Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm conjures up images of cows, milk and good neighbors. But a career in business? In fact, it was a neighborly act that launched Dan Belk's career on the business side of the dairy industry, rather than the underside of a cow.
Mr. Belk gradated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 1992 with bachelor's degrees in both ag business and ag economics with plans to buy a dairy farm adjacent to his parents' homestead. He planned to put his business education to work when applying for bank loans, taking care of accounting needs and generally running a successful dairy farm enterprise.
But milk prices were so low when he graduated from college that the neighbor refused to sell the farm, fearing that to do so would be to destroy a young man's future. Instead, the neighbor advised the young grad to start looking for a job.
The result? Mr. Belk hitched his milk wagon to a career with Baraboo, Wis.-based Foremost Farms USA. Among the Top 10 dairy cooperatives in the country, the cooperative employees roughly 1,500 people and operates 20 manufacturing facilities and one milk transfer station for its 3,600 dairy farmer-members in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.
Mr. Belk started at the co-op in 1992 as a field representative, where he put his farm background and education to good use providing service to the co-op's dairy farmer members. He moved up the ranks, and was recently promoted to procurement manager, with responsibility for overseeing producer programs, hauling policies and field staff in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio as well as bulk fluid customer relations, the Indianapolis office staff and the central milk testing laboratory.
You & Your Career
Tell us about your career in the agriculture business/economics field. Where did your interest start?
I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin, and what led me to the agriculture business field was my high school vocational aid instructor, who was fresh out of college. One day he asked the class how many of us planned on pursuing a career in agriculture. Not many hands went up. He advised us that our lesson plans were coming straight from his notes from college, and we should consider agriculture majors in college. His point was that we had a head start: if you grow up with it all of your life, a cow still has four stomachs, no matter if you are two years old or going to be 40 years old. That was the start of my schooling interest in the agriculture field.
My plans originally were to finish school, then go back and buy the neighbor's dairy farm right next to my dad's farm. That was my original plan, but when I was coming out of college in 1992, milk prices were about $10 per hundredweight (a historic low), and the neighbor said, "I can't do this to you." So he told me maybe I should look for a job instead. And I did; I've been with Foremost Farms ever since.
How have your experiences with Foremost Farms USA contributed to your success?
Foremost Farms has a really good training program. Howard Mack, a procurement manager with us, gave me responsibility of a small area of about 30 farms, and that was my starting point. He'd go out with me on a weekly basis, and we'd see the farms and take care of problems as they arose. They offered many training programs pertaining to being field reps. They also had me ride with milk haulers and other experienced field reps; most field reps at the time had 30 to 35 years experience, and the knowledge you gain from people with experience is unbelievable.
How has your career with Foremost Farms USA prepared you for your recent promotion? What do you enjoy most about your new role with the co-op?
What I enjoy most about my new position is the challenge – not that being a field rep wasn't a challenge – but I like having new and different challenges every day as the procurement manager. It has opened up the dairy industry side of the business to me, now I have a better understanding the decisions being made at an executive level.
What I take from the field rep side is when you're dealing with farmers, they are businessmen, and they all have different personalities. Coming inside the office, I'm dealing with employees, and find that everyone has their own unique style and personality of doing things. I've learned that it's not how they adapt to you and your management style; it's how you adopt to them to get the job done.
You are a past president of the Wisconsin Field Representative Association and have belonged to various other field rep organizations. How is such membership important to your career?
It's basically on-the-job training. The groups bring in field reps from other areas, it shows you the problems and challenges you have are also the same problems they have. The business is pretty much the same no matter what side of the fence you are on.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
Probably the biggest inspiration was the high school vocational agriculture instructor pointing out that when you grow up on the farm, there's not a lot a professors can teach you that you don't know. A field rep named Dave Lour was a guy who spent extra time with me, showed me the tricks of the trades and made my life easier. It was the training of Howard Mack, with his wealth of experiences that got me on my way.
What was your greatest success? Biggest setback?
My greatest success thus far is that I don't think I've reached it – it is still a work in progress. I still challenge myself each day to get better at what I'm doing; I also challenge myself to improve myself and to keep moving up within the company.
I don't know if I consider anything a real major failure; one thing I've worked on over time is remembering that you have two ears, and that you have listen before you speak.
What are some of your favorite projects completed in your career and why?
I don't have one favorite project, but what I feel is a great success is when you're working with a dairy producer (farmer) and you find the source or cause of problem, and as a team, you come up with answer to solve the problem. That's about the most enjoyment a person can get, it's very satisfying.
What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
I don't want to set a limit on it; once you set a limit as to how high you can possibly go, you've sort of ended your career. To me, my future is far out in front of me, so I set myself up for the next level, the next challenge.
Do you feel that is important for someone to be passionate about agriculture business/economics in order to be successful in the field?
Everything in the agriculture business field relates back to the farmer. Starting out as a field rep, on the weekends, I would milk cows for my farmers. I'd call it my hobby, but it also put me back to on-farm situations, and there's no greater experience for a person than to keep reminding yourself of the challenges of being a dairy producer or whoever you are dealing with: A cow will come up with mastitis, something will break. You have to care about your profession in order to be successful at it. If you're not passionate about something, it becomes work, or just a job. You're getting paid, but if you don't enjoy it, you're not going to be successful.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your agriculture business/economics field education.
