How Advocacy Helps Everyone with Dave Smith, Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association

Listen to Dave's episode here or find us on your favorite podcast listening app!

Meaghan Malinowski:dairyman dave smith pa dairyman's association

Welcome to the Farm Credit AgVocates Podcast. I'm your host, Meaghan Malinowski, Content and Digital Strategist at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. Today's guest has a really great story to share on the topic of advocacy, particularly for the dairy industry in Pennsylvania. Many of you probably know Dave Smith from the Pennsylvania Farm Show. He also is known as the Milkshake Guy or Dairyman Dave. But Dave is one of five generations to work on his family's dairy operation in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association, he has had many opportunities to advocate for the dairy industry in Pennsylvania and the 6,000 dairy farms that make feeding Pennsylvania possible.

With a job that big, Dave is bound to have some “dairy” good tips on how to support your industry too. So without further ado, we're going to jump right into our interview with Dave Smith at Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Dave. If you could just introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your operation. I know you are a dairy producer yourself, and I'd love to introduce you to our audience.

Dave Smith:

Well, thank you. It's a real privilege that I'm able to talk to you today too. My name is Dave Smith. I'm from South Central Pennsylvania, Lebanon County. Our farm operation involves crop, corn, soybeans, wheat and a good bit of hay, dry hay. We also raise replacement dairy heifers on our farm on a contract basis for a neighbor. We've done that for a number of years after we discontinued and changed our operation away from a milking operation. I have a son, Joel, who is on our farm also with me, and he's actually the fifth generation on our farm right here. In addition to that, he's a fourth generation Farm Credit member also. So that keeps us busy with what we're doing. I have a lot of other things going on, but that's a general idea of what our operation is like.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I love hearing the generational stories. That was something that we talked about in my interview with Trevor Hoff. I love getting to see the different generations and how the operation has changed over the years. That's something we like to look at a lot as we help tell these stories.

What's it been like working with your son?

Dave Smith:

Well, I'm really proud of him. We never pushed our children to go in any specific direction and let them choose. We have some interesting dynamics. Like I said, I said he's a fifth generation, and I actually have an 85 year old father who is on our farm daily out and about checking up on us and seeing if we're doing things correctly and offering advice, and that always makes things interesting because sometimes the generation down the road has some different ideas and we always seem to work through some differences and come to some conclusions. My father is just thrilled also just as I am to see another generation come onto our farm. One area that's unique about our farm is that we are almost landlocked with the residential development around our farm. I would say right now we have 75% of our farm is surrounded by residential development.

But our family, my father and myself, have been very adamant that the farm is a good productive farm, and we've always felt that it's meant to be a farm and it's really a neat thing to see another generation come on and we're making some transitions to have my son, Joel, enter into our businesses and take over more of the responsibilities on our farm. Those kinds of situations I think are really difficult challenges for our farm families. I've seen over the years and families handle them in many different ways. Some of them are very successful in the way they do it, and sometimes sadly, I see some people struggle with those generational transitions. Whatever we work at, I'm just committed to making it work. Our farm is a beautiful place. We love to see the crops growing and we are very strong opinionated that we would like to see it continue as a farm in the future, and well into the future. So we're going to make some things happen to have that continue.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I think you're definitely not alone with the farm transition and that being a big challenge. I know that's one of the things that, at Farm Credit when we're not in a pandemic, we hold different workshops and the land is your legacy one, is one that we're really looking forward to picking back up and helping people walk through that process because it is difficult and there's a lot of steps that have to be taken. There are so many perspectives, like you said, that need to be taken into consideration. But similar to what you said also, the main goal is to make sure that it continues to be an operating and producing farm, and it's really, really cool to hear that you guys are overcoming some of those challenges and working together.

I think leading into my next topic that I want to discuss with you, you talked about how you guys are surrounded by lots of residential properties. I think many people know you mostly with your work with the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association. I know also your big responsibility is making milkshakes, but I know you've got lots of other things on your plate that are very important there.

Can you tell us a little bit about your role as executive director with [PA Dairyman's Association]?

Dave Smith:

Well, you're correct. I work for the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association. It's been a real good mix for my family and I, for me to have that opportunity and continue the farm. What it has allowed us to do is, my work off the farm, has allowed the next generation, my son, Joel, to make some of the decisions that need to be made on the farm on his own without my influence, and I think that's important for that generation to have that call and not have somebody looking over their shoulder all the time. So my job with the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association to just describe a little bit about the association. Our organization is a nonprofit organization. Some of our goals have been to raise money to give back into the dairy and agricultural industries.

