There is nothing like the uniqueness of the US dairy industry, where farmers and processors unite for the greater good.

We have the checkoff-founded Innovation Center for US Dairy to thank for laying the groundwork for how we come together in a pre-competitive spirit to address issues and opportunities that are important to all of us, whether we’re on the front lines of milk production or one of the companies that takes a farmer’s raw milk and processes it to market.

I have been bullish about the Innovation Center’s mission for many years, so when the opportunity became available in January to serve as its next chair, it was an honor and humbling experience to accept the endorsement of my industry peers.

The Innovation Center has a strong foundation that my predecessor, Schreiber Foods chair Mike Haddad, helped build. And while our members may compete in the marketplace, our collective strength has vaulted US dairy ahead of many other agriculture industries. We have assembled dairy’s top leaders and some of the best and brightest minds that follow the mantra that we are better together, and we can create an even more viable industry.

I credit dairy farmers for their vision of creating the Innovation Center in 2008 through the checkoff. It’s given us the ability to attract members large and small who produce a variety of nutritious dairy foods. This diversity allows us to find solutions in the areas of shared social responsibility and sustainability priorities, such as nutrition and health, food security, the environment, animal care, workforce and food safety.


Environmental emphasis

While every one of these priorities is important, I want to address the environmental emphasis and how that has evolved over the years. At Leprino, I have seen the focus on our sustainable practices shift from a “nice to do” to a “must do,” but this applies to the entire supply chain so US dairy can remain trusted and accepted by our customers and consumers.

Thankfully, US dairy is not playing from behind. The Innovation Center took a proactive step with the creation of the Stewardship Commitment Task Force – an effort that I initially chaired – and our collective journey was well underway. In 2018, we launched the US Dairy Stewardship Commitment to support farmers, cooperatives and processors who voluntarily work to advance sustainability leadership and transparently report progress on priorities such as animal care, environment, food safety and community engagement. Adopters of the commitment represent more than 75% of US milk production.

One of my goals as chair is to attract even more companies to the commitment. There is a place for everyone no matter a company’s size or processing method. We feel that if we are going to hold ourselves accountable and build trust as an industry, we need everyone at the table. So, while the train has left the station, it’s not so far down the tracks that you still can’t get on board.

The need for this accountability isn’t going away and we need our collective strength to succeed. I can’t stress enough how critical it is that we lead with data and proof points as we operate in an environment filled with growing non-dairy alternatives and a chorus of extremists who would prefer we live in a world without animal-based products. You’re also seeing companies, including many dairy customers, follow environmental, social and governance (ESG) ratings, which – whether we agree with them or not – are here to stay.

This is our opportunity to demonstrate that dairy is an environmental solution and plays a vital role in sustainably feeding a growing global population – from its origins on our nation’s family farms all the way to businesses such as ours that make dairy’s unmatched nutrition available for people to enjoy here and around the world.

It’s why I applaud another Innovation Center-led effort, the development of US Dairy’s Environmental Stewardship Goals. With these goals, which were announced in 2020, the US dairy community commits to achieving greenhouse gas neutrality, optimize water use and improve water quality by 2050.

While these efforts matter to us domestically, it’s important to note how there is great potential to further grow our business beyond our borders. US dairy exports are coming off another banner year, setting a record of $9.6 billion in total value with about 18 percent of our milk production heading internationally.

I think there is even more opportunity when you look at the disruptive international landscape and see countries placing limits on cow herd numbers, increased taxes on farmers and a stronger emphasis on ESG. US dairy is in a position to capitalize but we must do our part and show that our desired cheese, powders and ingredients are delivering the proof points that they were produced in a way that is good for the planet and the animals.

I also see growth opportunities with our US consumer base – including the younger generation – as we adapt to the concept of “food as medicine.” Dairy comes with unparalleled 13 essential nutrients and in a time when consumers want more from the foods they eat, dairy delivers benefits related to immunity, calm, energy and digestive health.

We’re no different than any other industry in that we’ll always face challenges. During my tenure as Innovation Center chair, my goal is to see the opportunity within the challenge.

I believe in our collective ability to take whatever comes our way and address it head on through the unified camaraderie, inspiration and strength that comes from us all working together through the Innovation Center for US Dairy.

– The Innovation Center for US Dairy is a voluntary organization that works with leaders from across the dairy value chain to align on pre-competitive priorities, drive progress and speak with one voice to advance a shared social responsibility platform.

Mike Durkin Leprino Foods Company chair of board Innovation Center for US DairyLeprino Foods Company president and chief executive officer Mike Durkin. | Photo: Leprino Foods Company