Joyce Racicky has been a strong promoter of the dairy industry for more than a decade. Now, the Mason City, Nebraska, resident has an equally strong platform from which to advocate for the industry.

In April, Racicky was elected as chairwoman of Midwest Dairy’s Nebraska division and now sits on the Midwest Dairy corporate board. This dais allows her to speak to the 79 million dairy consumers in the region and, hopefully, help her fellow dairy producers.

“I feel this is a great opportunity to have a voice on how our check-off dollars are being spent,” Racicky said. “People are getting so far removed from the farm. Some of them have no clue what goes into dairy farming.”

Racicky and her husband Greg operate Elk Creek Dairy, an award-winning commercial Holstein dairy farm in Custer County. In addition to being the head honcho for Midwest Dairy in Nebraska, she is also the chairwoman of Nebraska’s Midwest Dairy Association, a member of the Nebraska Dairy Industry Development Board, a delegate for Dairy Farmers of America, is part of Nebraska Dairy Promoters and a member of the Nebraska Holstein Association.

In each of these stations Racicky has been enthusiastic in her promotion of the dairy industry and in trying to find solutions to the challenges dairy farmers face. Chief among these challenges is overcoming misinformation about dairy products.

“I wish consumers would understand that farmers take pride in what they produce. If we feel safe consuming our products, then they should, too,” she said. “We need to do a better job of sharing our story.”

A key way of accomplishing that mission is attending promotional events, she said. Getting to speak to a lot of people at once is one of the benefits of being a public figure in the industry.

Consumers are flooded with misinformation and negative messages about dairy products from individuals uninvolved in the gate-to-plate process. Racicky uses these venues to tell her side of the story – to counter the false claims which incite people to fear their food.

“Dairy farmers have the most authentic voice. We work with the animals every day,” she said. “We have a perspective that is unique compared to 99% of the population.”

It used to be that everyone knew someone who had a farm. Now, many people have never been on a farm. It’s really scary when these are the people dictating what farmers should or shouldn’t do, she said.

Getting the word out on dairy’s virtues is really about trust and rapport. Mostly, it’s just a matter of finding stories that connect with people rather than dumping data on them, she said.

“People really want to know,” she said. “They want to understand what you do. They want to learn. You build a relationship with them; they believe in you.”

Dairy’s message is a healthy one. Yes, dairy foods offer a powerhouse of nutrients in an affordable package. Yes, you can still manage your weight and enjoy dairy foods. Yes, you can enjoy dairy even if you’re lactose intolerant.

“We stand behind our product 100%,” Racicky said.

While getting dairy’s undiluted story in the public domain is a priority to her, Racicky also has to contend with the day-to-day trials faced by Nebraska dairy farmers.

Dairy farmers have some of the highest stress levels of any occupation, she said. At this time they are going through a lot. Many, if not all, are beat physically, emotionally and financially.

Taking care of hundreds of head of dairy cows is demanding work. Compound that with the weather woes of this season and the low price of milk and you get a tremendous burden.

“We have had many friends sell out because of the low pay price to the farmer,” she said. “It is sad because dairy farms with so much history are selling out by the hundreds. We do everything possible to cut our costs, from electricity to sharing harvest equipment and labor.”

Another hurdle currently faced by dairy producers in Nebraska is not having any local processors. The Racicky’s milk is sold to Dairy Farmers of America Coop which is the only option because of their location.

“Our milk used to be processed 30 miles away, so we didn’t have a huge hauling cost,” Racicky said. “Now our milk is taken to the Hiland/Roberts Dairy in Omaha and also goes to Kansas City.”

The Nebraska State Dairy Association has been working to resolve that particular issue. The association’s First Mover Advantage campaign has been courting milk processing plants to open a plant in Nebraska.

The state has gotten on board with investment credit, sales tax credit, wage credits and other incentives. The “shovel-ready” communities vying for to be the host of the first milk processing plants have also offered enticements such as block grants, land options and tax incentives.

Racicky said that Custer County was making progress with one company, but the deal seems to have stalled.

“It’s a catch-22,” she said. “Processors won’t build where there aren’t enough dairy cows, but producers can’t afford more cows unless they have a processing plant close enough to justify the hauling expense.”

The only option Nebraska dairy farmers have is to “keep on keeping on.” But, she implores dairy producers to be proactive and tie the knot between the Nebraska dairy industry and the future.

“You are the best person to share your story about the dairy industry,” she said. “You can be a bridge across the information gap.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

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