Dairy tour
May 1, 2019

Michigan Dairy Shows Consumers The Miracle Of Milk

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Some people work their entire lives at uninspiring jobs, depositing paychecks that somewhat fill bank accounts while personal lives go unfulfilled. Other people are the lucky ones. They find true happiness by following their passion.

It’s clear after a few minutes of talking with Annie Link that she’s one of the lucky ones. She’s following her passion, helping kids and their parents go from very little knowledge about dairy farming to understanding where milk and dairy products come from.

Link never thought she would be back on a dairy farm, even though she’s part of a long line of Oesch family members that has run Swisslane ever since great grandpa Fred Oesch started the small dairy in 1915. Today, her dad Fred and his brothers Jeff and Tom are senior partners, and Link and her cousins Tom Jr. and Matt make up the fourth generation.

Oesch familyLink’s life plan came into focus in 2004 when the senior partners sat down with all of the cousins to develop a succession plan. “I was 24 years old and for the first time I began thinking that farming was in my future,” Link says. “Growing up I had always worked on the farm and did 4-H and so forth, but I was always the one who wanted to get through milking cows so I could get to the high school basketball game and stuff like that. I never worried about somatic cell counts or anything like that. I just did what I had to do growing up.”

Another life-altering event for Link came shortly after that fateful meeting. She and her husband had started a family, and they took their young children on an outing to a local orchard. “It was a classical orchard where you go pick apples and they had all of this other fun stuff there too,” Link recalls. “I just remember thinking I paid a lot of money to go there. It also showed me that people wanted to invest in learning about agriculture.”

That experience got Link thinking that she could start something like that on their own farm. She brought the idea up to her cousin Matt, who was going through business management courses and was excited about the idea of developing a business startup. In 2006 they started offering tours.

It was simple at first. Link made a flier with a picture of a cow on it, offering kids the opportunity to spend time on a farm, feed a calf and watch cows being milked for $3. That’s how Dairy Discovery was born.

Link followed a path to creating Dairy Discovery that many other producers have followed. It starts with the age-old “why can’t we do that” question, usually coupled with a desire to help local non-ag  consumers learn more about what happens on a dairy. Making that decision to become an advocate is not easy.

“We’ve seen some farmers who ask why they should be an advocate. They may be afraid of becoming a target of activist groups, or they just might not feel like they have the time to devote to advocacy,” says Stan Erwine, vice president of farmer relations at Dairy Management, Inc. “These are missed opportunities to reach out to the consumers and communities where they do business.”

Over time the little Dairy Discovery project started to grow. Mostly by word of mouth, schools in the area began to hear of the opportunity to take kids to the farm and the Oesch family began to host more and more tours.

As time went by, Link’s role on the dairy, and the dairy itself, grew as well.

“I was calf manager at the time and the herd was growing so there were more and more calves and more people to manage,” Link says. “And I wanted to keep growing Dairy Discovery.”

tour groupSoon, Link says, Dairy Discovery began to grow beyond what she could handle on her own. “I had a lot of help and support from my family,” Link says. “My mother in law, who had never even seen a cow close up before she met me, would come out and help with a tour or help with the kids. My mother was out there, hosting a hayride or an impromptu tour. It was a lot of my circle of family helping out.”

More change came in 2014, when Link was moved from calf manager to director of human resources for the dairy. By then the herd was at 2,200 cows and 61 employees, having added a new 700-cow, 8-robot facility a couple of years prior. Senior partners were also wanting to step back from the dairy more, which meant Link and her cousins taking on more responsibility.

“It got to the point where I just couldn’t do my little tour thing justice,” Link says. “And I wanted to see that thing grow, but growth was not an option. I was at the point where I had to start scaling back, because I couldn’t keep doing it by myself with my mom just helping out randomly with tours.”

The tug of war between her role on the dairy and her passion for making Dairy Discovery all it could be came to a do or die point in 2017. That’s when Link and her family decided to take Dairy Discovery from a fledgling LLC to a full-blown non-profit.

“I’d always thought about going the non-profit route. I’m very passionate about helping on the board of a local nonprofit organization and I love the tie to the community, the collaboration and partnerships,” Link says. “I thrive on that stuff.”

They started the legal process in July of transitioning the business from a LLC to a 501(c)3 organization, and got their final paperwork in November. They hired separate staff to run the tours, seven people in total. Of the seven, two are certified teachers, and five have an agricultural background. Two are full time all year long, and the other five are part time that work during the April to October tour season.

Dedicating people to advocacy is important for dairy producers who want to reach out to local communities. “Once you have decided advocacy is a critical factor, put someone in charge and set goals to support them,” Erwine says. “Help give them the resources to be your communications arm.”

hay rideDairy Discovery benefits from being in a very urban area. The farm is located just 22 miles from downtown Grand Rapids, the second largest city in Michigan. They target preschool and lower elementary schools in that metropolitan area and surrounding counties, because those are the schools with field trip programs and accompanying budgets.