To do that, we sell milkshakes, is what we do at events, and our primary event that we sell milkshakes at is at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, which is Pennsylvania State Fair. We have huge crowds there. We've developed a brand and we have some really loyal customers that will continue to come back to us. We have a lot of involvement in different marketing of our products. Really neat to me because I never really had too much background in the marketing side of things, but it has really given me, as a farmer, a different perspective of consumers. So the Dairymen's Association, we raise some money by selling dairy products, and not only at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, but we've grown to the point where we do a lot of different events outside of the farm show complex.

As I would say, we go in the road with our equipment and do pop up events at festivals and fairs and some different things. So the purpose of doing that is several fold. Obviously, we want to raise some money for our nonprofit organization. We want to put out a really great product, and we also want to continue to serve a lot of customers with some really great dairy products. So the question may be asked of me, what do you do or what are the goals if you raise some money? The Dairymen's Association has a long list of organizations and programs that they support with the proceeds from the sale of milkshakes, which is really been an incredible journey for us to see that happen.

Over the last four years, the Dairymen's Association in Pennsylvania has given out over a million dollars into programs, scholarships, just a vast variety of different things to support agriculture and the dairy industry in Pennsylvania and beyond. Which is something that's been an absolutely incredible thing for me personally to see happen, is just to see the dairy products and people so interested in buying them, but to raise some money to get back into programs for next generation development and to see agriculture continue for a long time into the future. So it's a very positive organization. In addition to some of the organizations we support, over the last number of years we've gotten and grown into more of a role in some promotion side of things.

The dairy and ag industries continue to evolve, and with that evolving, there's a lot of changes going on within the industry and there is a need to continue to promote local products to our consumers and educate consumers about what's happening on the farms and why our farmers do some of the things they do in the farm. So I think there's a real communication aspect of what goes on with our organization too so that we can help promote agriculture and have our consumers learn more about what goes on and what happens on the farm.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I think the purpose that you're serving for the dairy industry is super important. You have three really major things that you're trying to achieve as far as helping to grow the next generation. I mean, that's becoming harder and harder each year. One of the biggest challenges that we see for young farmers is having the capital to get started, and if they don't come from that generational background, it's very difficult for them to get into that.

Something we like to ask our more tenured farmers is, what advice would you give to a future dairy farmer? I mean, the market has not been favorable recently, and I think that probably deters people from trying to enter. I mean, there's a lot of barriers to entry here.

But if you had to give them any advice, what advice would you give a future dairy farmer?

Dave Smith:

First of all, I don't know that I've ever been called a tenured former. That's a new one for me, but anyways. (laughing)

Meaghan Malinowski:

(laughing) I mean it as a good thing. Five generations is something to be very proud of.

Dave Smith:

Thank you. Advice to somebody that wants to get into the business. I believe firmly that there's a lot of opportunity in agriculture. My side of the business with the Dairymen's Association, I see consumers and our consumers want what we are producing and we just need to be really good at putting out there what they want at the right times in the right packaging. There's a lot of different opportunities all across agriculture. So for somebody that wants to enter into things, I think they may not always reach their end goal. I think many people think that owning a form is the end goal, and I don't know that it necessarily needs to be that way. I think there's careers in agriculture and dairy, that there are many careers that can happen. If somebody is looking for a career, there's opportunities to start employment in different ways, and certainly there may be some challenges out there to find the right opportunity to work into some things.

But if somebody is really passionate and loves the agriculture, there's so many different and diverse areas of agriculture that they can support the food supply chains. So as long as we have people in this planet, they're going to continue to want to eat and there's going to be a lot of opportunities in agriculture. They're going to be changing opportunities. Our people that are entering into agriculture, it's going to be necessary for them to be able to change and possibly change quickly. They need to be fluid with their business models. Again, I would just reemphasize I think the opportunities in agriculture are many. I think if somebody is really sincere and adamant about going about it and works hard, I think they're going to be successful about something that they're going to go after.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Yeah, absolutely. I love idea of not just setting your sights on the farm being the end goal, and I am a firm believer that anybody that wants to get into the agriculture industry, no matter what your background is, it's certainly possible. I mean, I don't have an ag background myself and I developed my passion for marketing while I was in college and I just stumbled upon it. But there are definitely so many opportunities, from running your own operation to serving on a board. You're also a board member for MidAtlantic and working for the Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association as that group and helping to lead those things. The opportunities are definitely endless, and I think you're spot on that people have to be flexible and really ready for anything at this point.

