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NMSU honoree leads Dairy Producers of New Mexico

LAS CRUCES - In a dozen years, Sharon Lombardi has seen the New Mexico dairy industry go from 38th in production in the United States to seventh and grow into a billion-dollar-a-year business.

Sharon Lombardi, executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico, was named New Mexico Outstanding Leader by the College of Agriculture and Home Economics at New Mexico State University. (Courtesy Photo from Dairy Producers of New Mexico)

For Lombardi, the executive director of Dairy Producers of New Mexico and someone who knows the dairy lifestyle firsthand - growing up on a dairy farm in New York - it all boils down to a business based on families and a full day's work.

Her understanding of this vital New Mexico industry and her own high work ethic led to her recognition earlier this year by New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics as the New Mexico Outstanding Leader of 2006.

"Sharon is highly respected by not only the people in the dairy industry, but also those in the ag industry in general," said Lowell Catlett, dean of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics. "She is one of those professionals who is an advocate for agriculture and a good quality person in a top position. She sets a high standard of leadership."

Lombardi has directed Dairy Producers of New Mexico - a grass roots trade association for New Mexico dairies - since the organization's founding in 1994. Dairy Producers of New Mexico includes about 80 percent of New Mexico's dairies in its membership, as well as some West Texas members.

Lombardi is the organization's lobbyist, accountant, public relations officer and head of membership services. She keeps watch on the development of regulations and legislation that relate to the dairy industry and helps educate dairy farmers when new regulations take effect.

"The association was formed by New Mexico dairy producers themselves," Lombardi said. "They recognized they were not represented in the state on these issues." Lombardi is the first executive director of the organization, and even after 12 years, the pace is still brisk.

"Every day is a different kind of a day," Lombardi said. "It's never the same." With members across the state and a full schedule of state- and national-level meetings that relate to the dairy industry, she is often away from her Roswell office.

Lombardi picked out the organization's three top accomplishments during the past 12 years: the development of Western States Dairy Producers Trade Association, a group of dairy producer organizations from California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Utah; the development of the Great Southwest Agency, which enables all of the milk cooperatives operating in New Mexico to jointly market their product; and Dairy Producers' role for the past four years as host of the annual national dairy conference in Washington, D.C., which brings together trade associations and producers to discuss national dairy policy.

"We recognized the fact we need to sit down and talk, farmer-to-farmer," she said.

Lombardi was surprised to receive the award from NMSU.

"I was so honored and so shocked," she said. "You do your job and you work hard and you do the best you can every day. You don't think people see what you're doing. I was very humbled. There are so many wonderful people doing so much for agriculture."

With New Mexico's dairies all being family-owned and some being passed on to the second generation, Lombardi's work has many personal rewards. She sees the dedication and commitment the families make to their livelihood, and the challenges they face.

"It's not an easy life," she said. "They work hard. It's hard, long hours." Then the industry gets hit with tax increases, new environment regulations, increased costs for transportation and other demands.

"I've been very, very blessed," Lombardi said. "I have the best producers in the world."

Lombardi is unsure how the future will treat the dairy industry, with the impacts of the 2007 Farm Bill uncertain and continued low milk prices a concern. But developments like the new cheese plant in Clovis are good signs.

"All we can do is go day-by-day and take care of these dairy families," she said.