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3 Open Minutes with David Pelzer

Published on 11 March 2016

David Pelzer has served dairy farmers as a promotion and checkoff staff member since 1993. During his 20-plus-year career in dairy promotion, he’s worked with hundreds of dairy farmer board members and enacted programs that drive confidence in and consumption of dairy products.

Pelzer recently retired from his full-time role as a senior vice president with Dairy Management Inc. Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley talked with him about the accomplishments of his career, many of which occurred behind the scenes, and the lessons he would pass on to future dairy industry promoters.



Explain what dairy promotion roles you filled during your career.

PELZER: I actually began working with DMI in producer communications. Later came responsibilities with issues management. I got involved in, and David Pelzerhelped develop, the Telling Your Story program with dairy farmers across the country. The program included training about how to talk to the media and how to approach community relations such as farm tours.

About half of my career has been spent in crisis preparedness. I headed up crisis preparedness for DMI and worked with others in the dairy industry to create crises preparedness plans. Over the last 12 years, I’ve led our crisis drills on various scenarios.

What one or two words would you use to describe the changes you’ve seen in dairy promotion over the last 20-plus years?

PELZER: Increased engagement. When I say engagement that, first of all, means increased interpersonal and direct relationships with dairy farmers. Secondly, we’ve seen increased engagement with industry organizations and with consumers.


What was one of your most memorable dairy promotion experiences?

PELZER: I once had to do a media training in upstate New York in the middle of winter. The night before the training, it snowed about a foot. The training was supposed to start at 10 a.m., and we thought, “We are going to have to cancel it.”

We were on the verge of packing up everything when six or seven dairy farmers came traipsing in, apologizing that they were 20 minutes late after driving for two hours in the snow. They stayed the whole day and then went back to their farms to deal with their individual situations.

That experience showed me two things: First, the dedication of dairy farmers. When they say they are going to do something, they are going to do it. Second, the value they placed on being able to tell their story to the public.

What impresses you most about the dairy farmer board members you have worked with?

PELZER: Their devotion to and the support of the dairy promotion program. They are not just busy people; they are swamped. Yet even with all the business they have of running a farm day-to-day, business with their co-ops and often other community board member business, they are able to find the time and devotion to take care of national, and many times state and regional, dairy promotion business items. It’s very impressive.


Over the past 20 years, I think the dairy promotion boards have become more inclusive and diverse. In other words, we have a broader mix of age, gender and farm size diversity represented today than we had back in the ’90s when I began working with dairy promotion. They are a more representative cross-section of dairy farms today. I think that is a healthy thing.

For those who potentially could be board members in the future, what advice would you have for dairy farmers about what it takes to be a good dairy promotion board member?

PELZER: I would say a good board member just doesn’t attend meetings but actively participates in them. That includes preparation work ahead of time. They take the time to study the complexity of the program because the world is very complex and the dairy industry is very complex. Therefore, the dairy promotion program, in order to have an impact, must also be complex.

They take the time to have conversations with senior board members or veteran board members to understand the role of the promotion program. They remain strategic and do not micromanage it. They also challenge the staff to accomplish more and to be able to show the impact of the programs through metrics.

Maybe the most important thing they do is to be a conduit in the dairy farmer community. By that, I mean they bring questions and concerns that individual dairy farmers have to the DMI board. They also take the checkoff promotion story back to dairy farmers across the country.

What will you miss most about your job?

PELZER: I am really going to miss working directly with the farmers and communicating to the public the important work they do. Dairy farmers not only bring milk to the table every day, but they help protect our land and water, they take care of their animals, and they are good citizens and community members.

I consider the dairy farmer story one of the greatest under-told stories. I think the more the public finds out about all the work, effort, attention and care dairy farmers bring to put milk on the table, the more they will appreciate dairy farmers. I will miss that, being able to work with them on telling that story.

If you could shout from the rooftops something you know about dairy farmers that isn’t well understood by the general public, what would it be?

PELZER: It sounds really basic, but I have talked to enough consumers to know that it is not always understood that a dairy farm today is a family business as well as a way of life. It’s hard work to run that business, but it can be immensely satisfying. The people who operate and work on dairy farms are tremendously dedicated to doing a good job.

And I would also want to tell them that most dairy farms are driven by values. They are driven by integrity, hard work, commitment to improve and community service.

For example, this past winter I saw a story about this one dairy farm that not only took care of all their cows and gave them extra feed prior to a blizzard, but the day after the storm hit, they got out their snowplow and plowed so people in the adjoining community could get in and out of their homes.

That is just like above and beyond the call of duty. We have seen that, not just in one case, but in areas all around the country. Dairy farmers don’t think twice about wanting a pat on the back or anything. It is just what they do as a good neighbor. Those would be the types of things I would really like to tell the public that dairy farmers do on a regular basis.

Tell me about an accomplishment in your career you are proud of.

PELZER: It was developing the Telling Your Story program.

If you start adding up the number of dairy farmers and other industry people we’ve touched and trained with that program, it is about 10,000, including social media trainings, which are becoming increasingly important in communicating to consumers today.

That is a pretty sizable number we have been able to reach. We’ve got great momentum to continue that. More dairy farmers are doing that activity, not just as a nice-to-do thing but as a have-to-do, critical thing for the survival of their dairy farms today.

What’s some project you’re leaving in the middle of that you would have liked to see through to the end?

PELZER: We are still working on our crisis preparedness. That is important because it is not like you can start preparing for a crisis when you are in the middle of one. There are different types of industry-wide crises to prepare for that can really have an effect on consumer trust and consumer demand.

For example, we’re now in the second year of a crisis-preparedness program on animal care. It has to do with how we respond to allegations posed by undercover videos and animal rights activists. The thing we need to do in order to best respond to this type of crisis as an industry is: We need alignment all the way from the farm to the end buyer.

Even though we got a lot done in 2015, a lot of work has yet to be done. I have to tell you that there are major dairy organizations, including major dairy co-ops, in this country that currently do not have a crisis communications plan to respond to the public in the event of a crisis.

That is not acceptable. If we had any one organization or one company that is unprepared, that means as an industry we are unprepared.

Helping to drive the appreciation for more crisis preparedness is something I am still very passionate about. I am actually doing part-time consulting for DMI on the crisis-preparedness program in 2016.

What is it you won’t miss about the job?

PELZER: I don’t know how many miles I have put on since I started working for dairy promotion. I don’t miss the intense travel and the increasing difficulty of travel today. I won’t miss a lot of the meetings too.

What do you feel the dairy industry must do to maintain a bright future?

PELZER: As an industry, we have a great set of core values. That starts with dairy farmers. We must remain committed to those core values. The more the public knows about those values and how they are instilled into milk production, the better off we will be.

Also, we absolutely need to work together. Farmers, veterinarians, cooperative extension, co-ops, processors and retailers – we all need to be able to unite together under common goals in order to maintain and move toward a bright future.  PD

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