WCMA Perspectives | Contributing Columnist

Extending Sustainability
to Government

John Umhoefer executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

November 3, 2023


A break from the national federal milk marketing order hearing allows for a sort of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” opportunity for this space. And what stands out back at the ranch – the ranch being everything in dairy that isn’t milk price formulas – is the satisfactory saturation of sustainability into strategic thinking in the dairy industry.

The next group to win over? Policymakers and regulators.

One of the strengths of sustainability is its big tent. The concept allows businesses to place their profitability, their governance, their care for employees and their impact on the environment into a single, strategic way of thinking. Most dairy processors are there, but our industry has work to do to win over lawmakers and regulators – as evidenced by some recent examples in Wisconsin.

Nutrient Fertilizer
Regulators at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) have stepped back from an opportunity to apply sustainability to their strategic thinking. In the last two years, their partner agency, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (WDATCP), has been working with dairy manufacturers to reconsider the green value of nutrients in dairy wastewater.

WDATCP regulators have encouraged manufacturers to consider the phosphorus, nitrogen and minerals in wastewater as commercial fertilizer, regulated by WDATCP, and spread on farm fields with nutrient management plans. WDNR, meanwhile, considers the same wastewater “industrial sludge” subject to its regulation.

In October, WDNR reacted to the growing movement to amend soils with phosphorus, nitrogen and minerals from dairy plants. A letter, sent to several dairy processors, stated that “while [your plant] may have a DATCP fertilizer license, this facility is still required to follow its WPDES permit and ch. NR 214,” effectively declaring wastewater a “sludge” that needs limits and restrictions. Two state agencies: one seeing the sustainable value of wastewater, another trying to retain control and influence over a regulated community.

Collaborative Success
A different story – a sustainability success story – at Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources illustrates that this article isn’t targeting an agency, it’s recommending a holistic application of sustainability to each decision government makes.

The success story is the multi-discharger variance or MDV that has, since 2017, sustained dairy businesses and the environment by offering industry plants the opportunity to ease into new, lower limits for phosphorus in treated wastewater discharged to rivers and streams in Wisconsin.

The sustainability of this regulatory program also includes dollars these dairy plants pay to their counties for this variance – dollars that flow to farm-level programs to stop the run-off of phosphorus from farm fields into waterways. More than $1 million in farm projects have been funded by MDV participants.

Now, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is initiating the process to renew the MDV idea. In 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency approved this statewide variance program – far easier to administrate than variances sought plant by plant – for 10 years. Wisconsin is asking for another 10 years: “The environmental outcomes associated with the MDV are positive, and numerous landscape-level benefits are realized by investing in sustainable agricultural practices,” the agency wrote in a new report on the program.

Sustainable Loads
The Wisconsin Legislature can demonstrate a mindset focused on sustainability with new legislation recently introduced by state senators working with WCMA. In the last year, several dairy manufacturer members have described an opportunity to prove reductions in greenhouse gas emissions if Wisconsin could join nearby states in allowing full-weight tankerloads of liquid dairy products – mainly whey – to travel on Wisconsin roads.

Senators held a hearing last week on the new bill to increase the allowed weight for all liquid dairy products to 98,000 lbs. over six axles. Randy Klein, testifying for Milk Specialties Global, drove home the green opportunity: “Conservatively, we estimate that the proposed increase in hauling capacity could reduce the number of our shipments by 15 percent. When you consider condensed whey, those shipments could be cut by up to 27 percent.” That translates to 8,580 fewer truck trips in Wisconsin each year and 858,000 fewer driven miles, Klein said, with reduced diesel consumption “equating to a reduction in CO2 emissions by 3,200,340 pounds per year.”

Sustainability isn’t just a strategic pathway for businesses – government should use sustainable metrics to guide and refine legislation and rulemaking. JU

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the WCMA since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org


The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by Cheese Reporter columnists are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Cheese Reporter.



John Umhoefer

John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 286-1001 or e-mail John Umhoefer at jumhoefer@wischeesemakers.org

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