TO kick off a yearlong centennial commemoration, the leadership of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) recently reflected on the organization's many achievements on behalf of dairy farmers and noted continuing challenges ranging from assuring humane animal care to reforming federal immigration laws.
Speaking at the federation's 99th annual meeting, board chairman Randy Mooney and president and chief executive officer Jim Mulhern also unveiled an updated NMPF logo and a booklet chronicling the organization's 100 years of work for dairy producers.
The updated logo retains an image of the Capitol Building — used by the organization for a half-century — but with a refreshed look. "A new century and new challenges call for a new, more modern design," Mulhern said.
NMPF was founded in 1916 in Chicago, Ill.
In the past century, NMPF has recorded numerous legislative victories, including enactment of the Capper-Volstead Act in 1922 and establishment of federal milk marketing orders in the 1930s. The organization was instrumental in creating the dairy price support program in the 1940s and convinced Congress to create the mandatory dairy checkoff program in the 1980s.
"As our work today demonstrates, leadership is a journey, not a destination," Mooney said. "It's not just a word on a piece of paper; leadership is the tangible result of hard work."
The two NMPF leaders also discussed how past achievements reflect current issues facing dairy producers.
In the last few years, one of those has been the need to create a new and better federal safety net for dairy farmers. Now known officially as the Margin Protection Program, this catastrophic risk management program protects against worst-case scenarios like the Great Recession, Mooney said.
NMPF conceived of the program after dairy farmers lost billions of dollars in equity in the 2008-09 recession. The organization then lobbied Congress to include it in the 2014 farm bill. Ten months into the program, more than 55% of America's dairy farmers are enrolled, NMPF noted.
"Without question, the program has its challenges — challenges we continue to work to address — but it's important to recognize that the program was designed as a producer insurance safety net, not an income enhancement program, ... and for those wondering how (the Margin Protection Program) stacks up against its predecessor, the old (Milk Income Loss Contract) program would not have paid a penny this year to any dairy farmer anywhere in the country," Mulhern said.
The pair briefly touched on Cooperatives Working Together (CWT), a self-help program that was recently extended through 2018. CWT helps its members export key products like American-type cheese and butter. So far in 2015, the program has helped export the equivalent of 1.3 billion lb. of milk production.
In addition to economic issues, the need to counter imitation dairy products has been a long-time concern for the federation. NMPF said it continues to urge the government to crack down on the misuse of dairy terminology for non-dairy items, such as soy and almond "milk." Revamping the REAL Seal brand has helped inform consumers of the benefits of original, American-made dairy products, Mulhern said.
Another very recent major accomplishment has been the conclusion of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal among the 12 countries that border the Pacific Ocean. Access to foreign dairy markets was one of the more controversial points, and the issue wasn't resolved until the last day of the negotiations. Although final details are still being reviewed, Mulhern called the early results a victory.
"It appears that we have successfully prevented the very real risk of a harmful agreement that would have sacrificed U.S. dairy farmers' interests as chits in a high-stakes poker game," he said.
NMPF is also working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the federal dietary guidelines, which are being updated this year. New research has shown that saturated dairy fats are not as harmful as once thought. Mulhern also mentioned the federation's efforts to urge Congress to relax restrictions on chocolate milk in schools through this year's child nutrition reauthorization bill.
More recently, animal health and environmental concerns have come to the forefront of NMPF's list of issues. The national Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) program, launched in 2009, continues to evolve to promote the best practices of dairy farmers.
"The FARM program quantifies the great steps that farms contributing more than 90% of the U.S. milk supply are taking to care for their herds," Mulhern said. "No other sector in livestock has as comprehensive or widely adopted a program as ours."
NMPF has plenty of other objectives to tackle in the next 100 years, Mooney added. The country is dealing with a failed immigration system as farmers struggle to obtain the workforce needed to milk cows and perform other agricultural jobs. The organization also continues to challenge the Environmental Protection Agency's waters of the U.S. rule, even as the industry develops other means to improve water and air quality on farms.
Mooney and Mulhern toasted other milestones, as well: Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and the U.S. Dairy Export Council turned 20 this year, and the National Dairy Council (NDC) has been educating the public on the nutritional value of dairy products for 100 years.
Tom Gallagher, chief executive of DMI, which manages the national dairy checkoff, delivered strong results and reasons for optimism for dairy farmers who are in the midst of a difficult economic year.
"We're here to deal with the opportunities, the optimism, the things that are going to grow your business," he told attendees at the joint annual meeting of the United Dairy Industry Assn., National Dairy Promotion & Research Board and NMPF in Orlando, Fla.
Gallagher emphasized that the checkoff's goal is to be a "voice to the consumer" on behalf of the dairy farmers and importers who fund the dairy checkoff.
"We try to stimulate companies to do things with your product, to innovate with your product, to market your products and to spend money that they otherwise wouldn't have done or to at least compress the time in which they do it to increase sales and increase trust," he said. "We're here to protect you and grow the business in ways that it otherwise wouldn't have grown."
According to Gallagher, examples of successes include growth of domestic cheese sales, NDC milk fat research and fluid milk partnerships.
Gallagher said 4 billion lb. of domestic cheese were sold between January 2014 and July 2015, and much of that resulted from the checkoff's work with partners such as Domino's Pizza.
Also, NDC-led research is helping make milk fat more acceptable in the eyes of consumers and health professionals.
Gallagher referenced McDonald's recent decision to replace liquid margarine with real butter in more than 14,000 of its U.S. restaurants as a catalyst that will have others following suit. McDonald's decision is expected to move as much as 600 million lb. of fluid milk equivalent in a year.
"I'm not sure if we have grasped the significance of milk fat yet," he said. "It's a great story that's going to build forever. That story doesn't happen without your investment."
The checkoff is leading a fluid milk revitalization project with eight partners that have invested more than $500 million in plant revitalization efforts, and another $250 million has been directed toward marketing programs.
"The farmers told us three years ago, 'Either get in milk and try to fix it, or get out of milk,'" Gallagher said. "It has to start with changes at the plant level. If you don't change the plant level, you can't change what you're providing to the consumer."
On the last point, Gallagher emphasized the importance of farmers' collective voice to continue building consumer confidence in dairy.
"Integrity has a name, hard work has a name, family values have a name and hope has a name — and that's dairy farmers," he said.