Checkoff’s Crisis Teams Ready for This Moment

  • Article
  • 4 min read April 22, 2020
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

I recall sitting in one of my first crisis drills hosted by the checkoff years ago. The drills revolve around a mock scenario and participants from all sides of the dairy industry, plus government employees, college professors and others, team up to develop the best strategy forward.

Our scenario revolved around a tornado destroying a single processing plant. I remember thinking what a terrible thing it would be if that ever occurred in real life.

I’m not sure the checkoff teams that host the drills could have devised a scenario as awful as the one that plays out daily in our world. COVID-19 is a uniquely destructive force on our industry and our nation and there’s no telling just how bad its ramifications will become.

It’s made me think back to that crisis drill, where I experienced one of the greatest benefits they deliver, which is the cohesive relationship on display between our national and local checkoff teams. The drills are hosted two to three times a year by one of our 16 state and regional teams with support from Dairy Management Inc. (DMI). 

The history of our crisis preparedness efforts actually dates to 2001 when we watched the United Kingdom’s response to foot and mouth disease (FMD) and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Checkoff and industry leaders in the U.S. asked themselves an important question as a sometimes-chaotic response unfolded daily: Would we be ready if that happened here? 


Industrywide plan

In 2002, DMI began conducting crisis trainings and workshops and put an industrywide plan in place involving DMI, National Milk Producers Federation, International Dairy Foods Association, U.S. Dairy Export Council and MilkPEP. Experienced communicators from these groups form the Dairy Communications Management Team (DCMT) and allow us to work together and speak with one voice in times such as now.

The DCMT has addressed the “why” behind milk disposal, providing perspective to balance media coverage and answering consumers’ questions in social media. The work is helping people understand it’s not the fault of the farmer but rather supply chain complications.

It isn’t just our checkoff and DCMT teams that have sharpened their crisis management skills from the trainings. In the last four years, more than 400 companies and organizations have attended a drill. Over that time, 20,000-plus dairy farmers, health professionals, scientists, dairy and ag industry professionals have participated alongside checkoff staff in a drill, workshop or communications training.

Some of the participants read like a who’s who of the food and retail industry: Kroger, Meijer, Walmart, Food Lion, General Mills, Costco, Publix and Starbucks.

There also have been representatives from the FBI, USDA and Department of Homeland Security, as well as many veterinarians and officials from state departments of health and agriculture. At first glance, it may look like an overload of involvement but the broad input and ability to build relationships shows its true value with COVID-19 smacking us in the face. The drills also allow us to demonstrate how buttoned-up the dairy industry’s crisis plan is, locally and nationally.


State and regional successes

The trainings teach us that the key to crisis management is the ability to remain collected and to be nimble as you should expect the unexpected. 

I’ve seen this with my American Dairy Association North East (ADANE) team in a couple of ways. Over a four-week period, ADANE’s retail team helped stock more than 64,250 dairy products for stores in our six-state region to help them keep up with demand for dairy.

But we soon began to see retailers post signs in the dairy case that limited milk purchases. ADANE, which works with retailers representing about 1,400 stores in our territory, contacted the major chains to confirm there was no shortage of milk to process and the signs were not necessary. While some stores remain challenged by distribution issues brought about by COVID-19, the signs are largely gone and ADANE’s work provided a template for other state and regional teams that faced a similar issue to follow.

Our state and regional network also has been pivotal helping their Fuel Up to Play 60 schools apply for grants through GENYOUth. The grants will help schools feed children who face daily food insecurity, another crisis born from COVID-19. School meals are critical as 30 million of our nation’s children aren’t sure where their next meal may come from. It’s also an important channel for farmers as 7% of our fluid milk moves through schools.

There are many other stories of success that I am hearing from our state and regional network around the country. Our checkoff – nationally and locally – is committed to moving as much dairy as possible. That is comforting to me as the uncertainties are beginning to stockpile. We’re not alone as my friends outside of agriculture also are in a difficult position. COVID-19 spares no one. 

There is nothing certain about the days ahead or when life as we knew it will return. Until then, I do know this: The dairy checkoff crisis teams we have across our federation continue to prepare for times like this.