Dave Smith:

One of the neat things that I really, really love to see, and the Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement gives scholarships out to some students, and there's other organizations that the Dairymen's Association sponsors scholarships too. We do see scholarship recipients, people that they're not starting from farm families, that they've entered into and they've looked around and come up through some school programs, whether it's an FFA program or another program, and they've found a love for agriculture and they want to pursue it. I've seen some really neat resumes of what I'm going to call “city people”, some city kids or children that have found a passion for agriculture, which is really an awesome thing to see, people that haven't grown up on a farm and they want to make a career out of agriculture, and that is very encouraging to me.

Meaghan Malinowski:

The other part of that too, I think you've mentioned quite a bit about some different marketing campaigns and different techniques that you guys are using to help facilitate that local food movement for your Pennsylvania dairy farms.

So can you tell us a little bit about some of those marketing campaigns that you guys are helping to run for dairy farmers?

Dave Smith:

Yes, I can. Over the last three years, one area that we'd gotten into is a campaign called Choose PA Dairy. It is a messaging campaign to consumers, and I'm going to speak specifically about Pennsylvania consumers in this area, so I'm addressing the local issue, which can happen in any area, and I think it's very important that all areas begin and continue to promote their local products. So our Choose PA Dairy campaign is focused on educating consumers about how they can identify products, dairy products specifically, how they can identify dairy products that are produced in Pennsylvania. There's a campaign run by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture called a PA Preferred Program, and I know New Jersey and some other states have their own programs to identify their own locally-produced foods.

Through this campaign, we've used some of our own money and we've gotten some grants where we can promote local products on different levels. It's been very interesting to me. We've done some traditional things. The first year we did, we did some billboards to promote, we have done some radio and even some television campaigns around our locally-produced products. One of the areas that has piqued my interest a good bit more recently in the last year has been using some social media influencers to promote the local aspect of things. The social media is just an incredibly powerful tool, and it's an area that agriculture needs to continue to grow in and use it in many other ways so that we can reach more audiences. Our traditional audiences of years ago, and back in the day everybody sat down at the kitchen table and read the newspaper and that's how they got their information.

Just in my lifetime, how things have changed in how information is exchanged has been incredible. At one point, everybody watched television. I think probably television, that audience probably has dwindled. The shift has been made now through over to social media, and we have people that we call influencers. If we capture the right person and get hooked up with the right person, they can help us communicate our message to a broader audience than ever before.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Absolutely.

Dave Smith:

This gives a broad overview of some of the areas we've gotten into and are moving there.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Well, I love that you brought up the social media aspect of it. That's something that we talk about quite a bit as far as sharing information and resources. One of the things that I think has made that influencer movement so successful for so many brands, I mean I see it on my newsfeed all the time, they're always targeting me with ads, and all the clothing brands and shoes or whatever else they could possibly find in my search history that I might consider buying. But I love the idea of the influencer marketing, especially because a lot of these influencers spend so much time building relationships with their own audiences that it becomes more of a word of mouth kind of referral.

I mean, that's one of the things that we've learned over time is that the word of mouth and friend recommendations and family recommendations are really the first level of trust that somebody can build with a brand. So I love hearing that you guys are using that approach and seeing some success from it. So that's really cool. I think the third part that I wanted to touch on with you too was the advocacy side of the association and what some of the things that you guys are doing.

What is the most influential or memorable effort that you've been able to participate for in the industry?

Dave Smith:

Let me answer that with giving you two answers.

The first thing I would lead with is, and I mentioned this earlier, that like I said, we sell milkshakes. At a state fair like we do at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, there's a lot of volume to it. We have nearly 400,000 - 500,000 people come through a complex facility in about eight and nine days.

I have been given a different perspective of things from the consumer side of things, and I mentioned this earlier also that our consumers do want what we produce in many times. We need to deliver it to them. Something that's been really neat to me is that we have ... My board of directors for the Dairymen's Association are all dairy farmers, and they spend most of their time on the farm taking care of their cattle and taking care of their businesses. Occasionally, they'll get off the farm and visit other places and do different things. But I've encouraged our dairy farmers to get behind the scenes and see what happens at a business we run, and just to show them that the consumers really do love many of our products.

It gives our farmers a different perspective, because I think so often, our farmers, we get  in the negative side sometimes of, well, the prices are low and maybe this didn't happen the way we wanted it to happen, or that didn't happen the way it should have happened, or this broke, that broke. I think it's important for our farmers to see something like that in action, and that's really been a neat opportunity for me to have them see that our consumers want what we can offer to them. The second point I'd like to bring up that's been very significant to me, and this started about five years ago in 2015 through some conversations with some partner organizations, and we learned in Pennsylvania that milk was being requested in food banks but had not been readily available.

