“Someone once told me that the good story always wins. But the good story’s not going to win unless we tell it. As farmers, we have a really good story to tell consumers,” Land O’Lakes member-owner Marilyn Hershey says.
This seemingly simple concept is a guiding principle behind Marilyn’s extensive career. It’s a career that has taken her from her and her husband Duane’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania to becoming a leading voice in the industry—and one that was recently honored at World Dairy Expo when she was named Dairy Woman of the Year.
Since 1969, the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., has been recognizing dairy farmers for outstanding work and dedication to the dairy industry. Each year Expo honors four individuals with the distinguished International Person of the Year, Industry Person of the Year, Dairyman of the Year and Dairy Woman of the Year awards.
“Winners must excel in their dairy practices, farmers need to have efficient production, progressive practices and a history of achievement,” says Kristin Olson, media relations manager for World Dairy Expo. “Beyond that they must be active outside the dairy whether it’s in their communities, the industry or with governmental activities.”
Those familiar with Marilyn know the farmer, author and board member excels in each of those categories. But that doesn’t mean this honor didn’t come as a surprise.
“I’m very humbled by the whole thing. I’m still trying to process the whole thing. Then, when I looked at the list of names who've received this prior to me, it was even more humbling,” says Marilyn. “I’m honored that people feel I've accomplished enough to receive this recognition.
A farmer first
While the list of accomplishments that led to her receiving this honor is vast, it’s all centered around life on the farm.
“My family’s farm where I grew up was only about 10 miles from where Duane and I farm today,” Marilyn says. “I always enjoyed farming and the farming lifestyle. I always knew that’s where I wanted to end up.”
Today, she and Duane operate Ar-Joy Farms, an 800-cow, 550-acre dairy farm in Lancaster County where they take pride in producing quality milk as efficiently as possible. And while their four children chose to pursue careers off the farm, Ar-Joy Farms is still very much family-owned-and-operated.
“My farther actually works for us now. He had sold his cows and started driving a truck but came back to work for us,” Marilyn says. “And he is still out there every single day at 89.”
A skilled promoter
As her kids got older, Marilyn had a little more time on her hands and began exploring ways to get involved more broadly throughout the industry. As a kid, her experience as a local dairy princess helped her see the value in the industry’s promotional efforts so she figured that was a good place to start.
In 2008, she began writing a monthly column for Hoard's Dairyman called Common Threads.
“I get to write whatever I feel like. Hoards took a chance on a farm girl who had a story to tell,” Marilyn says. “I didn’t have a journalism background, but they gave me a shot, and it’s been really great.”
Then in 2011 she elevated her passion for promotion to another level when she was nominated and subsequently selected by then Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to serve on the National Dairy Research and Promotion Board, which eventually led to her being named vice-chair of Dairy Management, Inc. These are the groups charged with managing farmer-funded programs that drive dairy consumption through product promotion, research and nutrition education. Think “Got Milk” and “Fuel Up to Play 60.”
“I took some time off when the kids were little because it was hard to get away. But promotion was always important to me so, when I had the opportunity to run for National Dairy Board, it seemed like a good fit,” Marilyn says. “Fifteen or 20 years ago I may not have been so bold but you need to have a bit of courage to tell your story.”
A caring neighbor
Although farming and dairy promotion have been a big part of her life, it’s not the only thing. Family and helping others are also some of Marilyn’s defining traits. When her son Robert was 4 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer. While Robert was going through treatment, Marilyn noticed that there weren’t many books that addressed the treatment in a kid friendly manner so she decided to change that.
“I noticed there weren’t any picture books that were more light-hearted and easy to read. Robert wanted nothing to do with them,” she says. “I had been dabbling with children’s writing at the time so I decided to give it a shot.”
What she came up with was Oncology, Stupidology…I Want to Go Home a picture book now found in hospitals around the world. Robert responded well to the treatment and grew up to be a youth pastor and construction worker. And Marilyn’s book continues to help child cancer patients every day, having been reprinted three times and also being available in Spanish.
An industry leader
When originally notified that she had been named Dairy Woman of the Year, Marilyn mentioned that she was humbled to join the list of women who had previously received the honor. But now as a member of this exclusive group, she wants to encourage the next generation to get out there and continue driving the industry forward.
“Male or female, we all have a role and there are some very qualified people in agriculture,” she says. “If you have a passion for a portion of the industry or more locally within your community, there are a lot of places where we need farmers’ voices. If you want to do something you just need to go after it.”
Land O’Lakes congratulates Marilyn for this incredible and well-deserved honor. She is a shining example of the extraordinary men and women who we are proud to call our cooperative members owners and who serve as ambassadors of modern agriculture.