YDLI’s Class 1 Alumni Share the Impact - Three Decades Later
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YDLI’s Class 1 Alumni Share the Impact – Three Decades Later

An exploratory article in our Spring 2023 issue written by Laura Holtzinger.

Recently I saw a roster of the Young Dairy Leaders Institute (YDLI) Class 1 alumni.  Knowing that my parents were members of that initial 1994-1995 class, as I identified their names, I was wowed by how many others jumped out at me, as industry and global trailblazers.  The list consists of agriculturalists from across the country, who have achieved prolific résumés as progressive farmers, world-renowned breeders, business professionals, and influential community, government, and industry representatives.

Each of the 100 Class 1 YDLI alumni have noteworthy careers, valuable insight, and unique stories, and I spoke to a cross section of the class, to illustrate both the common themes and the diversity of the applicants, and what YDLI has helped them achieve.

What is YDLI?

YDLI is a leadership program developed by The Holstein Foundation, for young adults ages 22-45, and is not exclusive to Holstein enthusiasts.  The program runs over a one-year period, and consists of three phases.  The first phase involves a three-day event, with speakers, interactive training sessions, and time to strategize and network with industry experts.  “The sessions and conversations include interpersonal communications, growth mindset, advocacy, community and industry involvement, influence, and embracing change.”  (Holstein Foundation) The attendees are given instructions for “homework” tasks that are to be executed and implemented throughout the year, followed by another three-day, interactive event.

Participant Backgrounds

Most of the participants’ beginnings were on small, family dairy farms, across the United States.  Not surprisingly, they were active in their 4-H clubs, FFA, judging teams, breed associations, junior advisory committees, church activities, and community groups.

Many attended agricultural colleges, to pursue dairy and animal science majors.  Others, like Kathleen O’Keefe, chose to expand their education beyond their farm background.  She majored in Art History at Northwestern University, “loved it and wouldn’t change a thing,” but knew by her junior year, when her friends were discussing their exciting, tropical spring break plans, while hers included a strong desire to be home clipping for classification, that she wanted to return to the dairy industry.

Others began farming immediately after high school, taking on the responsibility of the farm, either from or with their families, early in their careers.

Motivations to attend Class I 

I gathered information from about 20 alumni, and among the group were these common themes:

  • The applicants learned of the program therough print such as Hoard’s Dairyman or Holstein materials, or word of mouth.
  • This program appealed to them because it was so unique; the industry’s first personal and professional development program of its kind.  The potential for leadership growth and making connections made it especially compelling.
  • The candidates were intrigued, and not exactly sure what to expect.
  • There was significant interest in the program, and the application process was intense.  Regardless of their age, background, or stage of career at that point, the applicants all were uncertain they would be selected, and were thrilled when they were.
  • They were eager to incorporate their learnings into their farms, businesses, leadership roles, and communities.

Cowsmopolitan’s own Kathleen O’Keefe was full of excitement, faxing in her application and letters of recommendation. “I wanted to attend so badly.  I loved school, learning, training – sign me up, I love that stuff.  I took it very seriously.  Herds were more homogenous then, with less overlap of breeds, so it was a unique offering in that it wasn’t just for Holstein enthusiasts.”

“When it came to fruition, I was eager to sign up,” echoed Jill Nelson. “There was a lot of interest in the program, which was limited to 100 attendees, and I was very honored to be selected, especially being so young at the time.”

“Everyone was talking about it and hoped to be accepted,” recalls Tim Baumgartner. “It was one of the most unique opportunities ever offered to young dairy enthusiasts.”

Kyle Knutson felt really honored to be selected. “I barely made the age requirement, wasn’t quite out of college yet, and – besides judging collegiately – I didn’t feel that my resume was impressive then.  I wasn’t from a well-known farm, didn’t have a recognizable last name; I just always loved cattle.  It’s neat to be a part of the first year of a program that, almost 30 years later, continues to be impactful.  I still think of fun activities and interesting exercises that we did, and the relationships forged there.  It was impactful that even established people were seeking to improve and become a better leader.”

