The Crucial Aspect of Dairy Exports

  • Marilyn Hershey
  • DMI Chair

One of the greatest values I hear from farmers is checkoff’s work in exports. They truly understand the importance exports have to our industry and our future, which is why farmers founded the U.S. Dairy Export Council in 1995, to best position U.S. dairy for international growth.

When we look at the last couple of years, we have faced some of the greatest trade challenges we have ever experienced, yet U.S. dairy has seen its highest exports ever with nearly 18 percent of our production heading into the international marketplace. It’s crucial that we get exports right. If we don’t, we will struggle as an industry and we will struggle with having a farm to transition to the next generation. USDEC’s role has never been more important.

I am happy to share this space with my friend Larry Hancock from Muleshoe, Texas, who operates a 4,200-cow dairy with his wife, Pam, and two children. Larry became USDEC chair in the fall of 2019 and has been a strong leader who represents the farmer voice and priorities.

What I admire about Larry is he has always asked the tough questions in the board room. He challenges us to do the right thing, to spend the money in the right areas, and to keep the focus where it should be. He has brought that mindset to USDEC, and I have full confidence that he will continue to help drive its success.

Larry, why are exports so important to farmers?

Years ago, my son and daughter wanted to come back to the farm, and we were milking around 2,000 cows but we doubled in size to bring on more family. So, we need to grow our dairy market and I think everyone sees that. Even if you’re not adding family members, our cows have increased production and we are seeing a lot of demand in the world for high-quality protein. Years ago, I was fearful of the volatility of exports, but if you want to grow our industry, we must grow exports and we have to look throughout the world. That’s why USDEC is such an important part of the checkoff plan, to help facilitate dairy exports. I tell the USDEC leadership we must be as diversified as possible, so in case a country has a disagreement with the U.S., we have other places we can go because our production can’t stay home.

What is one aspect of USDEC that you feel works especially well?

USDEC’s Market Access and Regulatory Affairs team has been crucial. Of course, since USDEC was created in 1995, dairy farmers have largely funded the organization through our checkoff dollars. But there are about 120 members who represent processors, trading companies and other export interests. This program does a great job of making sure these companies understand where the next opportunities for U.S. dairy are and provides them with expertise to understand and navigate the requirements that are necessary to export into more than 90 countries. Exporting U.S. dairy requires an understanding of complex regulations, and this is how USDEC eases the path and helps resolve potential issues for U.S. dairy companies.

USDEC has staff in 10 offices around the world who work to increase sales of U.S. dairy. How critical are these teams to dairy farmers?

I have been on USDEC mission trips to Mexico, Dubai and Chile and have met the staff we have in place in these markets. I am just amazed at the quality of people USDEC finds and how knowledgeable they are about U.S. dairy products. We work a lot with chefs and when we were in Chile, we met two chefs who were just phenomenal, and they spoke very highly about the quality of U.S. cheese. USDEC had brought them to the U.S. to show them our manufacturers so they can see the quality up close.

How optimistic are you about the future of U.S. dairy exports?

The world economy is what it is, but 2022 was a record year amid tremendous headwinds. It started with the supply chain difficulty, then the dollar went way high and yet we still were able to export. I think there is a tremendous demand for high-quality protein from high-quality dairy and that is here to stay. With these headwinds, who knows where the percentage of our production will go, but I think it will only continue to get better. And when I look at what our competitors are doing, some are struggling, so that is opening more opportunity for us. I think with USDEC constantly touting the quality of U.S. dairy products and making access easier for the members to export and the desire for quality protein, exports will only continue to grow.

What do you most want farmers to know about USDEC?

The funding for USDEC comes mostly from our promotion dollars and there is farmer input given to its direction through seven farmers who sit on the board. We have to let the experts run the organization, but farmers assure USDEC is going in the direction we think it should go. I like to say farmer fingerprints are on our export program. I want them to know I am very optimistic about USDEC, the leadership we have and the employees who work on our behalf. As long as we can maintain the quality employees we have here and overseas, the future is bright.