A Young Producer's Reflection on Leadership

By Ben Smith, 2022 MDVA Outstanding Young Cooperator

WhenMaryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association (MDVA) approached me about writing a blog recapping my year as Outstanding Young Cooperator (YC), my first thought was “no thanks!” I’m not one to share my highs or lows and consider myself an introvert. After getting another nudge from staff, I decided to embrace my remarks from last year’s annual meeting about “saying yes.”

Here we are.

2022 was a year of highs for our family-owned dairy business. We saw strong milk prices, an exceptional growing season, strong crop yields, and MDVA made huge accomplishments in sustainability and marketing.

Being a part of MDVA’s YC program for the past 10 years I have seen many Outstanding YCs come through the program. Many of these farmers are people I looked up to, and now consider friends. I had always considered applying for outstanding YC but it always seemed like married couples were elected – I didn’t have a chance!  Low and behold the opportunity came around at the end of 2021 to apply for Outstanding YC and, with a bit of encouragement, took the plunge to apply. 2022 started off on a high note as I was elected Outstanding YC by my peers.

MDVA provided me with a number of eye-opening opportunities during my year of service which included:

  • The opportunity to be a voice for MDVA at a national level.
  • Sharing my perspective on a producer panel at our annual meeting.
  • Attending the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) summer conference where we had the chance to see Washington D.C., meet with our legislators, network with other YCs, and learn what NMPF is doing to advance our industry.
  • July brought the MDVA YC Summer Break in Maryland. I missed this chance to catch up with my peers due to farm employees taking vacation. It’s just what happens in this business.
  • In November, NMPF hosted their annual meeting in Denver, Colorado. I took my fiancé along for her first soiree into the world of dairy conferences. We also took in some beautiful scenery together!
  • In December I was invited to be on a young producer panel at the MILK Business Conference in Las Vegas. I was able to share my perspectives alongside farmers from New York and California during the panel.

Having the chance to attend and learn from all these different events is a wonderful experience, the real value is the people you meet and develop lasting relationships with.

Aside from the opportunities that came with being a YC, I had the chance to purchase the farm from my parents and start construction on a new milking parlor. I also became engaged to my beautiful fiancé, Dana. Looking back on the year it’s hard to believe that there was enough time to go and do so much. None of it would have been possible without the help from my family and team back at the farm.

2022 brought many highs to my life, but they came after a storm of lows. All dairy farmers faced poor milk prices and other farm uncertainties during the pandemic. I also lost my long-term girlfriend to heart failure in June 2020. As I worked through this grief, tragedy stuck again.  In May 2021 my cousin, Trip Bopp, was killed. Having grown up together, we shared the same ambitions and hoped that someday we could farm together. I don’t share these tragedies looking for sympathy. I share these highs and lows because we never know what life is going to give us, it may be opportunities travel and meet new people. Or it may be loss that test our faith and character. No matter what happens in life its about choices. How we chose to react in a situation, how we chose to wake up and keep farming every day despite the hardships, and how we say “yes” to an opportunity. We all have choices.

A wise man once said to me, “there are blessings all around us, sometimes we just have to look for them.” I think that’s true, especially for ones that get to be apart of feeding the world. We are blessed to be able to do what we do every day. If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll take on a “yes” mindset for yourself and jump on future leadership opportunities that come your way.

About the Author: Ben Smith is a fourth-generation dairy farmer from Remington, Virginia. He was selected by his peers to serve as the 2022 Outstanding Young Cooperator for Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association. The Smith family takes great pride in producing quality milk and creating a positive environment for their family, employees, and cows. Ben is a 2012 Virginia Tech graduate and serves in various roles with the Fauquier County Farm Bureau,  Virginia Holstein Association, and Citizens for Fauquier County.