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Mark O'Keefe

O’Keefe

This is a teachable moment to tell the positive story of U.S. dairy exports, but we need the efforts of everyone in the industry to tell the message.

Since taking over as the U.S. Dairy Export Council’s president and CEO last month, Tom Vilsack has crisscrossed the country meeting people and giving speeches. Interest in the former U.S. Agriculture Secretary’s perspective has been keen. Exports, imports, free-trade agreements and their impact on the U.S. economy have been in the news, with politicians, activists, journalists and others voicing strong opinions about U.S. trade policy.

To break through the noise, the U.S. dairy industry needs to convey a clear and consistent message, not just on trade policy, but on a host of other issues.

“We have to collaborate,” Vilsack said at the International Dairy Foods Association’s Dairy Forum, held Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 in Orlando, Florida. “We have to communicate. We have to cooperate.”

Vilsack isn’t just referring to the leading dairy organizations.

“It is important and necessary for everyone in the supply chain that is impacted and is affected by dairy – whether they produce it, process it, package it, transport it, sell it, market it or promote it – to speak as best we can with a single unified voice on a variety of issues so that we can impact and affect positive policymaking,” Vilsack said.

Help us communicate the dairy industry’s positive story by sharing with family, friends, neighbors and elected officials, both offline and online.

Here are seven shareable facts about U.S. dairy exports.

1. U.S. dairy exports create jobs

Most people know American agriculture feeds much of the world. What some don’t realize is agricultural exports create thousands of jobs in America. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that at the farm level, each $1 billion of U.S. dairy exports generates more than 20,000 jobs and almost $3 billion of economic output. At the manufacturing level, USDA calculates that dairy exports support about 3,200 jobs per $1 billion of exports. This past year dairy exports generated more than 110,000 American jobs in dairy farming, manufacturing and related sectors. That’s about equal to the number of employees at Apple.

2. The world needs U.S. dairy exports

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Many countries don’t have the cows, farms, natural resources, technology and other capabilities required to meet the dairy needs of their own citizens. They must look elsewhere. For many the United States is the best choice. U.S. dairy exports have more than quadrupled in the past 16 years – from less than $1 billion in 2000 to nearly $5 billion in 2016.

3. Milk from 1 in 7 U.S. tankers ends in products and ingredients overseas

Fifteen years ago the United States exported about 5 percent of total U.S. milk production. Today the country is nearly three times that level, even as overall U.S. milk production has continued to grow. The milk in 1 out of 7 tankers leaving American farms ends in dairy products and ingredients sold overseas. That makes dairy exports integral to the health of the U.S. dairy industry.

4. We’re shipping ‘whey’ more than milk

Mention U.S. dairy exports to someone unfamiliar with the industry and they probably envision gallons of fluid milk on a cargo container heading to China. While the United States does export some milk – with long shelf life – to China, most U.S. exports are milk-based products and ingredients. In 2016 U.S. dairy exporters shipped 1.89 million tons of milk powders, whey products, lactose, cheese and butterfat, up 3 percent from 2015.

5. Exports of U.S. dairy ingredients are surging

In 2016 U.S. dairy exports were led by nutritious ingredients like whey protein. Sixty-two percent of the $4.7 billion in U.S. dairy exports this past year were dairy ingredients, with variations of whey. Think of dairy ingredients as the protein-packed food that is used to create all sorts of food all around the world – from pancake mix with whey protein and pizza dough with sweet whey powder to protein ice cream. But surveys show most Americans don’t even know that whey comes from dairy.

6. U.S. dairy exports can literally make the world taller

Milk provides nutrition for children in countries like Guatemala, Sudan and Vietnam. Since the United States started exporting dairy products in large quantities, child stunting – a form of malnutrition – has declined 22 percent in developing countries. U.S. dairy exports are literally lifting the stature of children. Many countries see dairy as a key to their nation’s health. Vietnamese men and women are among the shortest in the world – the average man is 5 feet 4 inches and the average woman is 5 feet 1 inch. At the same time Vietnam spends more on health care as a percent of gross domestic product than any country in the region. The government has set a goal to increase average heights by 1 inch to 2 inches by 2020. The primary means for accomplishing that is through increased milk consumption.

7. Mexico is our most important market and job creator

Mexico is not only America’s neighbor to the south. It’s the largest importer of U.S. dairy products, buying one-fourth of everything the United States exports. Mexican buyers support about 30,000 American jobs, primarily in rural America. It takes the equivalent of about 1,500 average-sized U.S. dairy farms to supply the volume of milk the United States ships to Mexico in the form of various dairy products. That’s a lot of farm families relying on the continued free flow of U.S. dairy products to Mexico. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement became law in 1994, U.S. dairy exports to Mexico have increased from $250 million to $1.2 billion.

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Mark O’Keefe is vice president of editorial services at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

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