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Dairy Checkoff Is Telling a New Story

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, February 14, 2020

The dairy industry's mantra used to be catchy, national in scope and hopeful: "Got Milk?"

That campaign, featuring milk-moustache-wearing celebrities gracing billboards and glossy magazine pages, has since been replaced by a grassroots approach that could be characterized in a more assertively suggestive way: get dairy.

As dairy continues to regain its footing in the marketplace after a five-year downturn saw prices plummet and hundreds of Midwestern milk producers go out of business, the current rebranding effort is all about connecting with consumers and recruiting new ones.

At last week's Indiana Dairy Producers' regional meeting in Plymouth, Allie Rieth, farmer relations manager with American Dairy Assn. Indiana Inc., showed video clips of school children using their classroom Internet gateway to tour farms, meet dairymen and women, and get up close and personal with cows.

"It's really important for us to create lifelong dairy lovers," Rieth said. "What we really want to concentrate on is that message of milk—that it's wholesome and nutritious and farmers that produce it and the cows it come from are really a huge part of the sustainability story."

Agriculture across the board is becoming more in tune with the changing demands of consumers who increasingly demand choices that aren't only healthy for their families, but the environment as well.

In a 2019 survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, 54 percent of the respondents indicated that "it's at least somewhat important that the products they buy be produced in an environmentally sustainable way." What's more, when consumers were asked what they meant by "important," the top response was: "what I eat is healthy for the planet."

Furthermore, "two-thirds (66 percent) of consumers think an environmentally sustainable diet can include protein from both animal sources and plant-based sources, while only 10 percent disagreed," the study concluded.

Rieth reminded IDP members that dairy has played a major role in sustainability farming for decades before it became a marketing hook, although sharing that message is new. Dairy producers need to embrace their role in the food companies' emphasis to ramp up their going-green initiatives.

It's good for consumers to know, Rieth said, that the Floyd Houin Family Homestead Dairy farm in Plymouth installed a biomass waste-to-energy facility to solve manure management-issues—storage, disposal and the odor created by 1,800 cows—while create a new revenue stream through electricity produced by is very own Homestead Green Energy plant.

However, there's an added benefit of consumers feeling better about how Homestead milk is made.

"What we try to incorporate with those virtual farm tours is that one of the reasons Houin Farm at Homestead is so great is that the anaerobic digester they have really goes into that green-energy (message)," Rieth said. "And when (students learn Homestead works) with the University of Notre Dame and their Food Scraps (Into Energy program), that really piques students' interest (because) sustainability and recycling is what they're learning about in class.

"When we find something they can relate to directly, it just clicks with them. A lot kids haven't grown up on a farm, they don't even have grandparents that farmed and they're so far away from the farm that if we can connect with them on a different level on another subject—like nutrition, like sustainability, like going green—we can help them think about dairy in a different way."

What has become abundantly clear to dairy farmers is that those big, bland, white jugs of milk aren't going to buy themselves and the competition—bottled water, energy and sports drinks, carbonated soft drinks and other beverages—are expanding rapidly while captivating consumers, attention with snazzy packaging and ad campaigns.

"People really want that healthy lifestyle, but they also want permission to enjoy milk," Rieth said. "After enjoying it their entire lives, they're really being made to feel bad about dairy. When I graduated from Purdue (University) in 2012, that's when those activist, undercover videos were really kicking off.

"People started thinking that consuming dairy is harmful to the animal and harmful to the environment, and that's when we really had to say, 'How do we connect with people to show them that it's OK to enjoy dairy?'"

As liquid milk struggled to keep pace with other beverage choices, dietary shifts, that put butter and cheese back on consumers' shopping list, kept many producers in business.

"It's really always been the focus to connect with people, to be that bridge between the farmer and the public when it comes to answering those questions," Rieth said. "We've gone away from the 'Got Milk?' commercials, which was more at the national level and since then we've worked more closely with partners like McDonald's and Domino's and the bigger chains across the country about all the reasons you should be using butter.

"And so, McDonald's has switched completely over to butter. When we're able to focus our messages and work through partners, we're seeing change on a much larger-scale instead of just hoping people go out and buy milk after seeing a commercial. In these upcoming years, sustainable nutrition is what we're looking at."

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