Jeff Lyon, general manager of FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative in Madison, Wis., says he has had an interesting, fulfilling and varied 36-year career in agriculture.
Before joining FarmFirst in February 2018, he worked for a couple of months at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue after serving as the interim secretary of agriculture from August to November 2017, following Ben Brancel’s retirement. Prior to that, Lyon served as deputy ag secretary at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, from January 2011 to August 2017.
Working at the Department of Revenue was a job, but it wasn’t in agriculture, and Lyon knew it wasn’t a good fit for him. Prior to working at DATCP, he was employed for 22 years at Wisconsin Farm Bureau, doing state and federal lobbying and member services. Before that, he served as an agricultural aide to U.S. Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Wis., in Washington, D.C., for two years and also was the assistant director for the National Commission on Dairy Policy.
Lyon’s first job after graduating from University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture journalism was as a reporter for The Country Today, a weekly Wisconsin farm newspaper.
A good fit
In December 2017, Lyon learned David Cooper was retiring as general manager of FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative. The job involved dairy policy and working with farmers — two things Lyon had a lot of experience in and enjoyed.
“Taking this job at FarmFirst in February 2018 was an opportunity for me to get back into agriculture and do something I have a lot of experience in,” he explains. “It was very easy for me to work on dairy policy. I cut my teeth on the 1985 Farm Bill when I worked for Congressman Gunderson. I also was a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. I have been successful advocating for dairy policy with Wisconsin politicians and other politicians at the federal level.”
He also meets with politicians in surrounding states, because FarmFirst has 3,400 members in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana, in addition to Wisconsin.
FarmFirst was formed in 2013 when Milwaukee Milk Producers merged with Manitowoc Milk Producers and Family Dairies USA.
“The predecessor co-ops [to FarmFirst] were involved in lobbying, too,” he says. In addition to its own lobbying, FarmFirst is a member of the Midwest Dairy Coalition and National Milk Producers Federation.
Lyon is hoping Congress will pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“Mexico and Canada are huge markets for milk and other ag products, but also for other industries. We need to get this agreement passed by Congress and soon,” he says. “Hopefully we get China resolved, too. We have a partial agreement with Japan, and they’re buying a lot of dairy right now, but we need a complete trade agreement signed with them. It’s important that we don’t lose any markets.”
In addition to wanting to get trade agreements signed, Lyon says he is eager to see legislation approved that allows whole milk and flavored milk back into public schools.
“Family Dairies is our marketing division — we directly market milk for 175 farms in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the eastern side of Wisconsin,” Lyon says. “We do not have a processing facility, but we supply milk to processors across Wisconsin.”
When Lyon began working at FarmFirst in 2018, there were a lot of tanker loads of milk coming into Wisconsin from out of state.
“We found a home for Family Dairies milk every day, and we still do. We are the sole supplier for some milk plants,” Lyon explains. “We have a great reputation for working with processors who want extra tanker loads of milk.”
FarmFirst owns Fox Valley Quality Control Lab in Kaukauna, Wis. “We test our members’ milk, and we do milk quality testing for several other processors too,” he says.
Lyon manages a staff of 20 employees. “Our field staff who work with members and their processors — they do milk test verifications and tank calibrations to make sure members are being paid properly,” he says. “A lot of our members have recently added larger bulk tanks so they can have every-other-day milk pickup to reduce hauling costs.”
Lyon acknowledges that the past four and a half years have been challenging ones for all dairy farmers. He says FarmFirst has had members go out of business, but it has been able to add new members.
“Even though milk prices have improved, I think it will continue to be challenging times for dairy farmers,” Lyon says. “They need to build their equity back up, and in the short term, some will be challenged to have enough feed to get through to next spring. While we have seen milk prices increase, I’m afraid we’ll still see more farmers who have been waiting for decent cow prices sell out next spring.”
FarmFirst is holding its annual district meetings in November. Lyon plans to attend each meeting and speak to members.
“It is important to me to get out meet with our members,” he says. “We’ll discuss cooperative programs and services and the issues we have been lobbying on. We’ll hold our annual meeting Feb. 13-14 at the Oshkosh Premier Best Western. We expect we’ll have more than 200 members attending.”
Lyon and his wife, Karen, live in Middleton, Wis. They have two grown children.