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Dairying is like juggling knives while riding a unicycle

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 12 April 2010

Lee photo 1

The act of juggling objects in the air is not a skill possessed by every human. Yet, most of us can relate as we’ve juggled multiple actions, issues and challenges simultaneously.



Last month at the PDPW Business Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Dan Thurmon, a professional juggler, taught an audience member the skill of throwing and catching in a rhythmic order. The secrets, he provided, are as follows:

Action required
Taking from the conference theme “Imagine Dairy, Real Results,” Thurmon said imagination is a catalyst, but it is action that will determine what will happen.

Action begins with commitment. If you are serious about transformation and change, you have to promise to do it. “Once you do, you’ll feel a new level of commitment,” Thurmon said after promising the crowd to do a back flip on stage.

He went on to say change is not about one big, bold action; it’s about small actions over time.

In a specialty session at the conference, Jay Waldvogel with Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) explained how the U.S. dairy industry has taken small steps in the global export market. In the last decade, the U.S. moved from the country that thought of exports as a dumping ground to selling within that market. The next step is marketing and becoming a country that can be in that marketplace.


In every change there will be setbacks, but the first challenge is always the same, Thurmon said – getting a grip on the new situation you are faced with.

There are more people in more places with more money. In the last decade one-half billion people went from poverty to middle class. In the next decade another three to five million people are going to make that move. Of course, there’s going to be some hiccups along the way, but that doesn’t change how it will end.

China has been building the equivalent of the city of Chicago every six months for more than a decade.

“That is unlikely to change. It may pause, but will eventually keep going,” Waldvogel stressed.

The U.S. dairy industry is still dominated domestically, but is also influenced by the global market. “More people want your product,” he said. They are looking for nutrition and know that milk is healthy.

Waldvogel said he believes cheese consumption in the world will increase, but we can’t expect other countries to consume it the same as the U.S. Europeans consume table cheese while the U.S. eats it as an ingredient. When it enters Asia, cheese will be served Asian-style.


“We need to think more about what consumers want more than what we have to sell,” he said. Right now the U.S. does not produce what the global customer wants.

One last tip on action from Thurmon: “If the ball is in your hand, throw it. Take action when you have the opportunity.”

Waldvogel questioned, “Who will come forward with the supply?” Europe’s imposed quota will keep them out of the game for the next five years. There’s a limited amount of land in New Zealand. In Australia, dairy ranks 19 out of 20 in the ranking for most important water uses, just above cotton. China can’t go from nothing to a powerhouse overnight.

“There is only one place in the world that can turn dairy off and on in the near term,” he said. “The U.S. is the marginal supply and the world knows it.”

What action can dairymen take? First, Waldvogel said, something needs to be changed with our pricing structure. The support price, albeit a saving factor to some farm operations, as it currently works, takes the U.S. out of the world market because it evades trust from our global customers. We need to find a way to get around it and find an alternative. Second, producers are too focused on money made at the farm level, and not money made in processing. Dairymen in other countries have invested more money downstream in the industry and therefore have better control of their destiny.

It’s in the drop
Nobody’s perfect, and occasionally while juggling, balls will drop. When that happens, keep your composure and the recovery will be easier, advised Thurmon.

Drops aren’t necessarily bad. It’s the drops that cause you to question. If everything stays in the air, you continue doing what you’re doing. When you drop, you stop to reassess the situation and sometimes question if you should even pick it back up.

The price fallout of 2009 caused a lot of dairymen to assess what had previously been circling in constant motion. As certain items fell from the rotation, some were picked up and put back into play, while others were left on the ground.

Because of the choices made last year, Dr. David Kohl, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics at Virginia Tech , said in his opening keynote address that better farms will be better (or more successful) before bigger farms will be better. He added that tough times are the best times to build for long-term success.

Operating off balance
Many people are seeking to live a balanced life. According to Thurmon, that is completely unrealistic. It can never be achieved and if, for a brief moment it can, it can’t be sustained. Therefore, he has decided to live life “off balance, on purpose.” Similar to riding his unicycle, this method requires him to lean off-balance in the direction he chooses. In doing so, he’s usually presented with an opportunity to improve himself.

When living off-balance, it’s imperative to manage only one thing at once.

“You must keep looking up, even in the midst of chaos and confusion,” he said. By looking up you stay focused on your goal of where you want the ball to go.

Michael Stolp of Northwest Farm Credit reminded people that values don’t have to be abandoned when the world turns upside down. Values can influence what direction to take when faced with a Y in the road. Values can be set on an individual basis and by a business.

Be aware of obstacles
Thurmon recalled asking a professional mountain biker how he navigates a difficult trail. The answer: “If you see the tree, you’ve already hit it, dude.” The lesson: Be aware of the obstacles, but look forward, around the obstacle, and down the path.

Align the pieces
When something new arises, like adding a fourth item to your rotation of three, Thurmon said to bring all the components in line with one another. Many times you may need to learn a new pattern, but be sure to build from the strengths you had before.

Some people fear upcoming challenges. The thing to remember, he said, is they are usually different when they actually arrive, and in the end may not be as daunting as what was once thought.

Kohl outlined some challenges the dairy industry will face in the next 15 years:

• 70 percent of North American farmland will change hands by 2025

• One size will not fit all. There will be local, natural, organic; traditional; and large complex businesses

• Special interest groups and consumers will drive business models

• Media and information technology will present management challenges

• Women and minorities will drive business models

• Economic moderation will occur in G-20 nations

• Emerging economics from Brazil, Russia, India and China

• Volatility will be the new normal

Another level of difficulty
Just when you think what you’re doing now is difficult, then it’s time to add something new, said Thurmon as he pulled a hatchet, battle axe and cane knife from behind the podium.

Before climbing onto his unicycle and wielding the knives through the air, he provided a few more tips.

• When you take on more risk, you need to better define your goals.

• Each challenge must be handled in a unique way.

• Let go when things are out of your hand and focus on what you can control.

• Remember, you must let go in order to get a grip on the knife falling towards you.

• Be totally committed. When you love what you’re doing the challenges feel easier. PD

PHOTO : Motivational speaker Dan Thurmon gave tips about juggling as he entertained PDPW Business Conference attendees by juggling a hatchet, battle axe and cane knife. Photo by Karen Lee.

Read another recap of the PDPW Conference by Karen and view more photos here .

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