Why help them?

Is it wrong to help dairy producers in other countries succeed? That has been the unstated accusation by some dairy producers. How do I respond?

In 2014 and 2015, I had the distinct honor and privilege of being invited to speak at the Ukrainian Dairy Congress. In those same years I was part of a Michigan State University Extension program that offered advanced training for Japanese veterinarians in dairy work. Recently, another international opportunity has been extended to me.

While it is great from my perspective to have the opportunities to speak professionally and to learn more about the culture of these countries and their dairy industry, I sometimes get questions from Michigan dairy producers that ask in essence “why help them?” and “by helping them, aren’t you undercutting our export opportunities?

Good questions; questions that caused me to think seriously about an answer. Here are my reasons for working with producers and agricultural professionals in other countries.

  • Knowledge should not be proprietary. Openness benefits all. In fact, one of the premises in establishing the Land Grant Universities (then colleges) was that advanced education should not just be the advantage of the rich, but should be available to all. Certainly, each producer wants to have access to knowledge. Knowledge itself should not be power. That is, it should not be withheld in order to preserve power. The power comes from applying knowledge wisely to problems. That is the responsibility of every producer.
  • There is a moral obligation to help countries feed their people. Rising populations will present challenges for meeting the nutritional needs of citizens. We live in a land of plenty because of the productivity of our land and of our producers. Other countries, whether because of their land, infrastructure, or their policies are not as fortunate. Helping producers feed their people is the right thing to do.
  • Higher quality food is universally imperative. It is not just an issue of food availability, but food quality. Consumers have a right to food that is unadulterated, safe and nutritious. I believe that teaching and challenging producers in other countries to improve quality is the right thing to do.
  • Raise the standard of living and they will be able to afford more of what we produce. Why does the United States have a high trade imbalance between what we import compared to our exports? In large part, it is because we have the financial resources to purchase imports from other countries. As the economies in other countries grow, and agriculture will be a key part of that, citizens will have greater access to products, some of which we may sell to them.
  • Competition improves our businesses. Other countries may indeed compete with us for export markets. We may not want to have more competitive markets, but competing sharpens our skills and increases our efficiency. That makes us better.
  • Producers gain a window on the world. How will you know how dairy is doing elsewhere? Does the growth of dairy in one part of the world have an impact on prices here? Can understanding the challenges of dairying in another part of the world have a benefit here? We may like to think that we farm in a small community, but the reality is that we farm in a world community.
  •  It enhances the reputation of Michigan. As I go, I represent Michigan State University, the Michigan dairy industry and the state in general. If I am of benefit to others, the reputation of each of those is enhanced. That may yield benefits long-term for a state, an industry and a university that are developing worldwide contacts for worldwide markets.

We don’t live within walls. The world is interconnected. I have often said, much to the amusement of my colleagues, “the dairy industry is too small not to know everyone in it.” I believe that as we learn together, we advance together. In Northeast Michigan, I work with several groups of young dairy producers. We often talk about “mutual success”; that is, that the group members help each other because in helping each other succeed, they will get even better.

Farming is a wonderful occupation, no matter whether that is in Michigan or Asia, Europe or Oceana. If we seek to learn from others no matter where they are, and see how we can help others so that they achieve success, we will be better for it.

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