MADISON, Wis. – An open line of communication with his milk processor helps drive success for Wisconsin dairy producer Jim Winn, of Cottonwood Dairy, and South Dakota dairy producer Kevin Souza, of Victory Farms. Winn ships his milk to Grande, and Souza ships his milk to Valley Queen Cheese. Each farmer enjoys a close-knit relationship with his processor.
    “Our communication with Grande is second to none,” said Winn, who milks 1,750 cows. “I’ve known the Grande reps since I was a kid. It means a lot to be in business with guys you know and trust. That’s why I recommend getting to know your processor on a personal level, not just on a business level. Grande is like family, and we work very well together.”
    Winn and Souza were joined by Jason Mischel, vice president of sales and milk procurement at Valley Queen Cheese, and Greg Siegenthaler, vice president of supply chain for Grande Cheese, in a panel entitled “Building Relationships: Farmer and Processor Insights” during the virtual Dairy Strong conference Jan. 19-21.
    Viewing each other as friends, the dairy producers and processors cited communication and trust as key to successful farmer/processor relationships. A mutual reliance between farmer and processor helps ensure issues are resolved quickly. The four agreed the conversations are not always easy, but communication is important. For example, when Valley Queen announced it was getting away from shipping milk containing bovine somatotropin, they notified farmers a year in advance.
    “That year-notice was huge for our business in deciding how we were going to come off it,” Souza said. “I had buddies who only had a couple months’ notice.”
    Winn said he also received a one-year notice for the removal of BST.
    “When the field man told me he was going to take it away, I wasn’t happy,” Winn said. “But it was the best thing for us in the long run. Now, I wouldn’t use BST if they gave it out for free.”
    Valley Queen stays connected to its producers through routine field visits. Communication starts at the farm with the field service representative and goes all the way up through the CEO. He and Mischel visit farms on a regular basis to have conversations with farmers and exchange ideas.
    “Since we have such a good relationship, I’m able to contact my field rep with any problems we have at any time, and he’s able to help us,” said Souza, who milks 5,000 Jerseys. “It’s very important for us to have trust with Valley Queen because we do milk quite a few cows, and we don’t really have another option for outlet of our milk, but Valley Queen has treated us fair. It gives us peace of mind knowing we have a place to ship our milk to every day.”
    Winn has also had a positive experience working with Grande.
    “Our previous processor was just looking for pounds of milk, whereas Grande is fanatic about quality,” Winn said. “Their milk quality veterinarian is a huge help, and they’ve taken us to a new level with milk quality. It’s helped our bottom line tremendously. The difference to where we were before with cell count, etc., to where we are now is night and day.”
    Grande has a veterinarian and a bilingual trainer on staff and wants to continue providing more tools to farmers.
    “There are a lot of things we can still do, and I’m excited about the possibilities,” Siegenthaler said. “We have a 1-15 rep-to-farm ratio, and our reps are in constant contact with our producers.”
    Last March and April when farmers were undergoing uncertainty brought on by COVID-19, Winn said he talked to his field man every day and to Siegenthaler about three times a week.
    “Grande was looking out for us just as much as we were looking out for them,” Winn said. “That makes a huge difference.”
    Siegenthaler agreed.
    “I think I probably heard from every one of our producers during the COVID-19 crisis multiple times, which is good,” Siegenthaler said. “They know that line of communication is open.”
    Demonstrating support for the dairy producers they serve is important to both Grande and Valley Queen. They stand behind farmers who take initiative to help their community, the environment and the dairy industry as a whole.
    One way that Grande supports the efforts of Cottonwood Dairy is through its collaboration with the farm’s involvement in an event known as Day at the Dairy. Every spring, fourth graders in Winn’s county visit four farms, including Cottonwood Dairy, and Grande makes pizzas and provides milk for the students.
    “It’s our eighth year doing it, and it’s just a great day,” Winn said. “When we approached Grande about helping with it, they stepped up to the plate. They’ve been there with us from day one and are very open to helping us out. That really means a lot to the community.”
    In addition, Grande was one of the sponsors for Winn’s farmer-led watershed group known as LASA, once again demonstrating support for its producers.
    “Grande understands our efforts,” Winn said. “They get it and that sets them apart from other processors in our area. They view innovation and change as important. The environmental component is important to consumers, and our previous processor could not have cared less about that kind of stuff. We’re very happy with Grande and hope this relationship lasts forever.”
    From cheese buyers to people in the chocolate business, Valley Queen brings customers to Souza’s farm on a routine basis. These visits give customers a chance to ask questions and interact directly with a dairy farmer.
    “We feel it’s important for our customers to see where the milk is produced,” Mischel said. “We want them to be comfortable with the size, scope and scale of agriculture we deal with. During these tours, we get a sense of how the supply chain feels about what we’re doing.”
    Opening his farm doors to Valley Queen’s customers is something Souza enjoys doing.
    “We’re on the cutting edge just like Valley Queen, and we always want to show the customer what we’re doing next,” Souza said.
    Mischel described Valley Queen’s relationship with dairy producers as a two-way street.
    “We promise our producers we’re going to provide a good market for their milk, and in turn, we trust they’re going to continue to support us by providing quality milk for our products,” Mischel said.  
    Souza said he and Valley Queen stay in contact all the time.
    “You’re not going to agree on everything,” Souza said. “You just need mutual understanding. At Valley Queen, we’re not just a number. We’re like family.”