kids, they ask you questions like: “Where do you buy a cow? I want one.” “Do you still milk cows by hand?” “How do you make milk chocolate?”

In short, adult consumers are providing for their family and they want to know the technical aspects of our product. The kids just want to know how the world works.

q

Why do you think others voted for you to have this position?


WARDIN:
My community, both my physical community and the online community, was so supportive. They not only shared the call for votes, but they said such positive statements about me as a candidate in the process. It really was overwhelming, actually. It was tremendous.

And why they did that, I think, is because the community really is a cheerleader of working with the land and that lifestyle. They like supporting people who are running their family businesses and they enjoy showing that support.

q

What is the most humbling part about being selected for this role?


WARDIN:
When they called me I was driving, and I actually had to pull over because I was so excited. It is incredibly humbling because I know that I am just one of many, many people doing this around the country.

These days farmers talking about what they’re doing and showing what they’re doing and promoting what they’re doing is so widespread. I’m very humbled to be selected as a representative of an industry full of people I respect, and I take that responsibility very seriously.

q

What is the hardest part of being in the limelight?


WARDIN:
I haven’t experienced any of the negative aspects of it yet. The former Faces of Farming and Ranching asked about that in the interview, “Are you ready to be focused on?” I welcome the experience. If you put yourself out there, that’s when people are going to ask you the toughest questions. I’m looking forward to answering those questions.

q

What will you do as one of the Faces of Farming and Ranching?


WARDIN:
We will be speaking to groups at food dialogues. These meetings bring together people in all aspects of the food industry. We will be doing a lot of interviews, speaking engagements and writing articles about current events in food and in farming.

q

You’re following in the footsteps of dairyman Will Gilmer. What do you most respect or admire about how he performed in this role that you now have?

WARDIN: I knew about Will because he was the first dairy farmer who was really popular online and loved what he was doing. Then I had the chance to hear him speak at the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) conference last year.

What I really liked is that he was so inspiring. Not only is he a super nice guy and does a great job promoting his farm, but his talk about how we’re the only ones to get out there and show what we’re doing was definitely an eye-opener. It kind of recharged everybody in the room.

q

What do you think you can do best as that public standard bearer for dairy farmers?

WARDIN: I think that people can really identify with me since I was away from the farm for some time. I wasn’t a producer and then I came back. They can look at me as somebody who knows what it’s like to not know everything about farming, somebody who has questions about farming, somebody who was not part of the process and now is.

Everyone who eats has something that they want to talk about, whether it’s about their food choices, whether it’s about their past farming experiences, or whether they just love animals. Bringing it all around to what’s happening on today’s farm is always going to be an interesting conversation.

q

What impresses you about the organization you now represent, the U.S. Farming and Ranching Alliance?

WARDIN: When I started farming, I wanted something like USFRA to exist because it didn’t yet. Back then in the dairy industry everyone would be talking about promoting our industry. “You have to get your story out there,” they would say. I thought that’s great, but I wish that there were an organization that could help us. And lo and behold, it now exists!

Now that this organization is here it really provides a voice and a venue for farmers to reach people.

q

What is one of your New Year’s resolutions for your outreach efforts?

WARDIN: The first one is to keep everyone updated with what’s happening on our farm on my blog, even when it’s really cold outside. Even then, everyone’s still out there working on the farm. This morning when my husband came home from the farm for coffee he was wearing just jeans.

I said, “Why aren’t you wearing your Carhartt pants?” He said, “Well, it’s not really cold yet. I only wear those when it’s really cold.” And it was 2ºF, so apparently really cold is not 2ºF.

I’ve also resolved to continue my school lessons. There’s almost nothing better than going into schools and talking to kids about farming. PD

walt cooley

Walt Cooley
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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