In about 2015, a little bit earlier than that, the food banks in our area in Pennsylvania had been working real hard at elevating the quality of the food in the food banks. Half a generation ago, I think many people felt and knew that a lot of the food banks were known for staples like cereals and soups and dry goods, and there's been significant changes in the food bank system where they wanted to get higher quality food to the people in need. Through that conversations, a number of conversations, we developed a mechanism where we could help raise money so that the food banks ... and the food bank I'm talking about is an umbrella organization called Feeding Pennsylvania. They have member organizations, I think, eight or nine regional members in Pennsylvania that are overseeing many food pantries and food banks in Pennsylvania.

Through that conversation, Fill a Glass with Hope was created, and it's a mechanism to raise money, and the funds that we raise go directly to Feeding Pennsylvania to purchase milk for their food bank clients. The reason this has been so significant for me is it's been a real change in my mentality and my thought process about the food banks and also about the need that is out there for a lot of families. It's been interesting to me, and the statement here in Pennsylvania has been that there are over 500,000 children every day that are considered food challenged, which is just enormous number of families and children in need. So through a lot of discussions, we developed this program called Fill a Glass with Hope.

We've given a lot of visibility to some organizations at the Pennsylvania Farm Show where they can get some presence in front of the media where we've done some promoting around an event where we announce these organizations gave this seed money to Fill a Glass with Hope. In about five and a half years, over a million dollars has been raised to go to Fill a Glass with Hope and the Feeding Pennsylvania organization. I'm really proud of the fact that money raised has provided over 14 million servings of milk to Pennsylvania food challenged families.

Meaghan Malinowski:

That's amazing.

Dave Smith:

It truly is, and it's been a grassroots effort that has continued for almost six years now. The other aspect of that that is truly, I guess, affirming to me that we're on the right track is that we've had some really sizable corporations give money towards this program, and the neat part of that is that they've recognized that that milk and dairy is very important to children and families in need. So they're giving money to this program to help supply the food bank clients with this milk. So that has been an affirmation to me that we're on the right track when we have corporations give sizable amounts of money to help out these families in need. So the whole program has been humbling to me, to see how it's grown, and more and more people have bought into it.

It's also been very humbling to me to see how much need is out there in our country. I think at one point I probably had a little different perspective than I do now, and I hadn't even given it a lot of thought. But there's a lot of families that even though they have jobs, it's still difficult for them to manage and pay all their bills all the time. So the quality of the food that they are able to purchase declines when that happens. I think that that food bank connection that I've had the opportunity to be part of has been just an incredible part of what we've done, and we're really proud of it. But it's been a really neat journey.

Meaghan Malinowski:

You absolutely should be proud of it. I think the pattern that I'm seeing here is that you guys are really facilitating so many different connections and creating a network between your consumers, these corporations that are helping you make these donations, and even the farmers that are a part of the association. It’s so important for everybody and all of these different pieces of the puzzle that fit together, for each one of them to understand how the other puzzle pieces work and how everything else fits together.  I think it's really cool that you guys have been able to move that mission forward and have such a clear goal of supporting everybody this network. So we appreciate all the work that you do with that. It's very, very important especially to our Pennsylvania dairy farmers as well. So that's an awesome mission to serve.

Dave Smith:

Well, thank you. I appreciate that.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I was told that you have some experience also testifying in Washington, and with some of the more legislative policy side of things. I wanted to get your experience about that because I think that's something that not many of our farmers are super familiar with, and we would love to hear your perspective on what that looks like being active in some of those legislative areas.

What is it like testifying in Washington before Congress?

Dave Smith:

That's been interesting for me also, and I feel very privileged that I had some opportunities as a younger person to be involved in some 4-H and some school programs, which allowed me to practice and develop some skills in some public speaking and some other areas. We all have skills and talents in different areas, and I was very fortunate to be able to have some training in that, which allowed me to be, I guess what I would say is somewhat comfortable to talk in front of some audiences and other people. I recognize that that's very difficult for some people to do. Like I said, we all have different talents and I'm just grateful that I'm able to use one of my talents in that way. Through some of my tenure, I've grown to learn and know some legislators around Pennsylvania, and one of them in particular, our Congressman GT Thompson has been very involved in the dairy industry with some legislation in Washington D.C..

One of those areas, his goal is to get whole milk back into our schools, and I'm very adamant about that also. I think some of the damage, I'm going to call damage, to the dairy industry in the last 10, 20 years has been the shift to low fat dairy products, and I'm convinced that the taste and some of the nutrition, we need to go with whole milk and a complete product. So to develop that, what your question was about Washington D.C., a little over a year ago I had an invite to testify before a house subcommittee. I think it was the House Subcommittee on Agriculture and Foreign affairs in April of 2019. A funny story because out of the blue, I got a call one day from an aide and he said, "Hey, would you be willing to come to Washington D.C. next week to talk to before these congressmen about the state of the dairy industry in Pennsylvania?"

