“All roads lead back home,” says Eileen Jensen, executive director of the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition.
She should know. The roads she traveled eventually led her back to New York, where she now advocates for animal agriculture in The Empire State.
It’s a job that often puts her on the frontlines of responding to big controversies in the industry. Dumping milk due to restaurants and schools closing this spring required the industry to be proactive in explaining how the milk supply chain works and why moving milk from one market to another wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
With any controversy, she says, the key thing is to be positive and proactive.
“They're tough subjects, and we have to talk about them because that's where the questions are coming from right now," she says. "We work with farmers to tell their story, so at the end of the day that's what I take pride in, is helping farmers tell their story because if they don't, someone else is going to tell it for them.”
Jensen grew up on her family’s dairy farm in the Finger Lakes region. The 300-cow farm was sold 20 years ago.
Growing up on the dairy instilled in her a passion for the industry, but she wanted to do something completely different when she went to college.
"I wanted to be ultimately on the sidelines of the Super Bowl broadcasting for ESPN. So I wanted to broadcast when the Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl and win the Super Bowl," she says.
But she quickly realized that agriculture was her first love, so she changed her plans and got into teaching. For a short time she was a high school ag teacher.
"My challenge when I was teaching high school agriculture was that I was telling my students to go get experience and go get work experience, and I didn't have that myself," she says.
When she got the chance to work for Monsanto (Bayer) as a brand ambassador, she took it. She traveled for a year in a tractor-trailer traversing the U.S. to talk to people about modern farming production.
“That provided perspective that I wasn’t going to be able to get in my hometown if I stayed here,” she says. “And the other thing, learning just how big the ag industry is.”
After Monsanto, Jensen took a job with Osborn and Barr (now known as OBP). She worked for Osborn and Barr for four years and helped start the America’s Farmers program, an initiative where farmers and Monsanto (Bayer) select nonprofits or other community organizations to award grants.
One of the best things about the experience, she says, is that her mother’s 4-H county got a grant, too.
“The best part is that it’s still going,” she says.
After Osborn and Barr, she took a job with Bader Rutter in Milwaukee, focusing more on ag machinery. Case IH was a client of hers, and she worked on the launch of the company’s Early Riser planter five years ago. She helped put together the marketing plan.
"It was a pretty awesome opportunity to be on that team, but it was a lot of work,” she says. “It is a lot of work, and it's a lot of open dialogue and communication between engineers and the communications team and the marketing team to determine a few things. First, how the equipment works, and then put it into terms that would make a farmer want to purchase the product and what are the avenues for selling it. So, bringing all of those elements together can be a really big challenge.”
"For me it was a challenge because I didn't know high horsepower equipment at the time.”
Four years ago, she moved back home after getting a job with the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition.
She works with all sectors of animal agriculture to spread positive messages about the industry, but much of her focus is on dairy.
She worked as the coalition’s director of promotion and outreach, and last fall she became executive director.
The coalition itself is an organization of organizations. Six different ag organizations pay a membership fee and sit on the coalition’s board of directors.
The Dairy Cow Birthing Center at the New York State Fair was started 8 years ago. It’s run by the coalition and is its biggest event.
She says the exhibit attracts 300,000 people each year, with 36 calves born during the fair.
"So the best part of our exhibit is we have farmer and industry volunteers that are there all day everyday talking one on one with consumers and visitors and customers of dairy products," she says.
MIRACLE OF BIRTH: It won’t be seen this year due to the New York State Fair being cancelled, but the Dairy Cow Birthing Center at the fair is the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition’s biggest event of the year.
But the coalition does lots of other “agvocacy” as well. They help organize farm tours for local officials to help them understand the importance of dairy in local communities, and even provide communication tips to farmers to help them deal with neighbors.
Share positive messages
Instead of being defensive about what some people say about modern agriculture and animal production, Jensen pushes farmers to be proactive and positive, and talk about their own experiences.
"I really encourage farmers to talk about what you know. Don't talk about what happened but talk about what you know and talk about the impact out of what is happening," she says, especially on social media, which can be a good tool or a destructive weapon.
"You never who's listening, you never know who's reading, you never who's going to follow you and is going to comment,” she says. “But like I said, if you don't tell that story someone else is going to tell it for you, and you have no idea what they're going to say about you and your farm operation.”
For many young farmers, social media has not only become a tool to educate but also to entertain. It’s giving farmers a new way to express themselves and be more active in their communities.
“But think about this, we're all in this together, don't forget that,” she says. “And oftentimes in struggles and challenges, we tend to say negative things or bash components of the industry, big vs. small, we can't do that. You have to embrace everybody, and you have to embrace all aspects of ag. It takes all of us.
“Embrace your story and stand up for what you believe in and the industry you love, and then really live it up that we are all in this together.”