Bonnie and John Mohr felt that the program was “an innovative idea,” and “sounded like a great chance to learn about what others were doing, in the same fields,” and to “be a part of a culture of ‘future thinking’.”

Many, like Kate Geppert, were eager to “build a broad network of knowledge, friendships, and involvements,” and interested in the speakers and leaders. “To me, so many of them were stars in the dairy industry and I was really looking forward to listening and learning from them.  I still remember one of our speakers – Emory Austin.  I purchased one of her cassettes – yes, it was the dark ages! – of her speeches and listened to it for many years.”

Mark Crave was among those that felt YDLI provided training that otherwise may not have been received by returning to the farm post-academia. “I’m really grateful for YDLI because it provided me insight and guidance that my peers might’ve gotten from a position in a support industry or other company, but since I worked with family this was a very valuable experience.  Being an independent farmer feels without support some days, and I gained it through YDLI.  They invested a lot of energy and thought into developing a great program, with high-quality speakers, media training, a lot of networking, and producers from different parts of the country.  I remember thinking ‘this is high-end stuff.’  It was focused on us the people, instead of production; on us being stronger leaders and more prepared professionals.  This was the first time I was exposed to professional development in adulthood, and YDLI allowed me to feel like I was keeping pace with other industry professionals.”

“The opportunity to learn how to network, grow, and communicate well” was what motivated Mark Rueth to apply.  He had been on the road fitting full-time, year-round back then, and since YDLI is in February, it was at a good time of year to get away.“We got to broaden our horizons, learn new skills, and take a next-level-up approach.  If you’re open-minded and try to take it all in, you’re going to grow and develop more.  It’s fun to look back and see who all was there, and how successful people have been, and how much networking and growth happened at YDLI.”

Paul Trapp’s then-boss at ABS, Ed Peck, had suggested he apply. “The program seemed appealing, and I was excited to meet people from across the country.  The industry can sometimes be a lonely industry, and seeing the passion in others helps fuel my passion too.  Always ask questions, whether it’s judging, showing.  There are a lot of helpful people in our industry, just ask.”

Marilyn and Duane Hershey had also been encouraged to apply.  They had already been farming together for about 10 years, and were active in several organizations, but “this was the cream of the crop, and a powerhouse group!”

Kevin Holtzinger, who had been farming for about 15 years by then, was pulled by a “growing passion for the Holstein registered business, and excitement about the group of people they were seeking, and the program they had created.”

“YDLI sounded like a great way to expand on leadership ability, and it absolutely was.  It motivated me to become more involved in local and state Holstein, and other ag interests, and more recently local politics.  There were tremendous speakers, who were relatable, and focused on public speaking and interpersonal skills.  I took a lot away from it.  Surround yourself with good people because attitudes are contagious.  I’m a strong believer in ‘good people doing good things makes a great community,’ and having that camaraderie from other breeders around the country was invaluable.  And, Florida in the wintertime sounded nice!”

The event, held in Tampa that year, provided a “great chance to travel,” said Kyle Knutson.

For the numerous Midwestern participants, attending a conference in Florida in February was a relief from the severe cold.  Peter Coyne remembers that it was 17 below zero in Minnesota the evening before the event.  He had needed to pick up protein from the mill, but the truck wouldn’t start.  When it was all said and done, he recalls “It was after 1:00 am, and I was frozen.  We flew just a few hours later, and it was 83 degrees in Tampa.”

Coyne’s fond memories of his YDLI experience include when he and other attendees “drove up to North Florida Holsteins, and Don Bennink welcomed a group of young knuckleheads and greeted us like we were royalty.  It was neat.  We made a few other visits too, and had a lot of fun down there!”

Coyne marveled about how dynamic the presenters were. “They didn’t only give you a speech, but also taught you how to tell a story, and think really deeply – this involved highly emotional topics, and conversations about how to make a speech last.  How do you get the group to hear what you say, and catch the finer points – it was really impactful.  And they were so generous with their time!  They traveled there, for a group of young people, really with no expectation of what they’d get back.  Icons like Select Sires’ legend Dick Chichester sat at tables and around the pool with us; that wasn’t part of the class, but was part of the learning.”

