The dairy industry has many partnerships created to promote and drive dairy sales. For members of the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association (MDVA), that same level of partnership drives investments in sustainability and ensures that dairy is a regional leader in conservation and climate solutions.
Headquartered in Reston, Virginia, MDVA includes 950 dairy farm family members in 10 states. The farmer-owned cooperative owns five plants that process more than 3 billion pounds of milk annually, marketing fresh Maola brand milk and other dairy products and ingredients throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
About 90% of MDVA’s dairy farmer members operate within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a 64,000-square-mile environmentally sensitive area, the largest estuary in the U.S. Roughly 40% of the nitrogen and 50% of the phosphorus entering the Chesapeake Bay each year is attributed to agricultural runoff. Recognizing their responsibility to being environmental leaders, co-op members are partnering with companies across the supply chain to deliver sustainable solutions to reduce those numbers.
With sustainability serving as a central part of MDVA’s corporate social responsibility actions, efforts are aimed at maximizing value to its farmer owners, employees and customers through environmental stewardship, philanthropy and positive connections.
Key projects in 2021
As recipients of an Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Outstanding Community Impact Award, MDVA’s key sustainability programs in 2021 involved two Clean Water Partnership programs, named for a corporate partner: MDVA’s brand, Maola, and retailer Giant Food. Both were built off the first supply chain partnership between the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay and MDVA customer Turkey Hill Dairy. The Turkey Hill Clean Water Partnership was awarded the 2020 Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy Outstanding Supply Chain Collaboration Award.
- The Maola Clean Water Partnership (MCWP) hosted a fall tree planting on an MDVA member farm. More than 30 volunteers from MDVA’s corporate office, along with representatives of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, planted more than 600 trees on 2 acres, forming a riparian buffer against a creek that is part of the Susquehanna River Basin, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
- The Giant Clean Water Partnership (GCWP) hosted a tree planting in the spring. As part of the buffer planting, MDVA member Vernon Horst worked alongside Giant to create a consumer-facing video explaining the importance of keeping the watershed clean. Horst shared how farms have seen a direct positive impact on animal health because of the installation of agriculture best management practices such as stabilized barnyards and improved animal housing.
MDVA’s focus on community impact was also on display through a GCWP Clean Stream Event held in October 2021. About 20 volunteers, half of which represented MDVA, along with employees from Giant and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, traveled along the Anacostia River by foot and by boat, picking up 22 bags of trash. MDVA and the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay received a $10,000 check from Giant, earned through reusable bag sales, to help fund environmental best management practices on local dairy farms.
A sustainability model
MDVA believes the full MDVA sustainability package is a replicable model for all cooperatives and an outlet for “dairy” to position itself as an environmental solution.
Developing a reputation as “solution finders” has helped MDVA members have a seat at the table when it comes to local, regional and national sustainability discussions, repositioning dairy as a strong player in conservation conversations.
The tree plantings and overall sustainability work have also garnered attention to the resources necessary for dairy farms to invest in sustainable solutions for generations to come. MDVA’s model has engaged environmental non-profits and corporate retailers to bring over $19 million in investments to member farms to create a more economically sustainable dairy future.
“Farmers, the land and the communities where we work benefit when we come together and develop scalable solutions and programs that can be replicated across the entire industry,” says Lindsay Reames, MDVA executive vice president of sustainability and external relations. “Developing events such as tree plantings and trash pick-ups allow for employees, farmers and our customers to participate in meaningful ways that give them confidence in the future of the dairy industry. Positioning dairy as an environmental solution and offering experiential learning events will make dairy the industry of choice for our next generation of leaders.”
Internally, MDVA also benefits by providing members of its corporate human resources, field, sustainability and communications teams – many with no direct link to agriculture – with experiential learning events where they can engage with co-op members and learn about dairy farming while strengthening relationships with colleagues. And they use their experiences to become proud advocates of dairy sustainability.
Partnering with retail outlets has allowed MDVA to reach consumers and audiences that the co-op wouldn’t have been able to do on its own. A direct mailing to 50,000 households in Maryland from Giant told the story of the GCWP to consumers who now see dairy as a strong contributor to helping clean up the bay. Complementing the mailer was a video published to Giant social media about the positive story of dairy as a partner to healthy communities.
Admittedly, the results of tree-planting projects are measured in years rather than through immediate feedback. MDVA and its partners have plans in place to continue to maintain forested buffers and monitor how they stabilize stream banks, filter sediment, nutrients, pesticides and animal waste from agricultural land runoff and sequester carbon.
Nonetheless, social media has proven to be a valuable connection to consumers, yielding immediate results by communicating stories of on-the-farm successes and explaining how that benefits the supply chain overall. Dedicated sustainability webpages were the most popular subpage for MDVA brands in 2021.
“When we share the good news of an environmental success or of a positive community event, we can see the analytics on social media light up more than any of our other posts,” Reames says. “That reinforcement tells us we are on the right path to having a solid corporate responsibility plan throughout our milkshed.”
Through its sustainability programs and communication channels, MDVA has become a known entity in generating a better future for the communities where it exists, and its sustainability partnerships are continuing to grow in 2022. A couple of tree plantings have already been held this year, and more are scheduled this fall, with a goal of doubling the number of trees planted.
Additionally, Giant Stores conducted a two-week “round up” campaign during Earth Month (April), allowing customers to round up their purchases at the checkout line. More than $100,000 was raised to support the Giant Clean Water Partnership. When combined with matching funds, MDVA can leverage those funds to support additional investment in sustainable practices on dairy farmer member farms.
PHOTO 1: Retailer Giant awarded $10,000 to the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, a partner in MDVA’s Giant Clean Water Partnership (GCWP).
PHOTO 2: As part of the Maola Clean Water Partnership, a group of more than 20 volunteers from the MDVA corporate office and members of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay planted more than 600 trees to form a riparian buffer on an MDVA member farm in Pennsylvania. Photos provided by Taylor Mickleberry, digital content specialist for MDVA.
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