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March 21, 2018

How Dairy Sped Past Other Industries To Advance Farm Sustainability

 |  By: Nate Birt

Unlike many sectors of agriculture, the dairy industry has successfully woven together disparate supply chain stakeholders to adopt common best practices and advance consumer outreach. A significant part of that success can be attributed to organizations such as the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, which convenes executives from farms, food companies, processors and other sectors to set a vision for the industry and put steps in place to achieve it.

Managing Partner Steve Maddox of California-based Maddox Dairy and Social Responsibility Officer Lisa Watson of the Innovation Center spoke as featured panelists at the 2018 Trust In Food™ Symposium. Here, Maddox—among the farmers that spearheaded the formation of the Innovation Center a decade ago—and Watson answer questions from Symposium attendees.

Can you really get the value chain together? Don’t they just want to compete and take market share from each other?

Lisa Watson: When dairy farmers formed the Innovation Center a decade ago, we knew there were pre-competitive opportunities and issues the industry could unite around. What we didn’t know was that CEOs and chairs of some of the industry’s most influential organizations and companies would commit to leadership roles as board members, as well as provide access to industry experts and resources for joint initiatives. Over the past 10 years, that level of support has enabled us to accomplish a lot, establishing best practices, developing training and research and focusing on issues and opportunities that are important because of their overall impact. It demonstrates the dairy community can work together towards a common goal. We don’t always agree on a single answer or course forward, but our experience is that we always leave the room wiser and with greater appreciation of our common ground.

Do consumer-facing businesses reward the efforts of sustainable producers and co-ops, or do they still reward the low-cost bid when purchasing dairy products?

Lisa Watson: Demonstrating sustainable practices is simply considered a part of doing business today by consumers, retailers, governments, trade partners and other stakeholders, many of whom are also working to meet their own sustainability goals.

But it’s important to note that sustainable farming is in no way a new concept for dairy families. It is deeply ingrained that they constantly incorporate practices that help them be the best stewards possible of their land, their animals and the environment.

Sometimes the rub is whether the metrics required by a particular customer are the same as those used on a particular farm. So at the Innovation Center level, we’ve been focusing on getting agreement across the chain on uniform ways that our farmers can measure and report continuous improvement.

Do you think the romanticized image of the farmer is hurting or helping consumer trust?

Steve Maddox: It’s a double-edged sword because most people don’t realize the details that we go into scientifically on our farms every day. We sample things so we’re doing what’s best for the land and what’s best for the plants while working within the environment and weather that we’re given. We’re using the latest scientific techniques that are appropriate and sound, but they don’t always fit into what a consumer visualizes a farm to be.

Would you prefer they had a more realistic view of what you do?

Steve Maddox: The difficulty is that our reality is a pretty good leap for most people to take unless they can physically see it and feel it by visiting our farms. It’s challenging to try to make our farms realistic on the internet level where you open yourself up to critics or people not understanding what they’re seeing. Most consumers are several generations removed from a farm, and they don’t have a basis they can relate to. Many times, they’re relying on misinformation that is out there and what people are projecting about us.

Is sustainability really the biggest issue behind consumer trust issues in dairy? Or is it something else (health, animal welfare, etc.)?

Steve Maddox: Consumers' definition of sustainability has expanded to include not only environmental stewardship but also animal care, community involvement and how you treat your employees. That’s why the Innovation Center is working to advance our shared vision of an economically viable, socially responsible and environmentally sustainable dairy community.

As farmers, we know it’s in our best interest to provide excellent animal care because the better we care for our cows and the more comfortable they are, the more efficient they are. That is something that is lost on the consumer most of the time.

Are larger dairies becoming a requirement for sustainability? How does the public view larger dairies or dairy conglomerates in their want of sustainable goods?

Steve Maddox: It is easier for the large dairies to specialize and address sustainability issues, but that doesn’t preclude a smaller dairy from doing the same thing. Regardless of the size of your farm, it’s about individual cow care, maximizing the use of our resources and doing everything as well as we possibly can.

The problem is there are so many hats a farmer wears, and on a smaller farm, the responsibilities fall primarily just to him or her. A larger operation can hire more people and delegate responsibilities, so it’s not as overwhelming. But I’ve seen farms with 100 cows that are much better than what we do.

Is the co-op structure in dairy helping or hurting sustainability?

Steve Maddox: The reason for having co-ops is because we’re dealing with a perishable commodity. In numbers, there is strength. It allows us to address and solve industry issues and opportunities, such as sustainability as a consensus. Co-ops ensure we’re making maximum progress compared to what we would be doing if we were all individuals.

Co-ops allow us to have marketing power, and they allow us to work as a community with the National Milk Producers Federation and the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program. Co-ops help support our environmental programs and often partner with the Innovation Center. You’re able to do more initiatives over the short- and long-term that are positive for the industry.

The Innovation Center will announce its 2018 Sustainability Award winners at a ceremony on May 16. To learn about the 2017 honorees, visit dairygood.org.

 

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