Farmer Input Key Part of Innovation Center Strategies

  • 4 min read June 13, 2024
  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

Dairy farmers created the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy (IC) in 2008 through our checkoff with the goal of convening dairy cooperatives, processors and other parts of the value chain around matters that are important to everyone in the U.S. dairy community, as well as dairy buyers and consumers.

The environment, nutrition and health, animal care, food safety, and community contributions all are IC priority areas and are bigger than any one part of the dairy community can or should tackle alone. And these areas are critical to building trust in dairy and market access for our products.

The IC board of directors works pre-competitively and is comprised of 29 chief executives and chairs of dairy companies and associations, including Dairy Management Inc., International Dairy Foods Association, Milk Processor Education Program, National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Dairy Export Council. The cooperatives and processors on the board represent about 65 percent of U.S. milk production.

Farmers not only founded the IC but always have shaped its mission and strategies, offering our lens from the starting point of the dairy value chain. It’s important to know that our farmer voices within the IC represent all regions of the country and different farming styles. We have farmers from small, medium and large operations helping to lead this work and while the conversations can be candid, they are productive and critical as we work to identify opportunities and solutions that advance dairy’s reputation in an ever-changing marketplace.

Our farmer perspective has been beneficial to the leaders of these organizations, and we, too, have benefitted from understanding the challenges and opportunities they face.

All of us understand the value of having this organization established and relationships in place so we can get down to business as one industry in a very efficient manner. This unity is especially evident when you face a crisis such as COVID or the current H5N1 situation.

Like any successful organization, the IC has grown and evolved over the years. This includes the creation of operating committees and task forces that have farmer participation and input focused on these areas:

  • U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment – a voluntary platform adopted by dairy cooperatives and processors to transparently exhibit U.S dairy commitments and progress in stewardship of cows, people and planet.
  • Health and Well-Being – Advance dairy as a modern health and wellness solution through “now, next and future” claims, science and third-party outreach.
  • Environmental Stewardship – Advance dairy as an environmental solution: achieve GHG neutrality, optimize water use and improve water quality by 2050.
  • Animal Care – Demonstrate dairy farmers’ commitment to excellent, humane and ethical animal care.
  • Food Safety – Ensure broad adoption of advanced risk mitigation practices to protect global consumer confidence in U.S. dairy.
  • Communications – Build awareness and support for U.S. dairy’s social responsibility story and role in global sustainable food systems.
  • Food Security – Enable increased and reliable access to nutritious dairy products for those facing hunger.
  • GHG Accounting CEO Task Force – Create a favorable environment for dairy farmers to invest in GHG reductions on farm and ensure that U.S. dairy can successfully demonstrate its positive impact in reducing GHG as a category.

There is so much exciting work being done throughout these groups that it would be difficult to go into depth on everything. But I would like farmers to know about one area that is near and dear to us: school milk.

The IC board recognized the urgent issues of the school milk experience, and directed the Health and Well-Being priority area to identify possible solutions that could be implemented collaboratively across the industry. This group worked with industry representatives to produce background information, conduct 40 stakeholder interviews, host a multi-stakeholder workshop, analyze economic considerations and prepare a draft report.

These stakeholder suggestions were presented at the IC board meeting last fall, and a School Milk Action Team was formed to prioritize and advance short- and long-term solutions in 2024. You can certainly feel the urgency and commitment, and it’s just one example of what the IC can accomplish.

I often speak at conferences here and globally, and I engage with other ag industries through my role as immediate past chair of U.S. Farmers and Ranchers in Action. I frequently reference and am asked about the IC and it’s not uncommon for people outside of dairy to be amazed at what we have established.

They see what we have – the power of convening and unity, which includes the very important eye and voice of the dairy farmer.