U.S. DAIRY: AN ECONOMIC SECTOR FACING REAL CHALLENGES
An enduring, state-of-the-art industry that confronts hardships head-on.
by Alexis Glick
Before I became a nonprofit executive, I spent the vast majority of my career first on Wall Street, and then as VP of a cable news network and anchor of two early-morning finance programs, FOX Business News’s “Money for Breakfast” and “The Opening Bell.”
In other words, I’ve literally spent most of my career as an analyst and evaluator of the health of business categories, of economic sectors, and of specific industries.
During my days at FOX Business covering the depths of the 2007–2008 recession, I became familiar with the plight of the agriculture industry. At FOX we decided not just to cover what was happening on Wall Street or in Washington, D.C., we went to the heartland. It’s there that I first met America’s dairy farmers. I witnessed an industry built on generations of faith, trust, and sheer will — folks who had to fight through unthinkable struggles to keep their land, with many doubling or tripling their mortgages to maintain their farms.
Fast forward nearly a decade. Today I am the CEO of a national youth-wellness nonprofit whose founding partners include America’s dairy farmers, so I am anything but objective when it comes to my affinity for the dairy industry. It raises the question, am I, are we, doing a good enough job telling their story?
Every day, I get an up-close-and-personal look at this industry. And my respect grows daily, as I watch farmers wrestle with new challenges both expected and unexpected.
Like any industry whose products are subject to the vagaries of national and world economies, evolving consumer tastes, and the realities of market competition, the dairy industry has had its routine hurdles.
These include everything from export tariffs, global milk surpluses, and falling prices to an ever-sharpening focus on the environmental impact of farming. From shifts in folks’ tastes and preferences to growing interest in where our food comes from. And of course, there’s the rise of plant-based beverages — made from everything from soy, rice, and sunflowers to oats, almonds, peas, even hemp.
But there are also the less routine impediments that are specific to the current economy, and that dramatically impact agriculture in general, and particularly dairy.
As someone who has had the opportunity to work with and advise a wide range of industries over the years, and to look at various sectors’ stumbling blocks from the perspective of the boardroom, the investor community, and the development of go-to-market strategies, I am astonished at what the dairy industry has been up against, in recent months especially.
The impact on farmers of the federal government’s shutdown in 2018 was enormous. While merely inconvenient for consumers, for dairy farmers a shutdown like that causes a halt to USDA lending programs, disaster relief, payments from commodity programs, and fiscal safety nets of all kinds — not to mention government food-safety and food-security programs — a lifeline for so many.
As for exports, the nightmare of retaliatory tariffs on agriculture products from countries such as China and Mexico could easily slice tens of billions of dollars off U.S. farmers’ income, as, for instance, traditional export partners consider turning to other sources — the European Union, for example — for tariff-free food products. The uncertainty around this, is of course, stressful and aggravating to farmers — as milk surpluses pile up, a glut is created, and prices fall.
Why should you care? Because the dairy industry is facing enormous economic headwinds, in addition to the ordinary ups and downs that any business faces. And I wonder if most consumers are even aware of this.
From 1944 to 2007 the U.S. dairy community has been able to produce a gallon of milk using 65% less water, 90% less land with 76% less manure — all resulting in a 63% smaller carbon footprint. U.S. dairy’s life cycle assessment (LCA) data indicates U.S. dairy contributes 2% of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2009 the U.S. dairy community announced a voluntary goal to further reduce those emissions by 25% by 2020.This year, the U.S. dairy community will surpass that goal.
Further, more than 98 percent of the domestic milk supply comes from farms that participate in the FARM Animal Care program. The FARM Animal Care program is the first livestock animal care program in the world to be recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Animal Welfare Management standards.
When I see this kind of progress — in the face of both economic hardship from outside influences and frequent criticism — I consider it my duty to speak up, particularly as a journalist and as a mom.
That’s why my support of, and my belief in, the future of the dairy industry has never mattered more to me. And it’s one reason why, as I write this, I am preparing to moderate a keynote discussion at this year’s South by Southwest® Conference (SXSW®) at Land O’Lakes’s installation called the “Copernicus Project.”
This incredible initiative is centered around the large-scale changes rippling across the food industry and our food production system, and the impact those changes will have on human health going forward. With panelists from groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Mayo Clinic . . . the world is clearly listening to dairy.
It’s easy for me to get emotional about dairy farming, because it’s a family business, and I believe in families — mine and yours. It’s also a business that has supported child nutrition, in the form of milk supplied for school breakfast and lunch, for over a century, and today spends millions annually on programs which support child wellness.
Some call that longevity. I call it commitment!
In the U.S., there are 39,000 dairy farms milking just over 9 million cows, and fully 95% of those farms are family-owned and operated, with many having been passed down from generation to generation. At the end of the day, about 2% of the U.S. population are farmers, working hard each day to produce the food that nourish all of us. It is a 365-day-a-year job.
Despite tough economic times, the dairy farmers I’m privileged to work with are committed to working just as hard as they have in years past to produce the nutritious dairy foods the world loves. These men and women are the most dedicated stewards of any industry I have ever come across. And they stand on the shoulders of one of the greatest of centuries-old agricultural traditions as their foundation. Their vision is of healthy foods, healthy people, healthy communities, and a healthy planet — based as much on tomorrow’s science as on their timeless traditions.
Here’s the reality.
According to the latest statistics, by 2050 it is projected that there will be 9.2 billion people on the planet, and recent estimates suggest that food production will have to increase by 70% if we are to feed everyone. Obviously, with these numbers looming, there is no more pivotal time in history to support farming, not critique, question, or denigrate it. It’s also a time to learn more about it. Farming is an inherently fascinating, and totally future-focused industry, constantly implementing and advancing the latest technologies — many farmers now use drones to oversee their farms. I look forward to the continued expansion of this dialogue that was started at last year’s South by Southwest® Conference by Land O’Lakes, at their thought-provoking exhibit “The Food Effect,” which told the story of feeding human progress through technology. It should be noted the exhibit — for all the right reasons — attracted enormous crowds and tremendous engagement and I have no doubt it will do the same again this year.
How can you support farmers?
By telling policymakers why we must support agriculture generally, and more specifically, our dairy farmers. By eating real foods. By shopping at farmers’ markets. By staying informed about everything from new agricultural technologies to farmers’ legislative hurdles. By visiting a working farm. And by spreading the word on social media.
Sheer loyalty aside, at the end of the day, American agriculture is an industry that contributes $200 billion per quarter on average to the U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s just one reason why my dairy farmer colleagues, who in many ways are both the engine and the lifeblood of our economy, are deserving of ALL of our support.
I’m proud to stand beside them, in good times and bad, and will NOT STOP speaking up on their behalf.