With milk production growth expected to continue, the U.S. dairy industry must build up domestic markets while developing a greater international market presence, a panel of dairy leaders told participants at the 2018 Dairy Strong, held Jan. 17-18, in Madison, Wisconsin.

Natzke dave
Editor / Progressive Dairy

Three dairy chief executive officers (CEOs) – Chad Vincent with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), Michael Dykes of International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and Chuck Conner of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) – offered state, national and international perspectives on dairy economics and the future of U.S. milk marketing.

Consumer trust is paramount

Here in the U.S., Vincent said consumer confidence was paramount to each dairy farmer’s success. As head of the checkoff-funded WMMB, Vincent said he views his “overall role as building dairy trust and sales for our dairy farmers. We take that very seriously. We have industry-leading programs to help drive demand, trust and sales,” he said.

“Consumers want to know their food is safe and nutritious. They are being bombarded on social media, and they’re confused about who to listen to,” Vincent said. “The ‘antis’ are yelling loud, but we have to let them scream at each other off in the corner. We have to be able to tell our story, utilizing farmers as spokespersons, to tell the incredible, powerful stories we have.

“The good news is that people trust farmers and that is something we can take advantage of. We need to get out there and tell our stories and be transparent about what we do,” Vincent said. “It is not good enough to wait and just react to what activists are saying.”


Vincent said that when people visit farms and talk with farmers about what they do, there’s a mind shift. “They understand why we do what we do,” he said.

People care about where their food is coming from, and some marketers are looking to take advantage of that by using farmers in their ad campaigns, Dyke said. “Farmers have a high level of credibility with consumers, and we need to be in the story.”

Growing exports vital to dairy industry’s success

The other key to the dairy industry’s success lies in exports as the world’s growing middle class seeks to add more dairy to their diet, the Dairy Strong panelists agreed.

Panel moderator Mike North, president of the Dairy Business Association, pointed out an estimated 15 percent of milk produced in Wisconsin is exported to other countries.

Conner said the political dynamics around trade have dramatically changed since he worked with former President George W. Bush and his senior staff on formulating domestic and international food, trade, security and energy policy.

During the 2016 presidential election, trade was incorrectly blamed for people’s financial woes, Dykes said. Both Republican candidate Donald Trump and one of the Democratic candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed U.S. economic problems on international trade agreements. To change that, international trade must be discussed in the context of what it adds to jobs and wages.

“Trade deals are about access to markets, which is what we want to grow business, but most consumers do not see that,” he said. “We need to reform that discussion. In agriculture, we sell more than we buy so there’s no trade deficit.”

“Trump changed the trade dynamic – anything that says trade is bad,” Conner said. “Trade votes in Congress were always razor-thin, but you could count on Republican support. I am not too sure about that [today].”

“While Trump may be negative about trade, we do have supporters in the administration who are advocating for ag trade concerns,” said Dykes, who noted U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue understands the importance of trade to farmers and is pushing the president to stay in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Another benefit for dairy farmers is having former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the head of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, representing the international interests of American dairy farmers and processors, Dykes said. “He can help open a lot of doors for dairy farmers.”

Another positive, Conner said, was the creation of a new undersecretary position within the USDA, with the sole responsibility of promoting exports. He urged dairy producers to use their “street credibility” to encourage members of Congress and the administration to support agricultural issues, including trade.

Conner also urged dairy farmers to be united. “I’ve never seen farmers lose in 37 years on Capitol Hill when we are all speaking with the same voice,” he said.

Wisconsin well-positioned

Vincent said Wisconsin has what it takes to “dive in more to the international markets.”

“Wisconsin leads in cheese production, and we have an infrastructure in place to grow even more. There are few places like Wisconsin where you have research, government, processors and farmers pulling in the same direction,” he said.

“In Wisconsin, roughly 90 percent of our milk goes into cheese, and 90 percent of that goes outside the state of Wisconsin. So the vast majority of our efforts are throughout the U.S. and internationally,” Vincent said. “With the [milk production] growth projection in Wisconsin and the country, if we don’t build international markets, we’ll never be able to match [supply] with demand.”

For more information, visit the Dairy Strong website.  end mark

PHOTO: Chuck Conner (center), CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, talks about the changing political dynamics around trade during a panel discussion at Dairy Strong, Jan. 18, in Madison, Wisconsin. At left is Mike North, president of the Dairy Business Association who moderated the discussion, and at right is Chad Vincent, CEO of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. Also on the panel was Michael Dykes, CEO of International Dairy Foods Association. Photo courtesy of Dairy Business Association.

Dave Natzke