Meeting environmental expectations one day at a time

  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

I can get overwhelmed when I think about the expectations placed on farmers from an environmental perspective … and I know others feel the same way.

But I quickly remind myself the best thing I can do is focus on the day-to-day and remember it’s about a process of steps rather than a full sprint to our destination.

As dairy farmers, we all believe in continuous improvement, and nobody understands the commitments we make to our natural resources better than us. We demonstrate responsible stewardship of our land and animals every day, as did the family members who preceded us.

I remember as a young girl watching my father shift to contour farming on our rolling Pennsylvania hillside to better manage and protect our topsoil during times of heavy rain. He didn’t do this to satisfy anyone’s expectations. He just knew it was the right thing to do for our farm and the sensitive Chesapeake Bay area.

In fact, our definition of sustainability has always been that our dairies are prospering and doing the things today that will allow the generation of tomorrow to keep farming.

But sustainability means something entirely different to the consumer in these ever-changing and complicated times. There are new expectations and demands not just on us but across the entire dairy supply chain. Think about this: we know from research that 83 percent of consumers say a company’s sustainability performance impacts their purchase decision.

It’s impossible to turn back the clock on the “why” of sustainability. It’s here to stay and impacts industries beyond ours, which is why any business that is focused on its future has some aspect of sustainability within its operations. This is true of our dairy checkoff, whose mission is to drive sales and build trust of our products and the farmers who make them possible every day.

I remember about 15 years ago when we began seeing a shift and our farm practices became a focus of importance to some of the country’s most recognized retailers and brands. They began looking at a system that would measure how well we care for our animals.

The point would be for a company to create a competitive marketing advantage by saying their dairy product was sourced by farmers who care more for their cows than a competitor’s. This also was happening internationally, where there was interest in mandating animal care practices from businesses that purchased our exported milk.

The troubling part is these companies were being informed by organizations that oppose animal agriculture, and our farmer voices and perspectives were largely absent. Some discussion also focused on the environment where misrepresentations of dairy’s greenhouse gas footprint were being shared.

Stop and think about the chaos that would have ensued had farmers been forced to follow various standards placed upon us from companies that purchase our milk. We’d experience division among ourselves and a create a threat to overall sales.

One of the industry’s responses came in 2009 through the creation of the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program, which the National Milk Producers Federation manages and our checkoff promotes for dairy consumers and customers who want to ensure the milk they use and consume is responsibly produced.

FARM offers a framework of unity and standards that proves out our longtime animal care commitments and continuous improvements. The science-backed program has since expanded to encompass environmental stewardship, biosecurity, workforce development and antibiotic stewardship.

The integrity of FARM has largely been accepted – and even heralded – by retailers and brands as the credible industry standard. It has helped calm the potential disarray that once may have existed.

Frustrating as it can be for farmers to feel like someone is constantly peering over the fence into our farms, it is critical that consumers understand and trust our commitment to producing quality food to nourish our communities. We are so committed to that. These programs are an important step in that understanding.

We founded the Innovation Center in 2008 through our checkoff to address areas such as animal care, food safety, health and wellbeing and, yes, the environment. And through that avenue, cooperatives, processors and farmers come together to discuss, brainstorm and collaborate the critical issues such as animal care and sustainability. The Innovation Center is a unifying leader for dairy farmers.

It was the Innovation Center that announced the industrywide 2050 Environmental Stewardship Goals as a way of farmers getting credit for the great work we have done for decades. The goals also opened the door to continue our longstanding aim of continuous improvement, which is where the U.S. Dairy Net Zero Initiative (NZI) comes into play.

We agree that sustainability cannot come on the backs of farmers, that the practices must make sense in all areas of the farm and I believe they also should come with a financial return.

Research will not happen overnight; it takes time and a trial-and-error approach. Through NZI, we have secured outside funding from heavyweights such as Starbucks, Nestlé and others. I am optimistic more will come to the table and I am convinced this is an important step in the research.

All of this will help us get to our end goal. It all takes time, small steps of progress and a willingness to improve our businesses.