Just ask the Larson family of Okeechobee, Florida — worthy of our salute and respect during National Dairy Month!
June is National Dairy Month, and that’s a perfect time for me to turn the spotlight on some personal heroes of mine — U.S. dairy farmers. Specifically, I want to share with you just one astonishing example of the amazing technological innovations that future-focused, hard-working dairy folks are up to. And this story is a personal one for me.
Dairy farmers have always been known as stewards of our land and water. In fact, nobody is more committed to the environment than farmers. But what’s happening on four farms in Okeechobee County in central Florida — in terms of a commitment to sustainability — is remarkable.
Members of the locally famous Larson family have been dairy farmers since 1947, and are now into the fourth generation on the farm. Most recently, they have been working on implementing a groundbreaking new way to recycle waste manure — one of the biggest environmental challenges of dairy farmers. J. M. Larson, Inc. has partnered with Brightmark Energy to convert 230,000 tons of manure per year into renewable natural gas. Yup — from poop to power.
The Larsons will provide this fuel directly to Florida Power and Light for use by their customers — and it all starts with cow manure.
I won’t get into the technical details of how anaerobic methane digesters work, but the result is (1) significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, (2) the creation of renewable natural gas and electricity to replace fossil fuels, and (3) jobs and improved environmental benefits to the local Florida community.
I recently spoke with one of America’s most passionate and dedicated dairy farmers, John Larson, who not only happens to be a tireless leader among the Larson Family in advancing the importance of the dairy promotion checkoff, but represents so many of the values that are important for future generations to understand about the intersection of agriculture within their daily lives. You might have seen my Instagram Live interview with John earlier this month — and like me — was extremely humbled to learn that his family’s legacy in the Florida dairy industry goes back half a century. I learned from John, and his family, that modern dairy farming isn’t just about sustainability, it’s about ethics.
“My dad was part of the ‘greatest generation,’ a World War II bomber pilot, who educated himself on the G.I. Bill and founded our family farming business,” Larson says. “He always said to me, ‘If there’s an opportunity to do the right thing, you’ve gotta do it.’ To me, our energy partnership with Brightmark is just that. I’m so proud of what we’re doing. In recycling our cow manure into energy on our four farms, it’s the carbon-footprint equivalent of planting 71,000 acres of forest, or powering up 4,000 homes,” Larson explains. Of the four farms involved, two are owned by Larson Dairy, Inc. and two by JM Larson, Inc.
This kind of innovative and transformational thinking is what the dairy industry is about now, and some of the change actually happened because of the pandemic.
During that challenging time, dairy farmers redirected supply-chain resources; engaged with hunger organizations and school nutrition programs; re-designed and re-thought packaging of products such as cheese for food banks; provided new trucking and refrigeration solutions; and developed partnerships with schools that included raising significant funding for emergency meal delivery to students during school shutdowns.
But it’s through dairy’s Net Zero Initiative that U.S. dairy is working with commercial and NGO partners to identify, implement, and scale new technologies and economically-viable practices in feed production, cow care, energy efficiency, and manure management on farms of all sizes. This will enable progress toward greater greenhouse gas reductions and improvements in water quality and quantity, as well as in farmer livelihood. And there’s no better example of that than the Larson family and their colleagues at Florida Dairy Farmers.
On a very personal level, I’ve always felt a heartfelt connection to the Larson family, and have admired their deep allegiance to the dairy industry, their passion for their work, and their dedication to our youth and the health of future generations. John’s beloved dad “Red” Larson passed away in 2020 at the age of 96 after a life well lived, and his death was a loss not only to the family, but to American agriculture. He leaves quite a legacy. My four kids and I are wiser about, and more appreciative of, the importance of dairy in our lives because of the sacrifices made by John and the several generations of his family that have pioneered, and are continuing to pioneer, a industry they love. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.
On a professional level, as the CEO of a youth-wellness organization, I like to encourage the young people with whom we work to consider careers in this ever-advancing world of scientifically-savvy, environmentally-committed agriculture. Youth can and should be part of the game-changing next generation of American and global food systems professionals that today and tomorrow’s dairy farmers represent — doing fantastic things that are so crucial to life on Earth, and prospering in a new era of global caring — for people and the planet.
Join me in celebrating National Dairy Month by saluting forward-thinking farm families like the Larsons, and encouraging young people to emulate them by building on their innovations for the greater good of all!
Alexis Glick is Chief Executive Officer of GENYOUth, a nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing child health and wellness through programs presented in partnership with the National Football League and the National Dairy Council. Glick also serves as a frequent contributor to CNN, MSNBC and many other global news networks, providing her perspective on domestic and international business topics of importance, the financial markets and CEO leadership trends. Glick is a frequent, strategic advisor to CEOs for some of the largest international, blue-chip and Fortune 500 companies on issues relating to media strategy, business development, investor relations and communications and advises professional athletes on social media, branding, and public speaking. Glick, a graduate of Columbia University, is currently completing a book on the intersection of profit and purpose, which highlights her insights and experiences from the board room, finance, media and philanthropy, describing what leaders and companies can do to support the causes and issues of greatest importance, not only to their current employees and customers, but to those of future generations.