Dairy Exports: Jekyll and Hyde
By Sherry Bunting, Milk Market Moos, Farmshine, February 2, 2018
Talk to dairy farmers and industry observers about dairy exports and the response runs the gamut from enthusiastic full-court-press to cautious optimistic pursuit to a pessimistic skepticism about the profitability they bring to the table.
No matter where you are on the scale of good, bad or indifferent, exports are essential for agriculture and for dairy.
The hands of time do not turn backward on technology and progress, and so we are in a global market. If we want to be competitive in our domestic market, we need to also be competitive globally.
The food industry is increasingly served by global players and multinational companies that can source and supply from all corners of the globe. People would be surprised to learn how relatively small the transportation cost is in exporting ag commodities, especially further processed dairy products, overseas compared with cross country, on a per-unit basis.
If our ships are not arriving at other ports because we can’t compete, then other ships will arrive at our ports because we can’t compete.
That said, forward progress in supplying markets overseas needs to be pursued, not with reckless abandon finding ‘homes’ for excess milk, but with strategic thinking that includes the marketing and a consideration for the well being of our dairy farm sector.
As Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue pointed out in his visit to Pennsylvania last week, America’s food security is America’s national security. Our farmers are the thin green line that, along with our military, keep our nation safe. After 9/11, the U.S. set out to be energy independent within 25 years and accomplished this in 10, according to a talk, given by Dr. David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania last Friday.
Just as our growing economy became at one point dependent on other nations for a portion of its energy needs, to its peril, we should take care that we do not become dependent in the future on other nations for our food.
A laughable thought, perhaps, but the rapidly consolidating agriculture industry needs its wide and varied base of family farms, small independent businesses, that support a varied and competitive rural infrastructure and provide the safety net of food security for American consumers through their independent pursuit of partnering with industry and academia to producer more, with less.
Kohl talked about how important trade is to American farmers, including the dairy industry, which currently exports 1 out of every 7 days’ worth of milk.
He made some observations about China’s agriculture. That Chinese interests purchase of Smithfield was largely to purchase the food safety protocols to ensure their food security. Here’s a statistic Kohl shared that got me thinking. He said that while there are 2 million farmers in the U.S., there are 314 million farmers in China.
“They are not taking on technology there as rapidly because there are 800 million people living in rural China and they need something to do,” said Kohl.
Just think about that for a minute. Technology is as essential to the future in agriculture as are our trade negotiations and exports; however, this statistic made me think about our rural youth both on and off the farm.
Dairy farming, like the hog business in the 1990s, is at a crossroads. Farmers, through their cooperative memberships, partnerships and other arrangements, own some of the largest and most aggressive processing assets that are strategically consolidating markets and distribution.
They hold in their hands their futures as individual small businesses — parts of the whole, contributors to a market, dairy farmers who not only are improving their own business acumen but continually improving how they manage their herds and possess a passion for what they are doing, a passion that is being called upon to directly market their farming lifestyle to consumers to counteract the negative attacks of anti-animal activists casting doubt wherever they turn.
U.S. Dairy Export CEO Tom Vilsack has set a lofty goal of getting U.S. dairy exports to 20% of production vs. the current 14. That would be nearly one and a half days’ worth of milk production out of every seven.
That sounds exciting, but when have we heard percentage of increase goals set for the fluid milk category? Could that incremental effort not also be exciting?
There are reasons why we are not seeing this, and in some respects, those reasons bring us back full circle to the export discussion.
Beverage milk is not exported on the scale that dairy commodities and dairy products are. Yes, DFA is among those exporting shelf stable milk to China for supermarkets, but this is not a globally traded product as are cheese, butter, and particularly dairy indgredients and protein powders.
While dairy processors eye up the opportunities and build inventories around allocated sales, and manage their risk with offsets, dairy farmers are in the price-taking position with the promise that if exports grow, they and their families can grow their businesses, without a serious discussion about the profitability in that proposition.
All of this to say, that the main market for U.S. farm milk is here at home as not only a beverage but also a growing number of dairy products finding good demand.
We are not New Zealand, which exports most all of what they produce.
The U.S. has, already, a strong robust customer base for cheese, yogurt, butter and a host of dairy products, as well as a sector of our industry (beverage milk) that needs our committed attention through dynamic labeling, comparative promotion vs. the imposters, consumer education about MILK, not how many situps and pushups to do each day. It needs people in charge who truly believe it is important, not an offhand remark by a checkoff-paid employee for U.S. DEC speaking at a conference, saying that fluid market is a dead horse as he proceeded to dig into the exciting team of horses (exports) waiting in the wings to save the day.
Having said all of this, it is imperative that U.S. dairy farmers be competitive to be involved in the global marketplace because it is here, with all of its pluses and minuses, but that does not mean we turn way from the prize in which the Federal Orders place high value and for which other products are taking over because we have, in effect, laid down and allowed the incremental loss of beverage milk sales.
But let’s examine the fluid milk dilemma further in the next edition.
Author’s Note: Re-inventing this Ag Moos blog for the times…. Milk Market Moos is a column I have been writing in Farmshine since 2003. It became a weekly feature in 2007. Find some of this content here, at Ag Moos, along with other dairy and beef market related stories, agriculture news, and, in between, the stories and images of the inspirational people of agriculture… but you can get it first, and you can get it all, in Farmshine Newspaper, just $15/year. Farmshine is a weekly newspaper published in Brownstown, Pennsylvania — now in its 39th year of publishing all-dairy, all-the-time.