KDC: What is your background?
Lela: I grew up on Yellow Buttercup dairy farm in Adams County, Pennsylvania and was the oldest of four siblings. Adams County 4-H was an important part of my youth, grounding me in agriculture. Eventually I earned a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from Wesley College, Delaware. During my four years in Delaware, I interned at the Delaware Department of Agriculture from 1989-1992 and learned about direct marketing, how to promote a state brand, and about the Delmarva agricultural industry. After graduation, I went to work for the Mid-Atlantic Milk Marketing Association – now, MDA, Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association -- as a Program Director for School Foodservice Programs. In 1997, I went back to the family dairy farm at the same time as I was attending York College to earn a MBA. Following this I went to work for Rutter’s Convenience Store Chain as a category manager with management responsibilities for the dairy case and foodservice categories.
Eventually, our family decided to diversify the dairy. We developed a business plan for starting Buttercup Farm Market, a direct-farm sales venture providing an opportunity for the next generation to be brought into the family business. We turned to Penn State Extension and were supported by extension agent, Larry Yager (also a KDC board member), to start an on-farm market. Buttercup focused on agri-tourism, local produce, the bakery and a gift shop. I formally joined the family business as the General Manager of our Farm Market but left inn 2008, to accept a position as the Specialty Crop Block Grant Coordinator at PA Department of Agriculture. This allowed me to utilize my education and work experiences to further enhance Pennsylvania agriculture. Overtime, I assumed responsibility for the State’s Agricultural Commodity marketing programs as Division Chief.
KDC: What attracts you to the cooperative model?
Lela: I have early memories of the cooperative model from my parents’ involvement with Interstate Dairy Cooperative (Atlantic Dairy Cooperative was formed when Interstate Milk Producers Cooperative merged with Lehigh Valley Farms Cooperative in the mid-1980's). My father, Larry L. Mummert, was named the outstanding milk cooperator in 1978 and I can remember sitting around the family kitchen table hearing conversations about leadership, attending meetings, my father writing speeches as he sought to represent his fellow producers…finding the collective voice of the peers in the cooperative. They were striving to improve things for themselves while at the same time desiring to enhance the infrastructure and industry. In retrospect, it is this early exposure that has laid the foundation for my current roles. I continue to value the importance of relationship building, knowing the collective voice of individual producers amassed into a unified conversation can make a difference.
KDC: Describe your role and responsibilities as a KDC board member or something about serving on a board.
Lela: I am excited to have the opportunity to be part of the KDC board on behalf of the Department of Agriculture. As a new member, I realize there is much to learn and I feel fortunate to be among esteem individuals from various fields who represent the best of the best. I am quite impressed with the work KDC has done in the past and its plans for future projects. Upon being selected I realized that I had crossed paths with many of the Board members throughout my career; working under former Secretary of Agriculture, now Dean of Delaware College Russell Redding or Stephen McHenry who I serve with on the North East Sustainable Agricultural Research Education Board . I am honored to be able to serve with these talented individuals.
KDC: What do you see as future opportunities and trends for KDC?
Lela: On a national level, there is this continued interest to collaborate, to think about local food systems, to bring together the individual units that will aggregate products and services in a way that is beneficial. This will allow growers to position their products; creating economic advantages for producers in existing, new and emerging markets. For example, much of my work to date has been with Specialty Crop producers; (fruit, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits and horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture products). We are continually looking for opportunities to aggregate products into meaningful quantities, address food safety standards, and develop distribution systems. Cooperatives provide tools, systems, and incentives to reduce costs thus, providing increased returns to the farmers in patronage dividends. Food hubs and local food systems is where I hear the most chatter, people are really beginning to understand not only the business models, but the shared value of sustainability all the while developing business competitiveness and meeting the needs of a changing market place.
KDC: What do you see as the biggest challenges?
Lela: The biggest challenge I see for KDC is to getting the word out about cooperatives and the valuable services KDC can provide. I believe there may be a gap in the understanding of cooperatives and their benefits among the next generation of producers. For example, a growing number of folks have expressed interest in food hubs and how a cooperative might be the best business structure. We are in dynamic times as we look forward to meeting the food needs of a growing national / global population and adjust our business models to provide economic vitality for our producers; providing lots of opportunity for business development.
KDC: What is the view from your doorstep?
Lela: My view about the role of cooperatives is that there is a great opportunity to continue to connect the dots, build infrastructure, to support an ever growing, economic connection between the rural and urban environments. I see a bright future for this conversation about food, from the producer’s side, from the direct marketer, to the consumer and I am excited to be part of it. I look forward to learning from KDC’s work and spreading the word.
The view out my window is of a 176 acre farm with a fruit orchard, traditional row crops, small fruits, chickens, ducks, pigs, and rabbits as my children grow with their feet firmly rooted in the soil; while sharing the daily adventurous of life on and off the farm. I feel blessed to be able to continue to be part of a great conversation about where food comes from and how its gets from ‘farm gate to dinner plate’. We truly enjoy the family dinner table with the view out our window.
By: Peggy Fogarty