January 18, 2017

Nine Questions with New IDFA CEO

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Q: As new CEO what is your vision for the future of IDFA? 

MD: First, let me say that I’m honored to serve as president and CEO of IDFA. I plan to build on the strong organization I now lead  Michael Dykesand be sure that it serves as a credible, respected voice for the dairy foods industry.  I see IDFA as a reliable partner, working collaboratively with the larger dairy and food industry to deliver outstanding value to our members.  We are stronger and more effective when we work together.


Q: What are the top three challenges your industry is facing and how will you address each of these challenges as CEO?

MD: The three top challenges before us in January 2017 are building relationships with the new administration and members of Congress, ensuring fair trade policy for our industry and addressing the regulatory and food labeling challenges confronting our members. I believe that each challenge can offer opportunities for dairy.


New Administration and Congress.  We have a tremendous opportunity to educate this new team about our issues, particularly as we begin work on the next Farm Bill.  There will be a number of new faces in the Trump administration and we need to get to know them and begin building relationships across all agencies that affect dairy. While there are also some familiar faces from both sides of the aisle that are in leadership positions, there are also many new members of Congress that we will need to educate on our industry and our issues.  We will educate and build on our existing relationships with policymakers to advocate on behalf of the dairy industry.  We must hit the ground running to be sure that the administration and Congress know our issues and are willing to support our efforts to change policy to ensure our dairy industry leverages its competitive advantages and remains a globally competitive industry.


Dairy Trade. Trade is a top priority for IDFA. According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, 15 percent of our milk now goes to make products that are exported around the globe.  U.S. dairy producers continue to produce more milk with fewer cows and our industry grows. But to be competitive globally, we must work to ensure trade policy is fair for our industry and that we have access to markets around the world. That’s why IDFA joined with National Milk Producers Federation, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to send a letter to President-Elect Trump and members of his incoming administration regarding Canada’s unfair and protectionist  dairy trade policy. These unfair practices in Canada are targeting the imports of ultra-filtered milk from the U.S.


Food Safety.  The Food and Drug Administration began implementation of many of the Food Safety Modernization Act rules this past fall.  Many new rules will begin enforcement in the next 2 to 3 years. IDFA has a shared goal with FDA to produce safe products for our consumers and will continue to work with them to communicate the impact of rules on our industry.


Q: Dairy producers and dairy processors can be on opposite sides of the fence on certain issues, especially as it relates to milk pricing. How will you work to strengthen relationships with dairy producers?

MD: It is important to both producers and processors that we work together to ensure we have a predictable supply of milk and that our processors continue to invest capital to innovate and build processing infrastructure. I believe we are on the same side on about 95 percent of the issues facing our industry. We will work collaboratively on these issues where we have mutual interests. We are stronger and much more effective when we work together.When we work to build trust among people with diverse points of view, we can tackle the other five percent.


In my visits to our member companies over the past three months, I’ve heard over and over again how important it is for the industry to have a healthy, collaborative relationship between producer and processor.This mutual respect is evident within our organization as many of our members are both milk producers and milk processors.


Q: Dairy producers rely heavily on global markets to support milk prices. How can IDFA support trade efforts to ensure export markets remain strong, especially in light of the new Trump administration?

MD: Trade is one of our top priorities. We have already begun working collaboratively across dairy to demand action on unfair trade practices. Last week we urged the president-elect and his key cabinet members to take immediate action on Canada’s direct violation of its trade commitments under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization.We currently export approximately 15 percent of our U.S. milk production and it is important to our members that we continue to advocate on behalf of the growing export markets for dairy products.


Q: Transparency is increasingly important in light of continuing consumer desire to know more about where their food comes from. Some retail brands have created marketing claims that have resulted in strict guidelines imposed on dairy producers, creating a need for greater transparency at the farm level. How can IDFA help retail brands establish marketing programs that are beneficial to both the brand and producer suppliers?

MD: There is no question that changing consumer demands and the desire to know what’s in their food is shaping every part of our industry.From how cows live on the farm to whether a product has locally sourced ingredients or is packaged in sustainably produced cartons, consumers want to know more and more about how their food is produced.As an industry, we must pay attention to these demands; it is foolish to ignore them. However, dairy is fortunate because we have such as diverse group of products that we can meet the needs of a wide range of consumers.

Q: What skills and insights as a farmer and veterinarian will you bring to your role?

MD: I started milking cows at the age of 5, so I have an appreciation of what it takes for a farm family to care for their animals and their business. My love of the farm led me to earn a bachelor’s degree in animal science and a master’s in agricultural economics from the University of Kentucky as well as to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Auburn University. As a veterinarian, I learned care and compassion for the animals that are at the heart of our industry.I have a life-long passion for agriculture and roots in dairy.I am excited to be at IDFA.


Q: Working in government affairs for Monsanto for 19 years you have a unique perspective on issues relating to biotechnology. How will that insight impact the challenges the dairy industry is facing over the use of biotechnology in dairy production?

MD: I built a career with Monsanto, where I spent a good deal of time talking with dairy farmers, listening to their dreams and concerns while visiting their farms.


I understand that farmers view new technology much like tools in a toolbox. They want the ability to use the tools available to them to operate their businesses more sustainably and profitably. And dairy companies also need to use the technology they need to manufacture and market products to their consumers.Explaining the human and animal safety of technology to the consuming public is necessary but not sufficient. We need to share more about the value of technology to improving the environmental impact and improving our sustainability efforts.


Q: What do you think is the biggest issue dairy farmers are facing?

MD: Farms are getting larger and farmers are producing more milk per cow. We have the opportunity to take advantage of a growing world population looking to consume more milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream and dairy ingredients.  That brings us back to trade and the need to grow the dairy export market and ensure our trade policy is fair to our U.S. dairy industry. I look forward to working with my friend Secretary Tom Vilsack as he takes over the leadership of the U.S. Dairy Council.

Our dairy farmers have experienced significant price volatility in the last few years. Their new federal safety net program (Margin Protection Program) has not worked as well as envisioned during these periods of volatility. I believe this will be a top priority for producers in the upcoming Farm Bill discussions.


Q: How will you work with dairy processors to improve the correlation between the price farmers are paid for milk and what it costs consumers in the grocery store?

MD: I believe that free markets work well to find that balance between supply and demand in such a way that drives efficiency and innovation across the entire industry. Consumers will have the opportunity to choose the products at the prices that best fits their individual needs with confidence that those products are safe and wholesome.   You have my commitment to foster good communications between producers and processers, to work together to address this and other challenges ahead.