Crave shared a similar memory of these greats’ behavior resonating with him.  “There were board members and impressive breeders at dinner, and ABS pioneer Bob Walton asked if he could sit at our table.  ‘Of course!’  He asked us all about ourselves, didn’t talk about himself at all, and I really learned a lot by observing him.”

“YDLI was a super resource to help push our limits a bit, and to consider and work through methods to manage the difficulties and conversations that we (as farmers) so often have to have,” said Coyne. “Any time you’re in a leadership position, there’s a lot of times that it’s not easy, which can be really frustrating, really hard.  What would one of those people who spoke to us at YDLI do right now?  How would my classmates handle it?  There are times you have to step back and reflect, and YDLI was certainly important.”

Being prepared to debate hot topics and intelligently defend dairy methods were vitally important skills, including because this was when BST was making its debut, and PETA was hot on its tail. This was also “moving into the time of needing more people on the farm, not just ‘a family operation’ – everything was really changing at a high rate of speed,” elaborated Coyne.

As a result of these controversies, Karen Cramer was among those serving as a liaison through PA Farm Bureau, helping communicate with and through area farmers affected by media struggles.  Already farming, mentoring, and serving on the dairy promotion committee and in other local leadership roles several years prior, Cramer’s primary motivation for attending YDLI was the emphasis on advocating.   “If you wanted to learn how to be a more positive advocate, that’s where you needed to be.”

Cramer’s interests always included becoming a better educator, public speaker, tour host; that’s what she was doing already, and YDLI provided knowledge and tools that helped “ensure we were all presenting to the best of our abilities.”

Peggy and John Sparrgrove, who also were and continue to be active in dairy promotion, including by hosting farm open houses, bringing calves to schools, and interacting with the public at shows, shared this eagerness “to learn better ways to communicate the stories of ag to the consumers.”

“We are always going to need and use leadership skills, and the ability to educate and advocate,” said Cramer.  “As long as we’re living, we should be learning, and anytime we can benefit ourselves and others, we should.  I learned more about me through the program, too, and how to better myself and those who work with me.”

O’Keefe echoes this appreciation for the fresh perspective that YDLI offered.  “Those days farmers were a little behind the message, and it was a highlight of the class for me, to have access to the excellent presenters, and the quality of discussions, varied opinions, and how to coherently express your opinion about a wide range of political, policy-driven topics.”

“There was pent-up demand and enthusiasm for this kind of program,” believes Pete Kappelman. “The room filled from the front to the back everyone was so eager, and when a presenter asked for a volunteer, about 90 of the 100 raised their hands.”

Lasting impacts of YDLI

When Jill Nelson attended YDLI, she was fresh out of college, working her first post-college job with ABS, had just begun dating her now-husband, and knew she wanted to be farming.  There weren’t many women back then who were in the farming and leadership roles she desired to be, and her YDLI experience gave her confidence that she “belongs, and could have a career in the industry outside of an office job.”

“Other people there were 15 years older and well-established, and connecting with movers and shakers of the industry really encouraged me.  Networking with the people I met there, that I’ve gotten to be great friends with and can still reach out to; it’s not always what you know but who you know.  Every person is a resource and having that community is invaluable; a network of fantastic, forward-thinking leaders, who challenge and encourage each other.”

Nelson continued, “Back then, there wasn’t much media training, so learning to hear catchphrases, to listen to the actual language, helps with debate situations and navigating today’s journalism, and biases.  A lot of that training began at YDLI.  It was fantastic!”

Nelson spent five years after YDLI as a dairy nutritionist, which she says the program helped prepare her for.  Since then, her areas of interest and involvement include breeding great Holstein genetics as owner of Omlar Farms (2017 National Holstein Elite Breeder Award), being highly involved in farm bureau organizations, serving on ADA and breed boards, and looking more at the political side of agriculture, being active in policy “with legislators to help gain resolutions about what affects dairy farmers and profitability.”

O’Keefe considers YDLI significant in building her confidence and helping her navigate her dreams. “It was influential in shaping my thoughts about how and where I wanted to go next.  It helped make me brave.  Our homework from the first year to the second included to participate in trainings, give tours, and run for office and leadership positions.  Following YDLI, I ran for Wisconsin Holstein Board, and was elected.  I was one of the first female board members and much younger than the median age; it was good for me, and good for the board.  YDLI was a kick in the rear to get out of your comfort zone.  Whatever you’re working towards, you have to take that first step with a little bravery.”

