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Reinhart serves as an activist for dairy

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 09 April 2009

“Activist” can be a scary word for many in the dairy industry. Producers live in fear of the power and abilities of environmental and animal rights activist organizations. However, Deb Reinhart, one of dairy’s own, could easily be referred to as an activist – a dairy activist.

“I want to make a difference in this world,” Reinhart says of why she’s devoted countless hours to various organizations and causes.

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From a young age, Reinhart absorbed leadership opportunities offered to women through 4-H and Farm Bureau programs. She cites participation in the Wisconsin Rural Leadership Program as how she learned to look at an issue from many angles and be much more broad-minded.

Most recently, Reinhart worked to grow animal identification in the state of Wisconsin as chairman of the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium. “I’m proud of what we accomplished,” she says, noting that even though they were lacking direction from a national standpoint, they were able to go forward with a pilot program in the state.

There’s also the work Reinhart does as a board member of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) Education Foundation. She’s helping to establish infrastructure and develop policies and procedures, just as she had done while a member of PDPW’s parent board. Some of the policies the foundation is working on relate to livestock facility siting, animal well-being and nutrient management plans.

She is a member of PDPW’s Public Policy Committee and participates in its regular discussions with the secretaries of the state’s Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Reinhart continues to be involved in ongoing conversations about dairy animal well-being. She was involved at the onset of the National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative to help producers understand and take an active role in the development of the initiative’s principles and guidelines.

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It took a lot of growth and study on her part to be a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustments for Calumet County. In turn, she’s helped to establish policies and procedures to help the group perform better when reviewing forms submitted by landowners.

Prior to all of this, Reinhart was involved in the Dairy 2020 initiative formed by Wisconsin’s governor in the early 1990s when dairy was really struggling in the state. This group recognized a need for on-farm research projects to study nutrient management plans and for economic incentives to bring more cows to Wisconsin.

“Based on the discussions I was involved in, I believe that’s how many of those things would come to fruition,” she says. “It took 20 years for us to get to this place.”

The formation of groups like PDPW and the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association was very instrumental in turning those discussions into reality, thus creating an environment and infrastructure in the dairy industry that enabled siting legislation and dairy-conscious water regulations in the state.

An emerging issue Reinhart would now like to turn her attention to is that of rural labor. “We need to help (dairy employees) work here safely and securely so that our dairies can keep running safely and securely,” she says.

Individuals alone cannot solve these topics. “We need to come together to build solutions and find opportunities in the challenges we face,” Reinhart says.

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“There aren’t enough of us, and there aren’t enough dollars,” she adds of the industry’s ability to face some of its opposition.

Therefore, producers will need to work with other industry stakeholders to help secure their future.

“There are a lot of participants in this industry that don’t know how to work together,” Reinhart says. By stepping up and asking the tough questions it will bring people to the table.

She has learned not to be afraid to speak up.

“People have told me I’m articulate and can understand and hear my story,” she says. “I’m responsible to tell that story on behalf of agriculture.”

She cautions, though, that being in the limelight comes with great responsibility. One must be open, honest and transparent in what they share, and the story one tells must reflect what is in the best interest of the industry.

She encourages other producers to take 10 minutes to talk to their governors or local officials and tell them the importance of rural labor, livestock siting and economic impacts.

“They have a lot on their plate,” she says. “They don’t have the opportunity to know what we think.”

Reinhart has had numerous conversations with previous U.S. secretaries of agriculture on food safety, animal well-being and other issues. By doing so, she’s developed a relationship with them and has become someone they can call when they need a producer perspective.

Through her participation in many organizations, Reinhart has also developed a network of producers to call on when she has questions.

“To be able to speak with producers that walked through tough times…is a tremendous benefit to us,” she says.

Another benefit to her and her husband, David Geiser, is the intrinsic value they’ve found working with land use in the county.

“We want the land to be there so the next generation has land to produce on,” Reinhart says.

The benefits to being an activist aren’t without sacrifice. Reinhart and Geiser own and operate a 250-cow dairy in New Holstein, Wisconsin. Reinhart is responsible for the 100 calves on the operation, checking fresh cows daily, balancing dry matter intake, employee training, human resource tasks and financial record-keeping.

When she is away at meetings, her husband and employees must cover her daily tasks.

“I have a calf feeder that is a gift from God,” she says of the retired gentleman who helps her tend to the calves.

She’s also made a point to be surrounded by great people and set aside a large training budget to provide them with the skills they need so that she can be away with confidence.

To keep up with a hectic lifestyle, Reinhart is sure to take good care of herself. She says she gets a good night’s rest, watches what she eats and takes time to exercise.

She attempts to keep some balance by being on the farm on certain days of the week. Having spent a lot of time away recently, Reinhart is looking to ease off some committee assignments and get more involved at the local level, which will require fewer overnight trips.

Most neglected, she notices, has been her husband. “He has made huge sacrifices,” she says while being cognizant of what he’s had to forgo and grateful that he supports her endeavors.

For Reinhart, it hasn’t been easy to be a woman pioneer in an industry that for so long had looked solely to men to lead. As the first woman on the Farm Bureau board, she learned to be mindful of the men that had held leadership roles and brought the organization to its current point. In order to hold her ground, she says she needed to become an effective communicator and convey professionalism in how she dressed and conducted herself.

A lot of education came through the formation of a “good ol’ girls club.” It was a network of agricultural women that supported each other, worked together and provided rootedness and grounding to all involved.

Women must tell their story
According to Reinhart, women must continue to play their part in advancing the industry.

“There’s a rallying call for women to become active in telling their story,” she says.

Men typically focus on science and how things are done, but consumers want to hear about ethics and sustainability. Women have a natural ability to tell their story relative to animal well-being, food safety and rural labor that speaks to the emotions surrounding each issue.

Sharing stories can be done in a number of ways from farm events, school visits, writing letters to the editor, sampling food at grocery stores and marketing local-grown products.

“Everybody has a role to play, and we need to find that. It’s a critical issue to be a voice,” Reinhart says, encouraging everyone to embrace and act upon the gifts they’ve been given and become dairy activists themselves. PD

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