Guest Columns

Industry Issues

Resilience: what dairy is all about

Jim Mulhern

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO, National Milk Producers Federation, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

This column comes from NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern’s remarks at the National Milk Producers Federation annual meeting in New Orleans, delivered Nov. 6. Remarks condensed from full address.

Resilience: The word defines what dairy industry is all about.

It’s an understatement to say we’ve been through tough times these last five years. A year ago, we were in our fourth straight year of low prices, and Congress hadn’t passed the farm bill. Today it’s a different situation. Prices are improving. We’ve got the Dairy Margin Coverage program in place, providing more than $300 million in assistance this year. And it isn’t just that safety net. It’s getting improved risk management programs in place for larger producers. The better prices that we’re seeing, and an improved dairy policy framework, will encourage a more resilient dairy industry in the months and years ahead.

Trade has been an area where we’ve had to be especially resilient, given the incredibly difficult challenges we’ve faced these last few years. The picture a year ago was not a pretty one. We had cheese exports to Mexico hit by tariffs. Virtually all our products going to China were hit by tariffs. The European Union was busily negotiating bilateral agreements with important markets to us like Mexico and Japan. USMCA was through the negotiations, but faced an uncertain future in Congress.

But we have made great progress in the last year.

The USMCA agreement does protect our access to our number-one market, Mexico. The agreement has hard-fought disciplines on Canada. It appears headed toward congressional approval, likely early next year.

We’ve got a down payment agreement with Japan, an important first step there. And our efforts to expand export sales through Cooperatives Working Together have been very important to improve the supply/demand balance, giving lift to milk prices.

All this has been beneficial. But it’s important to recognize that in this trade environment turbulence likely will be the new normal. We need to be prepared for that. That’s the future we’re going to face, but gains are possible for this industry when we work together, and it’s a tribute to the collaborative effort of dairy to get a great deal done on the industry’s behalf.

Turning to the very important topic of fake milk, this is an area where we must — and will — stay on the offensive.

When you feel under attack and facing tough times, as we’ve certainly been experiencing, your opponents and those who don’t have your best interest at heart can often try to take control of the narrative. As an industry, we see attacks virtually every single day — attacks that try to fold the falling number of farms, the decline in fluid milk sales, and the growth in alternative dairy products into a narrative that’s called the “death of dairy.”

We’ve also seen the absurd stories about how animal agriculture, not just dairy, means that cows are killing the planet. That’s what our well-funded critics want the public to believe. The reality, as you know, is just the opposite. This is a growing sector with very bright days ahead. And that’s what we’ve got to keep in mind.

We’ve been through tough times. It’s getting better now. This is an industry with an incredibly powerful future because we produce a food with unparalleled nutrition and great taste.

Central to our story of resilience is getting out the facts. The science and the true narrative about milk. The real story, that dairy consumption in the United States is at a 56-year high. That’s not the story that the vegan activists, the animal rights activists, want people to hear, but it’s the truth — and that’s why we need to keep talking about it.

Milk is the number one source of nine nutrients for children, and it would be the number one source in the diets of everybody if adults consumed as much milk as would be good for them. We win on facts, and we’re beginning to win on opinion on the fake milk issue. We’re going to keep using these facts, that science, your support, to keep the pressure on the FDA to get action on this issue in 2020.

As we look ahead to 2020, we know that dairy has always been a cyclical industry. Our industry prices have been rising this fall, and we have reason to believe that 2020 will be a good year. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be problems. There will be. But whatever they are, we’ve survived the worst. We know that, and we’re stronger today than we were a year ago.

Resilience against hardship has always been a fact of life in dairy. But it’s how we react to hardship that determines the outcome. The pace of change pushes us out of our comfort zone, and it can be scary. But we know that if we embrace change and hold true to our values, we will win out. We’re ready for it. Let’s get after it.


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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