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How I work: A day in the life of NMPF’s CEO

Jim Mulhern Published on 11 March 2014
Jim Mulhern

Working and living near Washington, D.C., my daily routine differs from that of most Progressive Dairyman readers. But from early morning until late at night, my typical day – like that of many of you – revolves around milk.

Not producing or processing milk, nor dealing directly with cows. My work involves shaping dairy policy in ways that help farmers the most.

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As the new president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, I am engaged daily in a steady stream – sometimes a gusher – of issues regarding milk: its production, processing, pricing, marketing, nutrition content, export, safety, regulation, the health of the animals on our farms, and many other topics.

Sometimes, at day’s end, I am amazed at the incredible journey I’ve traveled through the range of issues involving nature’s most perfect food.

This late January morning begins at 5:15; late, I know, for many dairy farmers, who already have put in a fair amount of work. My work begins with a quick scan on my iPad of two or three ag policy publications that arrived in the wee hours.

Over a quick cup of coffee and a breakfast of yogurt and cereal, I glance through the Washington Post (the local paper whose headlines often have national significance) and Politico (a publication that covers issues on Capitol Hill). Politico has a story on the farm bill deliberations that are currently under way in Congress.

And dairy is in the spotlight today because of the ongoing stalemate between House Speaker John Boehner on one side, and House and Senate agriculture committee leaders on the other. Even before sunrise, I already know it’s going to be another challenging day.

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Next comes my struggle to roust my 17-year-old, Hayley, from her slumber. Any parent of a college-bound high school senior probably knows this drill: She was up way too late studying for today’s two exams and a chapter quiz, and can’t seem to hear her alarm – even though it has been blaring in her ear for nearly five minutes. After a brief “good morning” that assures me she is conscious (and out of bed), I hit the road.

My 14-mile commute to my office in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, can take anywhere from 25 to 50 minutes, depending on the traffic. While it is never fun to be stuck in traffic, I’m fortunate to have a scenic commute along a parkway that follows the Potomac River.

On the drive, I call NMPF’s chairman, Randy Mooney, at his dairy farm in Rogersville, Missouri, to fill him in on farm bill developments from last night and to discuss today’s strategy. The previous week, Speaker Boehner threatened to prevent a vote on the farm bill if it contained the Dairy Market Stabilization Plan (DMSP) supported by NMPF.

The Speaker’s threat reverberated across Capitol Hill and increased the pressure on the farm bill negotiators to develop a compromise. At this point, however, several of our key allies have not succumbed to the Speaker’s pressure.

While we have spent time exploring policy options in the event we can’t secure the DMSP, Randy and I agree we need to stay the course. Wrapping up our call, I decide to make a quick stop before getting to the office this morning.

Even though I don’t have as much time as I’d like, I’m going to hit the gym this morning. Because of the desk and office-bound nature of my job, getting some physical activity in the morning is critical to both my health and sanity.

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I’ve been a long-distance runner my entire adult life, and that’s kept me healthy and in pretty good shape. But it’s also taken a toll on my knees, so I’ve cut back on my running in recent years, and today, I just try to get in a good overall workout.

I get to my office at 8:00 and know immediately I’m in for a long day. John Hollay, my top lobbyist, greets me with the news that immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill have, once again, run into strong headwinds. Despite earlier signals from the House Republican leadership that reform legislation might pass this election year, a backlash within the GOP caucus is throwing a wrench into those plans.

Immigration reform is a top priority for NMPF and our dairy farmer members. Working with other farm groups in the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, last year we secured passage in the Senate of a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that addresses our key issues: securing current workers while providing a pathway for future workers to come to America.

The politics on this issue are different in the House, but our ag-focused coalition has been pushing hard for action this year. While the news on this day is bad, we will not relent in our efforts to resolve this issue – it is too important for agriculture.

One of the lessons you learn when you work with legislators is that accomplishing anything big usually involves a wild roller-coaster ride.

You can’t get too high or too low through the process; you must stay focused on your objectives and keep adjusting your strategy to deal with whatever arises. It’s a lot like what farmers go through dealing with the weather: You can’t control it; you just have to adjust to what it gives you.

My discussion with John is interrupted by a telephone call from Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and one of the four principals involved in the farm bill deliberations.

