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Dairy farmer joins Farmers Feed Us campaign

Submitted Photo Rita and Joe Vander Kooi, along with their children Vince and Liv, pose inside the parlor at Ocheda Dairy south of Worthington. Rita Vander Kooi is one of the featured farmers in the new Farmers Feed Us campaign.

WORTHINGTON -- Rita Vander Kooi, along with her her husband Joe and their two children, are the latest faces to be featured in the Farmers Feed Us campaign to help educate consumers about the people who work to grow their food.

The Vander Koois, of rural Worthington, are part of Ocheda Dairy, an 850-cow farm that produces milk for Associated Milk Producers, Inc. AMPI's facility in Sanborn, Iowa, markets the milk produced at Ocheda Dairy for cheddar cheese production.

The initial launch of the Farmers Feed Us program was a statewide effort last fall, but this latest eight-week campaign, launched earlier this month, is geared to consumers in metropolitan Minnesota. New partners of the program include Farm Bureau and the University of Minnesota.

"They were looking for Farm Bureau members that were University of Minnesota graduates, that were dairy farming and had young children," said Rita.

The program also wanted to focus on women in agriculture in an effort to better connect with metro-area mothers who do most of the grocery shopping for their family.

"The consumers want to hear it from a mom's perspective," Rita said. "They feel that the people making the decisions at the grocery store week after week are the moms, more than the dads."

The Farmers Feed Us program has focused its message on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter to reach young families who use those tools. For this latest campaign, prizes include shopping sprees at Cub Foods and free tickets to a Minnesota Gophers basketball game.

Sharing their story

A video of Rita can be viewed on the Farmers Feed Us website ( In it, she talks about the technology in use on the farm and why she and Joe chose to be dairy farmers.

"We really felt the need is there to educate people," she said. "That's why we're willing to do this."

Rita and Joe met while attending the University of Minnesota, where they each earned degrees in animal production systems, with an emphasis in dairy. Joe graduated in 2001, and Rita in 2002.

A native of Pierz, Rita grew up on a dairy farm and had intended to get into the dairy business after college. Joe knew he would return to Ocheda Dairy after he finished college.

"Before I fell in love with Joe, I had considered going back to my parents' farm and working alongside my brother," she said.

Prior to joining Joe at the dairy, she spent a year working as a dairy nutritionist for Purina Mills. Before their first child was born, she worked alongside her husband in the dairy barn.

"My family always stressed work ethic and pride in a job well done," she said. "Because of the all of the chores that my parents had me do, I developed a love for dairy cows. The people in the industry also played a role in it -- they're people I can relate to and have a lot of the same values that I do."

Today, Joe and Rita want their children to experience all of the joys of farm life. Taking the "family first" approach, Rita is home with the kids -- 5-year-old Vince and 2-year-old Liv (baby No. 3 is due in late March) -- while Joe is fully dedicated to the dairy.

"Right now, my role on the farm is not what it was or what it will be someday," she said. "I'll fill in for Dave (Joe's dad) if he's gone, doing work in our hospital pen for him in the morning before our kids wake up, but my focus right now is on ensuring that our kids have a love for the farm because they're able to experience it."

Already, the two kids love to help with the heifer chores on the farm, she said, but there are a lot of people who contribute to the success of the dairy.

"There are over a dozen employees that play key roles in the dairy," she said.

Rita hopes that by participating in the Farmers Feed Us program, consumers will learn more about where their milk comes from and the people who work to put it on their table.

"The message that I really wanted to convey is that we are proud of what we do," she said. "Every day, no matter if it's really hot or a Minnesota blizzard, we're providing a safe, affordable and nutritious product."

She also hopes people realize that, "when we take care of our cows, they take care of us."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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