It was late April, I believe. To tell you the truth, I didn't answer him right away because I thought I have corn to plant.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Right. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

Dave Smith:

I have stuff to do, and I hung up, I said, "Well, I'll get back to you." The importance of it sank in a little bit more, and I called him back, I said, "Yes, absolutely. I would do that." So I went to Washington D.C. the last week in April, and presented my written testimony and my oral testimony along with five other people from around the United States about the state of the dairy industry in their parts of the world. It's very intimidating. I mean, it was humbling. I mean, I was honored to be there and represent our farmers there. It's a very unique experience to do that.

Meaghan Malinowski:

It's almost like you have a heavy weight on your shoulders, knowing that you're one of five, it's going to go and tell this story. But like you said, it's such an important story that somebody has to tell it. Even though you do have corn to plant, somebody has to be there to help facilitate that. It's an important discussion.

Dave Smith:

Well, I can say that I was happy to be there, but my stomach was rolling a good bit before I was able to do that. You just put those thoughts aside and you go forward and you do the best you can, and I was thankful to have the opportunity to do that.

Meaghan Malinowski:

I am quite certain that many of our other producers probably thank you for being able to stand up and help tell that story, and that's something that we hope that this podcast and this interview will inspire others in other industries also to get active in the legislative part of what they do. I mean, we have those people that represent our communities, but sometimes many of them don't necessarily have a clear understanding of what agriculture is. I love that there are different ways, I mean, we try to facilitate that with Farm Credit a little bit. Kurt Fuchs is our government affairs officer and he does a fantastic job creating that connection and creating opportunities for our producers to meet their representatives and talk to them about the challenges that they're facing and what they're seeing in industry.

I think it's cool. I don't know that I would have the guts to do it. I was never a part of 4-H or FFA, but I will say that every young adult or kid that I've met from 4-H or FFA has fantastic speaking skills. I mean, I've had the pleasure of helping with a scholarship video and these kids are next level speakers, and I think to what you said, it really does build a foundation for a continual lifelong advocacy and being able to do that.

Dave Smith:

One of the important things about that advocacy side of things, it's all about communicating. I think we all have knowledge about agriculture and our own businesses, and many people may not ... they just may not know the reasons that we do what we do and where we're headed. It's all about communicating. It's about being able just to have a conversation about why you do what you do with your livestock and how you handle your business. It's a continual job that we have in agriculture to just continue that communication and keep those lines of communication open, because the people that we're talking about, the other 98% of the population, do not necessarily have the information that we have and the knowledge we have in agriculture. So it is our job all the time to keep communicating with these people about agriculture in our farms. It is our job.

Meaghan Malinowski:

That actually that brings me to my very last question. I won't keep you. I know you've got quite a few things when your to-do list. I think I might already know what you're going to say to it.

But we ask all of our guests, what do you advocate for in agriculture?

Dave Smith:

Well, the things that I advocate for most are that we continue to have conversations so that people do not make rules and changes that would be harmful to agriculture and the food production system. I think it is all about communication, and truly if people really knew some of the things behind the agricultural story, it would go very far in our conversations of why we do things. So I think that's the main thing that I would point out there, that we just need to keep those lines of communication open and continue to educate people of our logic and our reasoning. So I think I would end with that.

Meaghan Malinowski:

Well, we certainly appreciate all the work that you do for the dairy industry and for agriculture in general. It's inspiring to say the least, and we appreciate you. So thank you for this interview today and for joining us. I think our audience is going to love this conversation, and I know that there were a couple of requests also that I needed to ask, what is the better flavor of milkshake?

Dave Smith:

(laughing) I'm a chocolate milkshake guy

Meaghan Malinowski:

All right.

Dave Smith:

That's where I am. Where are you, Meaghan?

Meaghan Malinowski:

I like a mix. I like the best of both worlds. The chocolate is a little too much for me, but when you make the vanilla and chocolate together, I think it's perfect.

Dave Smith:

Right. (laughing)

Meaghan Malinowski:

Well, thank you so much again, Dave, and we truly appreciate it, and have a great rest of your day.

Dave Smith:

Well, thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you. It's been a pleasure.

Links:

Pennsylvania Dairymen's Association

Marketing Campaigns

PA Dairymen's Association Facebook

Pennsylvania Farm Show Facebook

House Subcommittee on Agriculture