Guest Columns

Export Expertise

Cooperate, collaborate, communicate: The three Cs for dairy growth

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack joined the U.S. Dairy Export Council as president and CEO in February after serving as the 30th Secretary of Agriculture for the United States. He is a former two-term governor of Iowa, Iowa state senator and mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, with a degree in law from New York’s Albany Law School. He is a guest columnist for this week’s Cheese Market News®.

The dairy industry has a strong presence in the Capitol, in part thanks to the work of organizations like the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), the National Milk Producers Federation and the International Dairy Foods Association. But, when stacked against other ag sectors, dairy sometimes faces a disadvantage in magnitude.

There are, for example, 1 million beef producers in the United States versus only about 42,000 dairy farmers.

To ensure dairy’s voice is heard, the industry must work together to “punch above its weight.”

All of dairy needs to collaborate, cooperate and communicate. It is important and necessary for everyone in the supply chain affected by dairy — whether they produce it, process it, package it, market it, promote it or sell it — to speak as best as they can with a single unified industry voice on a variety of issues so that the industry can impact and affect positive policy making.

One of those critical issues is trade. Government representatives as well as consumers need to better understand the role that trade plays in the health of the U.S. dairy industry and, by extension, the vitality of local communities, jobs and the economy.

The events of 2016 clearly show the positive trade message has gotten lost in the face of anti-trade rhetoric. But for agriculture and dairy in particular, the data supporting the benefits of trade are overwhelming:

• The United States has run an agricultural trade surplus for the last 50 years.

• The U.S. dairy industry has run a trade surplus for seven years in terms of value and for decades in volume terms.

• U.S. dairy exports have risen from less than $800 million in 1995, the year USDEC was formed, to $4.8 billion last year.

• Exports are responsible for an additional $36 billion in dairy farm milk sales since 2004.

• Dairy farmers rely on global demand to expand their businesses, as the equivalent of almost half the growth in milk production each year gets shipped abroad.

• The $4.8 billion worth of dairy products we exported in 2016 supported 100,000 U.S. jobs at the farm and processing levels and contributed $14.6 billion in U.S. economic activity.

Exports bring benefits along the entire dairy supply chain, supporting farmers and creating jobs at the processing level and several input sectors. Trade is something we should celebrate and communicate as a tool that helps stabilize prices and create jobs not only in the United States but overseas.

The industry faces challenges in conveying those messages — and further challenges to dairy exports ranging from the strong dollar to aggressive international competition. That being said, I am extremely optimistic about the future.

As an industry, we have a solid foundation on which to build. The United States is the most efficient producer of milk and manufacturer of dairy products in the world, providing a safe, quality, stable supply to feed not only U.S. consumers but growing global populations increasingly willing and able to pay for nutrition.

We have tremendous opportunity in the innovation space, as research delivers insights into dairy nutrition and knowledge on processing methods, ingredient functionality and applications. We must continue to look for new and better ways to produce products and ways we can speak to shifting consumer demands. We need to continue to look for creative and innovative ways to distinguish American products from the rest of the world and emphasize our strengths of safety, sustainability and stable supply.

Consumers are increasingly interested in knowing more about their food — nutrition, safety, animal welfare and environmental impact. U.S. dairy industry efforts on traceability and sustainability — both at the farm and processor levels — are among the elite of the world.

Communication with customers is more important than ever. We need to continue to spend time building and maintaining relationships and aggressively promoting the benefits of U.S. dairy. One of our goals at USDEC is to work with customers to make sure they understand the full scope of what we have to offer and continue to listen carefully to the demands of their buyers and consumers and adjust U.S. products accordingly.

We have a great product to sell and unlimited opportunity. I am optimistic about the future because we live in a country that understands big challenges and has never shied away from one. Despite the challenges, our best days are ahead, especially if we unite to speak with one dairy voice.


Note: The U.S. Dairy Export Council is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the producer checkoff that builds on collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to build global demand for U.S. dairy products.

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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