Funding is an ongoing effort, as most non-profit startup businesses know. Schools are charged $6 per student for tours, and group tours are $8 for a two hour tour and $11 for a three hour tour. More funding comes in from sponsorship sales, where businesses can buy signage that hangs inside the barn gathering space or on the hay rides. Signage also goes on the program website.

For the first time this year the Dairy Discovery team hosted a gala inside the barn, where about 200 people bought tickets to an evening of fun and fellowship. A live and silent auction helped raise funds during the event as well.

In 2017 Dairy Discovery hosted around 6,000 kids in 252 events. Last year the number grew to 6,500. Link hopes this year they can surpass 7,000. Since Dairy Discovery started back in 2006, when they hosted 350 kids, Link says they have hosted more than 45,000 kids on their farm.

That’s more than 45,000 kids who went from not knowing anything about where milk comes from to now having, as the Dairy Discovery tagline states, a personal connection with their food.

Link calls it the miracle of milk.

“That’s what you’re experiencing when you go through here,” she says. “We try to highlight how these cows are just so amazing that they take stuff that we can’t eat and turn it into something we can. We just get really excited about that.”

red barnTours start off with an introduction to the farm from inside the original barn built by great grandpa Fred back in 1915. From there they hop on a hay wagon that takes kids around the farm, and that’s where the milk miracle happens.

Kids start at the beginning, first learning about crops and what cows eat, then they drive through the freestall barn feed alleys to see where cows live. That ends up in the milking parlor, so kids can see the result of the feed and care cows receive.

Before the tour goes through the barn with the robots, they pass by fields of growing corn and alfalfa where tour guides can talk about sustainability and how manure is used to fertilize crops.

While the tours are designed for kids, Link says they do as much communicating with parents. And that’s where some misconceptions get fixed.

“I didn’t know when I first started that I had to talk to people and tell them that only females can make milk,” Link says. “That’s mandatory on our tour now.”

Same with antibiotics in milk, Link says. Most of the people that come through tours think antibiotics are in milk unless it says antibiotic free on the label. “We now make sure the hospital parlor is a stop on every tour so we can talk through that, too.”

Link has had help from the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, the state’s dairy checkoff program, with messaging and media training to help answer some of the tougher questions.

cows in barn“We’ve seen countless times where farmers are rock stars when they engage with people,” Erwine says. “Farmers underestimate their credibility. Farmers also feel they have to be a polished speaker to be an advocate but this isn’t necessary. We recommend farmers speak from their heart and talk about their shared values with consumers.”

Like any dairy that offers tours, Link says there is a give and take between what Dairy Discovery needs and the daily operation of the farm. Once the team discussed moving milking times and adjusting the wash period. That meant the parlor was going to be shut down at prime tour times. Link says they were able to work out an agreeable schedule so both the dairy and the tours could continue to function.

Like any good tour, there has to be a gift shop at the end, and the Dairy Discovery tour is no exception. Swisslane had operated a small retail store on the dairy for several years, and it was officially purchased by Dairy Discovery in January 2019. The store offers t-shirts and hats with the dairy’s logo and other collectibles.

The main offering, though, is food from the dairy and local vendors. The beef in the cooler is from the farm, thanks to the breeding program that uses Angus semen on cows with lower genomic scores. The cheese is from a local vendor, but the maple syrup comes from the 1,200 maple trees tapped on the farm.

“We thought it was a good way for us to get some income generating revenue,” Link says. “But we also had a lot of anxiety because we didn’t want to take away from the focus of people learning about cows.” But Link says she had so many people ask if they could buy something from the dairy at the end of the tour that the retail store just made sense. 

Back in 2014 Link thought that some kids would like a more immersive experience on a dairy, so she started Dairy Discovery camps. These are three-day commuter camps that run from 10 to 2 each day. Day one is vet day, where kids get to lean all about how a cow makes milk and what keeps a cow healthy. They also look up the cow’s data profile so they see how much milk she is making, when she got pregnant and other aspects of cow management.

The second day is nutrition day, where kids get to make their own individual batch of feed. Along with that they learn how crops are grown and how feed is made, including the big ration for the larger milking herd.

The third day is a small cattle show, where kids get to train and show a small calf from the farm. Anna’s mom also comes to do a food demonstration, so kids get to taste different dairy products.

Through it all, the tours and the camps and the retail store, Link makes connections with kids and their parents through shared experiences. And that’s where the real value of Dairy Discovery comes through.

“By the end I want them to leave being aware that they were on a factory farm, with 2,200 cows and 61 employees, but they had all those sentimental feelings and connections and shared values experiences,” Link says. “In our introduction we say that some people might think this is a factory farm, but we think it’s a family farm. There are 60 people who work here, but they are all part of our collective family.”