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MADISON – During a normal year, the month of June is filled with events designed to bring members of the general public to farms in every region of Wisconsin.

Dairy breakfasts are held in virtually every county that has a strong dairy farming presence, with activities scheduled to help people learn about what take’s place on our state’s family dairy farms, and to get them close to the animals and farm facilities.

This June, due to COVID-19, dairy farmers are telling their stories in different ways to promote Wisconsin dairy industry and dairy farmers, while allowing volunteers and communities to continue to be vigilant in fighting the spread of the virus.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin

Much of the work of promoting Wisconsin’s dairy industry and developing new markets for Wisconsin dairy products is done by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board), a non-profit organization created in 1983 to increase the sale and consumption of Wisconsin milk and dairy products.

This year the farmer-owned and directed organization had to make a 180-degree shift in its June dairy promotion activities due to the pandemic because a lot of the planning had revolved around promotions within various on-farm events, and now most of those events have many cancelled.

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Promotional efforts, however, are still moving forward. The 2020 National Dairy Month campaign’s tagline “Celebrate Wisconsin Dairy Farmers” embodies the key focus of the campaign – telling farmer stories to help Wisconsin residents connect with farmers and build trust.  

Many communities are getting creative and hosting National Dairy Month celebrations in new ways, from grab-and-go breakfast options to full-on drive-thru farm tours.

Some of these include: 

June 20 - Drive Thru Breakfast on the Farm hosted by Pepin County Dairy Promotion Group.

June 28 - Drive-Thru Ag-Venture hosted by the Greater Envision Fond du Lac.

August 1 - Dane County Dairy Breakfast hosted by the Dane County Dairy Promotions Committee.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin also has produced radio and television ads that promote dairy farmers, and has helped arrange broadcast interviews with farm families who are able to share what they do on a daily basis to conserve natural resources while operating their farms.

A wide variety of resources also is available for farmers to post on their social media pages to help them better tell the story of their family and farming operations. More information is available online at wisconsindairy.org.

Vision-Aire-Farms

An excellent example of the many Wisconsin farms that excel in telling their story to help educate the public is Vision-Aire-Farms, LLC, near Eldorado in Fond du Lac County. The farm has a strong FaceBook presence at https://bit.ly/2MFG0Bs.

The farm was founded by Roger and Sandy Grade, who remain involved in the operation as they transition ownership to their son, David, and their daughter, Janet Clark, and her husband, Travis.

They milk 140 Holsteins, twice a day, and farm 1,100 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat. About half of the crops are fed to the cattle, with the remainder sold on the commodity market. The family also provides custom planting, baling and harvesting services.

David Grade manages the land and crops. Janet Clark oversees the farm’s financials as well as calf-feeding operations, and Travis Clark is the herdsman who also oversees the dairy employees. The farm was awarded the National Milk Quality award from Hoard’s Dairyman in 2015 and 2016. “While each of us has our own specific area, we still collaborate on everything everyday,” said Janet.

Like many other farms, the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a financial blow to the Clark and Grade families.

“My Dad said he had never experienced anything like that, even during the 1980s when prices were low and interest rates high,” Janet related. 

“I don’t know how to help you manage through what’s going on in our dairy work right now,” Roger Grade told them.

“It was truly hard not to be able lean on the knowledge of the past because this was an unprecedented time,” admitted Janet.

Fortunately, they didn’t have to reduce milk production or dump any milk, although they made some management changes. “We dried up some cows a little earlier than normal, even though the cheese plant didn’t ask us to do that,” Janet said.

As shortages of meat and milk on some grocery store shelves hit the news, they were contacted by family and friends who were curious about the reasons behind the shortages.

“They also wanted to know how they could help us to make sure that dairy farmers, and farmers in general, remain successful during these hard times,” said Janet.

Janet feels the pandemic opened the eyes of consumers about how much work the dairy industry does on a daily basis to make sure their food is healthy and nutritious.

“I think more people realized how finely tuned our food system is, and how it depends on things moving out so the next thing can move in, whether it’s produce, meat or dairy,” she added.

A great way to support Wisconsin dairy farmers is to buy products with the “Proudly Wisconsin Dairy and Proudly Wisconsin Cheese” on the label.

“Knowing that you’re supporting a local Wisconsin family farm is the best way to help us turn around our dairy industry and get us on the way to a brighter future,” Janet emphasized.

Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association

The pandemic also dealt a blow to the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association (WCMA) and its 600 member companies operating around the world.

“It’s been a real crisis for our industry, from both the farm side and cheese side,” acknowledged WMCA Executive Director John Umhoefer, “But it’s also great to see the industry pulling out of this nosedive.”

WMCA had to cancel the industry’s largest event: The Cheese Expo, an international event that was expected to draw more than 4,000 people to Milwaukee in April. 

“This is our equivalent to World Dairy Expo, and is our biggest trade show for equipment and services, and was postponed until April 2021. The only thing we’ll be missing as an association in June is our board meeting, which we’ll have to hold virtually,” Umhoefer said.

“We’re doing a lot of things online now so our cheesemakers and the dairy industry will have the chance to use social media to highlight the good work of our people, and thank them for coming to work as essential workers, while a lot of people stayed at home,” said Umhoefer. 

“That’s going to be our big message in June, thanking the workers who really stuck with us despite concerns for their health, and continued to make food for America.”

He emphasized that many people in the industry were forced to make significant changes to their businesses quickly.

“We did see people, almost instantly look for export markets, and look to get into the industrial market that includes prepared foods and frozen pizzas,” Umhoefer explained.

“They had to leap into these markets without much planning out of a need to keep the milk moving from the farm,” he stressed. “I think we’re going to see companies move permanently toward more diversity in their product lines.”

Umhoefer says consumers woke up to the importance of the dairy industry when they went to the grocery store and saw that some things weren’t there. 

“They suddenly realized that the grocery store isn’t a place where food just magically appears,” he said. “There’s a lot of hard work from the dairy farmer to get the product to market. I think now people appreciate more what it takes to feed the more than 300 million people in the United States.”

When people found out they couldn’t eat at their favorite restaurants, they began to buy more dairy products to consume at home, as recent data coming from grocery stores show.

According to Umhoefer, the latest report, shows that from Jan. 1 through May 17, cheese sales were up 23% compared to the same time last year, butter was up 33% in that same timeframe, and bottled milk sales increased 12%.

“Although the dairy industry did get hit by some panic buying in March, we recovered quickly and kept the stores stocked after that. People have come to appreciate how complex and important our food chain is,” summed up Omhoefer. For more information, visit: https://www.wischeesemakersassn.org

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