I graduated from University of Wisconsin – Platteville with degrees in agriculture business, and agriculture economics. I chose those two fields because my plans were to go back to the dairy farms; what I wanted from those two degrees was if I was going to go to the bank and borrow money, or work with an accountant, I wanted to have an understanding of what was being said and done in order to succeed.
I received a couple scholarships, and belonged to some of the agriculture groups on campus. You need to participate with some of the ag groups; they open up your opportunities in the field.
What drove you to complete two degrees?
At the time, I had a friend at school that was majoring in agriculture economics, and I was gong for agriculture business. We kept winding up in the same classes; basically they were the same track, so we looked into it and found out the double major required an extra eight or so classes. So we both did it!
How did you find your school?
I checked out a couple of other schools, including UW Madison; one of the reasons I chose UW Platteville was there were only three or four students from my hometown going there, and I don't necessarily follow the crowd. The professors seemed to take a genuine interest in me when I visited.
How do agriculture business/economics studies differ from traditional business/economics programs?
I think the big difference between the two is that the ag business classes were all related back to the farm and its business concepts. And that's what I wanted to go into, to learn the business end of the farming concepts.
How can prospective agriculture business/economics students assess their skill and aptitude?
You can't be afraid to ask the people in the profession what they do, what they like ad dislike about their jobs. In the agriculture field, it's a lot of service work. If you are people oriented, you better get to the point where you have a good comforts level speaking with all sorts of people.
How has your education benefited your career?
What education does for you, more than anything else, is it shows the employer you're willing and able to learn new ideas and adapt.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing an agriculture business/economics school?
My tip to students going into school is to find a school you're comfortable with, not just the one your friends are going to. If you are really planning on going into the agriculture field, don't be afraid to ask people coming out to the farm about what they like about the job, it's a good indicator.
Based on what you hear in the dairy industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious schools, departments or programs?
It's interesting, I don't think there's a preference to where you get your degree; the main thing is to maintain your grades, get involved as much as possible. And it doesn't hurt to grow up on a farm.
What can students applying to agriculture business/economics schools do to increase their chances of being accepted?
I would say to get involved in local Future Farmers of America chapters, your 4-H organization, and maintain your high school grades. If ag is a field you want to take on, don't be afraid to take those classes in high school to prepare for college coursework.
What advice can you give to prospective students thinking about an education and career in agriculture business/economics?
Pick a career that is something you take an interest in, and if it's something you truly believe in your heart you want to do, there are endless bounds of opportunity.
The Actual Work
Describe a typical week of work for you. What exactly do you do? What are your key responsibilities? On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
A typical day varies from day to day, week to week. Some days I may be dealing with dairy producer with a complaint on a milk quality test or about one of my field reps, then within the next five minutes I'm dealing with a milk hauler complaining about wait times, then federal order markets and milk pricing, then I can end up in the lab running the somatic cell machine. I have to be prepared for almost anything at any times.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Dealing with people. You can't expect people to change, sometimes you have to change. Maybe when you do, it will make the other people realize they can change a little. Most people don't do what you expect, they do what you inspect; if you don't follow up, it probably won't done.
What specialized computer programs do agriculture business/economics professionals typically use? How important is it for graduating students to be well-versed with these programs?
A person better be up on basic programs like Excel, Word, spread sheets that you make with the computer. You need to be well versed in it.
How is the job market now in the industry? How do you think it will be in five years?
Companies are downsizing but, if we take a look at the average age of people in the dairy industry, it's getting to be quite old. Within the next five to 10 years, there's going to be quite a bit of turnover, so there will be excellent opportunities to get into the field.
What are the best ways to get a job in the agriculture business/economics field? How available are internships and other hands-on student experiences?
Internships, any kind of experience you can get is great. A lot of companies will hire their interns back, they are a great way to gain experience with a particular company and with the different careers available.
How has the popularity of the Internet affected the agriculture business/economics field?
Contrary to what some people believe, as younger people take the place of older farmers (and even some of the older farmers); they are very well versed in using the computer. A lot of farmers would prefer an e-mail to the phone as a source of communication. The Internet is a great way to keep up with prices, dairy quality tracking, keep track of the future prices on CME, it's really helped. Now the farmers don't have to listen to the radio for that information any more.
What are some of the top challenges facing the agriculture business/economics field over the next decade?
One of the top challenges that will be facing the dairy field is people on both the business and farmer sides retiring. Finding people to replace them will be a real big deal.
Another top challenge facing the dairy industry is the price of fuel and transportation, that's one of the highest costs in the industry, transportation of milk to the farm to the plant or the product from the plant to the end user. It's a very hot, big issue right now.
Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the agriculture business/economics world that would be interesting or helpful to students?
Sometimes opportunities will come up for you to leave your job and go to another company, and it may look good and promising at the time, but often if you sit back and handle the challenges you are dealing with in your current position, they will reward you in the end. Sometimes it might be a little longer than what you are looking for, rather than jumping to a different to company, but longevity and knowing an organization can be a great strategy. It has worked for me!
Editor's Note: If you would like to follow up with Mr. Belk personally regarding his experiences in the world of agriculture business, click here.