Progressive Dairy visited with Jim Mulhern on the Progressive Dairy Podcast shortly before he retired in December from his role as president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). Below is an excerpt from their conversation.

Devaney kimmi
Editor and Podcast Host / Progressive Dairy

What is on the horizon in 2024 from a policy and legislative standpoint?

MULHERN: The farm bill is the big one [to pay attention to], and there are issues to work out there. We will continue to push on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the plant-based labeling issue. We have draft guidance that’s been issued. We are continuing to push on the FDA to do the right thing and enforce the existing standards of identity on this issue.

We’re also going to have a stepped-up focus on the emerging cell-based activity that’s going on to try to develop components of milk – milk proteins in particular – in the laboratory. The bottom line is that you can develop a synthetic protein using biotechnology in a laboratory, [but] that doesn’t make it milk.

The other major area, of course, is going to be the efforts to make sure we have a voluntary, incentive-based approach to address the climate issue. That’s the journey we’ve been on for the better part of 15 years in the dairy industry.

I’m very pleased that we’re coming around to seeing funding of programs that will enable producers to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whether that’s through feed additives or other technologies and techniques to bring those emissions down. That’s an area where we are hopeful that FDA does give approval to the first major feed additive, and we’ll be able to get that into the marketplace to reduce methane emissions in the rumen.


The last issue to mention is trade. Exports are critically important to this industry. We continue pushing at every opportunity to expand and approve trade policy to enable us to get better access to export markets.

Those are some of the major issues in addition to the farm bill and the federal order hearing that will be playing out in 2024.

What do you wish more dairy producers knew about the policy process?

MULHERN: If I had to [choose] one thing, it would be how important this process is to our overall industry – it touches every aspect of our industry – and how engaged the nation’s dairy cooperatives are in addressing producer needs and concerns here in Washington, D.C. … I think it’s important for producers to realize how important all this is to their livelihood and how hard people are working on their behalf. I know how hard our team works for producers, and I know our members understand that well. I’m not sure it’s fully understood and appreciated by [the general producer audience].

If [producers] aren’t engaged in their cooperative and in the checkoff program, I strongly encourage them to get engaged. There are a lot of efforts to advance the interests and needs of our industry and a lot of people working hard on that, and we can use all the assistance we can get.

You told the audience at the NMPF/UDIA/NDB joint annual meeting in November that your role as president and CEO of NMPF was your dream job. Has it lived up to your expectations?

MULHERN: It has exceeded my expectations. This has been a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous honor for me.

When I made those remarks, I reflected back on the start of my career many years ago when I was working at a Midwest dairy cooperative. I came to Washington, D.C. because I wanted to make a difference for dairy farmers in the Midwest and across the country. That’s why I went to Capitol Hill, that’s why I came to National Milk in the mid-1980s and went back to Capitol Hill to be chief of staff to a Wisconsin senator so I could be inside the ring working on the issues.

After that, I spent much of the 1990s and 2000s doing public affairs/public relations consulting – much of it with the dairy industry.

When this opportunity came up to come back and lead National Milk, it really was a dream job for me. When I was at National Milk in the 1980s, I remember thinking that someday I’d love to do that.

It’s been a great opportunity for me. I have loved every minute of it. I’m proud of the work of my staff and very proud of the work of our members.

 This federal order [hearing] effort is the icing on the cake seeing people come together.

That’s been the biggest thing for me. When I came back [to NMPF], I said, “We can get things done if we are willing to work together.” I have watched this industry for the last 40 years. When we split and go different ways, when we divide ourselves by region or product we produce or by farm size, we are going to lose. When we pull together and find that common ground, we are a force that does punch above our weight.

I’m so pleased that for the last 10 years we’ve done that on issue after issue and have made great progress.

How can dairy producers stay up-to-date with NMPF’s work?

MULHERN: The best way to learn about our work is by visiting our website. Producers can also sign up to receive emails from us.

Tune into season 5, episode 54 of the Progressive Dairy Podcast to listen to the entire conversation, including dairy policy highlights and trends from Mulhern’s 40-plus-year career, his favorite part of working in dairy, a recap of NMPF’s work in 2023, Mulhern’s key takeaways from the FMMO hearing, his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry and more. You’ll also hear about NMPF’s new president and CEO, Gregg Doud, who took the helm in early 2024.