Congressman Peterson advises me of his concern with Speaker Boehner’s comments about blocking the farm bill over dairy. We compare notes on strategy, and Rep. Peterson reiterates his desire to keep fighting to enact both our margin protection program and the market stabilization plan.

My conversation on this day with Rep. Peterson was followed by meetings with staff to discuss strategy and a series of calls with NMPF’s elected leaders to update them on the farm bill situation.

Mid-morning I met with our trade policy team – Jaime Castaneda and Shawna Morris – for an update on the trade negotiations the U.S. is engaged in with the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This is a very important trade treaty for the U.S. dairy industry because it involves large potential markets like Canada and Japan, and also includes New Zealand.

Following this topic we move into another critically important trade issue: the outrageous effort by the European Union to protect for their exclusive use the common names of many cheeses.

This name-grab could affect made-in-America cheeses like havarti, asiago, feta, gorgonzola, muenster, parmesan and romano, and could limit not only our ability to export these products but also prevent us from using the common names on products here in the U.S.

Jaime and Shawna are organizing meetings with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman for myself and a group of CEOs that are leaders in the Consortium for Common Foods Names, a coalition we are part of that is pushing back hard against this latest European trade barrier ploy.

The meetings will allow us to convey our concerns on this matter to the top U.S. officials engaged in trade talks. We will be urging them to oppose all efforts by the Europeans on this issue.

All of this talk of cheese has made me hungry. It’s time for a quick lunch at my desk while I catch up on some email and wade briefly into the growing stack of issue backgrounders and policy papers that have built up on my desk.

As my afternoon unfolds, a number of unrelated projects by staff need my input. We have launched and are managing a social media campaign to promote the REAL Seal, and I meet with the staff to review plans and decide on future promotion efforts.

Next, I meet with my communication vice president, Chris Galen, and Anuja Miner, the executive director of the American Butter Institute, to prepare for an upcoming interview Anuja will do with Fox Business News.

ABI is the industry association of butter manufacturers and brokers that we also manage. Our announcement that butter consumption has hit a 40-year high has been big news these past few days, and it’s great that the national media are picking up on the story.

Following that, I meet with Dr. Beth Briczinski, our vice president of dairy foods and nutrition, to review testimony we’ll be presenting to the federal dietary guidelines advisory committee. This committee of scientists is working on recommendations to the federal government for the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and Beth will be testifying on the important role of dairy in the diet.

Between meetings I stop to return a few phone calls from officers and board members, all interested in updates on the farm bill situation.

The rest of the afternoon I am engaged with staff working on our national animal care program, Farmers Assuring Responsible Management, or FARM Program. This is a very important program that helps our industry demonstrate to consumers that the dairy products they enjoy are produced on farms employing the highest levels of animal care.

At NMPF, we are working closely with co-op and proprietary dairy processors to help all of us effectively address this issue, one that is increasingly on the minds of consumers. Our focus this afternoon is strategizing on our outreach to food retailers to demonstrate all that dairy farmers and the industry are doing to assure the health and well-being of our animals.

As 6:00 p.m. rolls around, the meetings finally cease, the phone calls start to taper off, and I’ve got time to respond to some of the emails that have poured in throughout the day. One of the downsides of this digital world is the relentless river of information that pours into our lives.

Instant communication creates expectations for an instant – sometimes too hasty – response. It’s a challenge to stay on top of all of the requests, and today, after an hour of playing catch-up, I will fail to get through it all. But I know the work will be waiting here for me tomorrow.

Driving home, I glimpse the Washington Monument and, further in the distance, the U.S. Capitol, both aglow in the cold wintry evening. I’m reminded again, even after 30 years of working here, how lucky I am to have the opportunity to combine my interest in the policy process with my passion for the dairy industry. It’s an honor for me to work for dairy farmers and the cooperatives they own.

I arrive home and have a chance to connect with my daughter over dinner, and hear about her day (the tests were tough). As she asks me about mine, I smile and tell her it was amazing. PD

PHOTO:“My discussion with John (Hollay) is interrupted by a telephone call from Rep. Collin Peterson, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and one of the four principals involved in the farm bill deliberations.” Photo courtesy of NMPF.

Jim Mulhern

President and CEO
National Milk Producers Federation

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