By Progressive Dairyman
Editor Walt Cooley
Kelly and Christy Cunningham were determined to own their own dairy in Iowa. But when their own plans fell through, fate landed them in Atlantic, Iowa, in 2000 as managers and partners of a 2,700-cow dairy.
“When we first came, a couple of contractors we had working on the dairy said, ‘You need to get into the coffee shops and hear what people are saying about the dairy,’” Christy says.
The couple decided to put to rest any “wild stories” and untruths about confined dairy operations that may have been perpetuated among the 7,000-plus residents of Atlantic. The following year they opened their dairy in June for a dairy open house and gave anyone in the community an opportunity to see how cows are milked, fed and cared for everyday.
“The first open house was extremely well received,” Christy says. “Radio and our local farm monthly magazine were really good to us.”
Positive press has continued, and transparency, not activism, has helped maintain public perception of the dairy’s mission and commitment to the community, Christy says. Public relations manager and tour guide are just two of the responsibilities Christy lists under her job title. She is also the dairy’s receptionist, billing manager and human resource manager. The couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Jessica, and a 19-year-old son, Joshua, both help out on the dairy when needed. Yet she says the manager of just about everything is her husband.
“If it’s going on here, he’s usually involved,” Christy says.
Making sure the public understands their dairy is about the people and the animals, and not just profit, is important to the Cunninghams. During open houses and tours, they show visitors a DVD that describes the milking process in-depth from teat-stripping to post-dipping. They also share with visitors figures that estimate the dairy’s economic value to the community and its dairy workers.
“I first want to be conceived as a dairy producer, not just a business machine,” Christy says. “We care about the land and the animals. We strive to do everything we do in the most productive way we can.”
As large confinement facilities for swine have increased in popularity and opposition in Iowa, some have rolled over criticism onto larger dairy herds. But much of that criticism is generated from misconception, Christy says.
For example, when Christy learned that school children in her area were hearing from teachers how animals were treated with less care in larger facilities, she asked for a fair opportunity to tell a producer side to the story. That’s part of the reason she hosts 12 to 15 tours per year for students, and even senior citizens.
“As Americans tend to remove themselves further and further from agriculture, we feel it is important as producers to help people have an idea where milk comes from,” Christy says. “The only way we can do that is to bring them here and let them see it and try to educate them. A progressive dairyman has to be able to communicate and answer questions.”
Being considered progressive by the public and those who know nothing about dairying is an honor the Cunninghams continuously work to achieve.
“In a town the size of Atlantic, it’s easy for untruths to circulate. I think the more you let people see what’s going on or answer questions truthfully, the better the relationship you can develop with your community,” Christy says. PD