O’Keefe’s career has included working for such companies as Holstein USA, HolsteinWorld, and A.I. Total, prior to 2019 when she became the Co-Owner and Co-Editor of Cowsmopolitan.  Part of her hope is to have Cowsmo and its coverage feel as inclusive as possible, to help benefit and encourage dairy enthusiasts from all backgrounds.

She attributes her success to the skills that her art history degree helped her develop and sharpen, and the network of people, including those she met though YDLI that helped her learn to take a risk. “You’re never going to be great at everything, but I’m not afraid to be seen trying.”

Kathleen marvels at how cyclical life is, as now she is among those writing recommendation letters for YDLI applicants. “It’s astounding the number of people from that first class that now have positions of leadership in the industry – and set the stage for the classes to come. From Class 1 to Class 11, the program has been beneficial to so many!  The originators and sponsors behind YDLI deserve a big shout out for their dedication to creating and funding this valuable program.”

Marilyn Hershey always loved the farm, and knew she’d marry a farmer, and that her careers would be in dairy.  She attended a one-year Bible college in Montana, and worked one year as a restaurant server, and otherwise has been consistently involved in numerous aspects of the dairy industry.  Besides marrying her farmer, Duane, and owning and operating Ar-Joy Farms with him, she has an agricultural writing career, “which worked well in conjunction with farming and parenting.”  She is the author of a children’s book, and has been writing for Hoard’s Dairyman since 2008, including as the voice behind the column Common Threads.  She was honored as the 2017 Dairy Woman of the Year, and is currently the first female Chair of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI).

“So much of what I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this, starting from my term as dairy princess, and definitely including my YDLI experience.  The programs gave me heart, and experiences talking, speaking with consumers, and promoting dairy.”

She attributes her success to her faith, Duane’s support, and mentors and peers who have inspired her. “You look at women that have stepped out, and have had courage, and have led the way, including who have been through tough situations, and still are courageous, step out, and lead.”
On fear, Marilyn believes, “It’s good to be a little scared; it keeps me on toes, keeps me humble.”
The Hershey’s prioritize environmental stewardship, implementing conservation methods including a methane digestor, that converts manure to electricity that produces enough gas to power their farm, plus surplus for the area.

Crave has continued to farm with family as Crave Brothers Farm, and they also utilize a methane digestor in efforts to “diversify their renewable energy.”

“20 years ago, we started our own farmstead cheese processing, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, and, like a lot of people, have grown our farm, with 12 family members and about 80 full-time employees involved.  This growth provides opportunity to people in our community and rural and local economy – we’re proud to participate in that.  Part of YDLI’s title is ‘leaders,’ and they really emphasized that, as young producers, we were more than just cow milkers and farmers, but also leaders in our communities.  YDLI invited legislators to discuss how important and valuable our voices are, including in our local communities, and how much impact we can make.  The affirmation that you are important people, and your voice is valuable, and the message rings different.”

Crave raves about what a great group of attendees it was. “Formerly young, anxious, eager professionals, that wanted to keep moving forward in the industry.  It’s cool to follow the names and stories.” Crave had the opportunity to speak at a DMI meeting, where Marilyn Hershey gave the introduction; an example of the “YDLI bond” at work.

Baumgartner, whose plan had been to “take it all in and learn as much as possible,” emphasizes that the connections with Class 1 members have lasted a lifetime.  “At the time of YDLI, I was on the Board of Directors for the RWDCA.  Later, I became President.  I believe the experiences at YDLI were great learning moments, that assist in running meetings, public speaking, keeping discussions timely and organized.”  He cites his YDLI learnings as empowering tools in his career, including as a classifier (of five breeds), cattle analyst, and genetics manager.

Geppert says she “always had the thirst to learn and work hard, and was not afraid to try something new,” and that “opportunities like YDLI played a big part in my successes.”  She was inspired by the presenters, and her classmates.

