Being Big Dairy

Partnerships Keep Wisconsin Healthy

Volume 134, No. 49 Friday, June 4, 2010

The phrase arose again and again in Wisconsin during this spring’s full-blown legislative battle over the sale of raw milk: Big Dairy.

Big Dairy had apparently convinced Governor Jim Doyle to veto state legislation that would allow the sale of raw milk to consumers visiting Wisconsin dairy farms. Presumably, Big Pediatrician and Big Public Health Professional were guilty as well, but letters to the editor and on-line comments from raw milk supporters rarely blamed the health community for the raw milk bill’s demise.

It’s a telling sign of success, the moniker Big Dairy. Less than a decade ago, dairy farming and processing were on the ropes in Wisconsin - milk production and market share were slumping, ready for a slow slide to the canvas.

But the collapse never came. Today, despite a difficult year and a half for milk price margins, Wisconsin dairy farmers have rebuilt state milk production to record levels.

In 2009, Wisconsin farms delivered a record 25.2 billion pounds of milk and these gains have continued into 2010. Since January 1, Wisconsin milk production is up 5.7 percent or 465 million pounds over strong production last year.

For an industry once unsure of its future, this recovery is cause for celebration. The combined effort of thousands of farm families has shown that business acumen combined with government resolve, along with natural resources in water, soil and climate, can assure Wisconsin remains a key dairy state throughout this new century.

Any sneer in the label Big Dairy loses potency in light of the facts: Wisconsin’s dairy industry is farming families (99 percent of farms are family owned), farmer cooperatives and multi-generation cheese makers and butter makers.

Certainly the state has new, large farms and massive modern dairy plants. But the real story of Wisconsin’s recovery is incremental growth on existing dairy farms and a steady shift from commodity to value-added dairy products at nearly 100 dairy processing plants, large and small.

Last month, the Wisconsin Ag Statistics Service released specialty cheese production figures for 2009. Wisconsin cheese makers created 477 million pounds of specialty cheeses: Feta, Havarti, Blue, Provolone, wheel Parmesan, Fontina, Limburger and more; up 9 percent compared to 2008. About two-thirds of Wisconsin’s 125 cheesemaking sites make one or more specialty cheeses.

Overall, Wisconsin dairy farms and dairy plants produce $26 billion in economic value for the state - an industry that has added jobs during America’s recent economic downturn. In the Legislature, Governor Jim Doyle and Republicans and Democrats alike helped sparked the recovery of Wisconsin’s dairy industry with livestock siting legislation, modest tax credits and support for innovative programs such as the Dairy Business Innovation Center and Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.

For a time this spring, an election-year breeze blew raw milk legislation through the Wisconsin Legislature and overwhelmed determined voices from Wisconsin’s public health community and dairy industry. Added to public health statistics from previous illness outbreaks attributed to raw milk, this spring saw illness outbreaks in Indiana/Michigan, Utah and (currently) Minnesota.

For state dairy processors, farmers and the medical community, this current data underscored a frustratingly clear message: pasteurization is a simple, proven technology to prepare farm milk for consumption.

Proponents of raw milk tout unique (and utterly unproven) health benefits of unheated milk. A handful of dairy farmers sought permission to sell their farm milk directly to visitors. But Big Dairy, that is, the vast majority of Wisconsin farm families and the cheese makers and butter makers and milk bottlers in the state, asked for common sense and the common good. Governor Doyle set aside the hyperbole and emotion behind raw milk legislation and did what was best for state families.

Wisconsin’s dairy industry found its voice with this issue. And the industry built a partnership with veterinarians, the medical community and public health officials to convey the good sense behind pasteurizing milk.

If that’s Big Dairy, then our state industry should welcome the nickname and look forward to future opportunities to protect the wholesomeness of dairy products from America’s Dairyland.

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakersassn. org


Other John Umhoefer Columns

Upper Midwest Prospects in 2010
Upper Midwest Growth: Perspectives From The Farm
Blue Skies or Bust
Pushing Back Against A Tough 2009
Support Demand, Not Price
Dairy: A Good Bet in a Bad Economy
Wisconsin's Future: Growth
Keeping Sustainability Real
Nose Dive
Dairy Dives into 2009
Consider This...
 Fulls Vats
Implement Make Allowances ASAP
Security Reforms
Spring Forward
A Week of Clarity

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