A diverse group of partners last week announced their collaboration on a program to ensure that dairy production – from the farm to the dairy plant – marks continuous improvement in animal care, environmental conservation, food safety and a host of other areas.
The new Dairy Strong Sustainability Alliance brings together farmers, processors and packagers of dairy products, conservation groups, retailers, government agencies and non-profit organizations. Their goal is to establish a baseline and then show that farmers and others in the dairy chain are making improvements.
Maria Woldt, the Sustainability Lead for the program and Director of Industry Relations with Wisconsin’s Dairy Business Association, said the goal is to show documented improvements in land use, soil conservation, nutrient management, water quality, energy use, animal welfare, food safety, greenhouse emissions, economic health and social responsibility.
The group chose to announce the new alliance at the Endres family’s Berryridge Farm just outside Waunakee. A press conference to introduce the sustainability program to farmers came at the same time that a large group of farmers and other partners got together for the Yahara Pride Farms annual Ag Innovation Day (see related story.)
The organizers of the Sustainability Alliance hope to be a catalyst in driving innovation, collaboration and progress on sustainability in the dairy community.
The Nature Conservancy, representatives from Yahara Pride Farms, Peninsula Pride Farms, U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the DBA formed a working group earlier this year to develop the program.
Woldt said farmers, either alone or as part of a watershed group, are being recruited to participate in a 2017 pilot program. “We’re not just talking about it, we’re doing something about it,” she said.
Tim Trotter, Executive Director of the DBA called the announcement of the alliance “a historic day for Wisconsin dairy.”
The idea for the alliance came about after a lively dialogue, facilitated by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance at the Dairy Strong conference in January. “Sustainability resonates with many consumer groups and we had a great food dialogue. The panel got together afterward and said ‘now what do we do?’ ” he added.
Over the past six months the core group decided to move forward and “connect the dots” to innovation. “We want everyone with a stake in dairy to be part of it,” Trotter added.
Though it could take three or four years to build a model of what sustainability means, Wisconsin is where all that discussion started, he said. “If we can’t do it here, where else can it be done?”
Steve Richter, Director of Conservation Programs in Wisconsin for the Nature Conservancy, said eight years ago his organization did a pilot project in southwest Dane County with 12 farmers who wanted to improve their conservation footprint with practices like reduced tillage, nutrient management plans and cover crops.
The improvements in water quality were remarkable, Richter said, with a huge reduction in phosphorus lost from the farms over the course of just three years. “We were so fortunate to work with farmers who developed trust with us and that illustrates why Nature Conservancy is excited about this project,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy has a 60-year history working in Wisconsin – protecting special lands like the Baraboo Hills and properties in Door County – but in the last 10 years the group decided it needed to work “across the landscape” with the help of a diverse group of partners – corporations, commodity groups and farmers.
“What this project brings is a new approach, bringing farmers like Jeff (Endres) and the other Yahara Pride farmers to play the lead. I’m really excited to be part of this project,” Richter added.
History of conservation
Jeff Endres, with his brothers Steve and Randy, is continuing the family’s dairy operation, which was begun 100 years ago by their grandfather Ludwig. The younger men have discovered their grand-dad had a reputation for utilizing conservation practices that were rare in his day.
Endres said their grandfather was a pro-active farmer in his day - growing hybrid corn and raising registered Holsteins as well as purebred workhorses that he bred and sold as well as using them for power on the farm. He had his cows on test and had one of the first conservation plans in the state in 1941, with every field having its own plan. (He also raised purebred dogs.)
But Endres and his brothers didn’t get to know their grandfather as he died in 1946, leaving his two sons to take over the operation as teenagers. Only fairly recently have the younger farmers learned that their grandfather was keen on contour strips and waterways, installing them even on land that he was only renting..
The Endres brothers have tried to continue that legacy of innovation and in 2012, they were part of the group that formed the Yahara Pride Farms; Jeff is the current chairman.
Though much of agriculture has changed, he said that some things have remained the same – stories like those about his grandfather can be told all over the state of Wisconsin. “At Yahara Pride we believe that farmers are in a position to lead in sustainability and move things forward. Nobody can second guess them. They know their land.”
Karen Scanlon, vice president of sustainability projects at the check-off funded Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy said that when that program launched in 2008 they understood that consumers want to know a lot more about their food. The dairy industry can build trust by being transparent and pro-active like the Yahara Pride group, she said.
The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy recognized the group, which includes agronomists, scientists as well as farmers, who are self-motivated in practices that protect water quality. The Center bestowed an award in resource stewardship earlier this year to the Yahara Pride group.
These kinds of voluntary practices can work and can head off mandates, allowing farmers to keep working their land while improving the environment, she added.
John Umhoefer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said his organization’s members have long been partners with the state’s dairy farmers adding that it’s only natural for the WCMA to be part of this new alliance. “We truly believe in the goals of this initiative,” he said.
“We know today’s consumers are interested in the story of their food’s production.” A Nielsen survey found that 42 percent of consumers are willing to pay more for food from farms that are considered sustainable, he added.
Steve Petersen had a long career with General Mills before retiring to run his own consulting firm as well as raise crops and beef on his farm in Minnesota. As the sourcing sustainability agent for General Mills he participated in big changes.
“Millenials are ‘foodies’ and in recognition of that fact General Mills is transforming itself. Eighty percent of consumers base their buying decisions on sustainability,” Richter said. “They want to know where does it come from and how was it cared for along the way.”
This question of sustainability is a big deal for huge food companies like General Mills, he said. “The consumer comes first and every week these questions are becoming more important.”
Farmers “can get defensive about the term sustainability.” But he believes farmers will eventually realize that “it’s better to play offense than defense.”
There a big relationship, Richter said “between agriculture and conservation – between feeding the world and conserving it.”
He hopes that the work of the new sustainability alliance can expand across multiple milk sheds around the state.
Most of the work of the sustainability alliance will focus on sustainability metrics tied to water quality, Richter said, especially phosphorus and nitrogen. The program aims to establish baselines and then look for changes that will bring about improvements in a farm’s performance.
Often in his work, conservation practices dovetailed with better financial performance for farmers. He related how wheat producers in Idaho over-used irrigation which brought sub-optimal yields. “It was a clear opportunity to reduce water use. For lower price commodities it’s even more critical than ever to be more efficient with your inputs.”
Richter said conservation practices and economic sustainability “don’t run counter to each other.”
Woldt said the biggest area of need for the group will be funding for staff to work with the projects. The DBA and the Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative have each agreed to donate 50 percent staff positions to solicit agri-businesses and conservation groups for funding. “Our goal would be for other organizations to do the same – donating either money or staff time.”
Woldt credited Wisconsin farmer Nancy Kavazanjian, chair of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance for holding the food dialogue at the Dairy Strong conference in January that led to this new alliance. The USFRA is one of the key collaborators, she said.
For more information on the program, go to dairystrong.org/sustainability or contact Woldt at DBA, 608-577-4345 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.