“I could see what other people were doing that was working, so maybe I should consider other possibilities besides my own.  Some are still very treasured friends that I know I can call on at any time.” Geppert’s dairy career includes agricultural communications, holding offices with Missouri and National Holstein associations, and being active with numerous boards, and the National Holstein Women’s Scholarship Organization.

Bonnie and John Mohr of Bonnie Mohr Studio and Glenmark Genetics attribute their dairy industry careers to “pure love and passion, from the cows to the people,” and are most grateful for “the wholesome, happy, and fulfilling lifestyle” and “way to raise their family.”  Bonnie’s artwork transcends the dairy industry, portraying agricultural scenes that capture the bovine and divine beauty.

Kappelman and Rueth both describe themselves as having been painfully shy as youth, though their careers post-YDLI wouldn’t suggest that.

Kappelman of Meadow Brook Dairy Farms is in a Senior Vice President role with Land O’Lakes, and is a crop and dairy farmer involved in advocacy and numerous agricultural organizations. “YDLI was extremely impactful for me, to the point that it helped me focus in on my dreams and aspirations to pursue my plans.  The program gave me confidence to think even bigger, expand my horizons.  I remember leaving the event and thinking ‘that was the best thing I ever attended,’ as far as professional development.”

Rueth farms and offers boarding services at Rosedale Genetics, judges internationally, and has exhibited numerous Grand and Supreme Champions at World Dairy Expo.  He’s said he “is a product of the Holstein Association,” and feels strongly about “trying to put back into programs what they’ve given you, so kids can have great opportunities and grow their business.”

Yeazel of Ja-Bob Holsteins has used his breeding program to develop such evolutionary genetic offerings as polled, A2/A2, and now “slick,” a heat-tolerant trait, to create opportunities and promote agriculture and sustainability globally.  He is active in Christian missions, including that grow food in lesser-developed countries, and supply milk coolers to food banks locally.

Many other alumni have used the skills and tools from YDLI to improve their farms and businesses, and breed better cattle and highly successful, progressive herds.  They also market their genetics, serve as elected officials through breed associations, cooperatives, and local politics, and are active across school and fair boards, organizations, and more.

These include: Daryl Nunes of Ocean-View Genetics, Kevin Holtzinger of Ke-Holtz Dairy, and Peggy and John Sparrgrove of Irish Grove Dairy.

Paul Trapp of Pit-Crew Genetics has held several positions within the ranks of sire companies, including presently as Product Acquisition Specialist at Semex USA.

Knutson of Prairie Creek Genetics, whose career included positions with International Protein Sires, Alta Genetics, Premier Select Sires, and Accelerated Genetics, has been a Route Sales Manager for Frito Lay since 2001.

Other alumni succeeding in sales and management positions include Coyne at VitaPlus and Cramer with Rutter’s.  Both Coyne and Cramer’s careers have also included dairy farming closely with their spouses and children, and actively mentoring and supporting youth through various outlets including dairy judging, Jr Holstein, and 4-H.  In fact, Coyne was Trapp’s judging coach.

Several of this first class have already been recognized as Distinguished Alumni Leader Award Recipients, including Bonnie Burr, Kate Geppert, Bonnie Mohr, Marilyn and Duane Hershey, Jerry Jennissen, and Pete Kappelman.

Another special element of this program and class, is how they have raised, and are continuing to benefit, the next generations.  Whether it be through promoting YDLI, or helping prepare and develop passionate, motivated, informed youth as their leaders, coaches, mentors, role models, and parents.  Among Coyne’s various roles, he is the father of two recent YDLI alumni, and father-in-law of another.  Kappelman’s son, Mitch, was honored as the 2022 Distinguished Young Holstein Breeder.  Many Class 1 alumni’s children are also contributing to the industry already as farmers, breeders, showpersons, judges, bull stud analysts, dairy program specialists, and Distinguished Youth.  Others are pursuing careers in sustainability, cheesemaking, writing, marketing, and advocacy.

This is the first in an occasional series on leadership and professional training programs available in the dairy industry. Subscribe to the Cowsmopolitan magazine for more insight on programs from around the globe!

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