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Dairy Collaboration a Bright Spot in Challenging Coronavirus Times

March 31, 2020

Words like “unprecedented” shouldn’t be thrown around lightly, but it’s indisputable that what we are living through now has no modern parallel. Travel in the United States, the world’s richest nation, has nearly ground to a halt. Industries are being upended, and tens of millions of Americans are wondering whether, and when, their paychecks will end.

People seek comfort in times like these. At the National Milk Producers Federation, our comfort comes from the inspiration in seeing an industry coming together to serve the public. For myself, inspiration comes from seeing our dairy farmers, dairy cooperative members and team at NMPF rise to the occasion at a moment that could easily overwhelm us all.

Let’s start with our industry.

Coronavirus concerns have been building for weeks, largely as a concern about shuttered trade and lower dairy prices. But the public health effects didn’t fully explode into American consciousness until the week of March 9 – coincidentally, the week of our regular Board of Directors meeting in Washington. As conferences were cancelled across the country, our humble-sized event evolved into a discussion of what lay ahead – and the guidance we received from our farmer and cooperative-leaders proved invaluable as we set our policy and member-service priorities in the moments when restrictions began to take hold.

As store shelves emptied and supply chains strained, we began holding special conference calls of our Executive Committee, the leadership body we constituted only last year that includes our officers and several other cooperative leaders. Through that our members were able to gain insights and discuss strategies to help manage the unfolding crisis. This conversation centered around the challenges faced in various regions by differently structured operations, and it allowed us to provide leadership in Washington, pursuing policies aimed at aiding producers and processors through immediate federal actions and charting a path forward as situations evolve.

That initiative, combined with the collaborations we’ve had with our colleagues at the International Dairy Foods Association, Dairy Management Inc., U.S. Dairy Export Council, state and regional dairy organizations and the entire supply chain, have informed our response, and we are thankful for all who are making such tremendous efforts.

The empty store shelves we’ve all seen, and which now appear mostly re-stocked, only underscores the importance of dairy’s work. Our industry has responded at every step from farm to table. Dairy farmers and farm workers, despite the health concerns, are working around the clock. Milk haulers continue moving that milk to processors. The farm feed, supply and veterinary system keeps providing for our animals. Manufacturing plants and their employees, again despite the need for extra health precautions, continue processing milk into a variety of wholesome, safe, nutritious products. From there, numerous other key players assure these foods get to their destinations and onto store shelves so they can nourish consumers.

Everyone involved in this supply chain has been deemed by the federal government as essential employees, because what we do for America and the world is critically important. We provide an essential product that comforts consumers in uncertain times. This only strengthens our resolve moving forward, in what promises to be a marathon effort that could last months.

Another group of essential employees who are assisting dairy through the coronavirus is the incredible staffs we have working on our behalf at the various organizations I noted above. I can tell you that our staff at NMPF, already used to working long hours, are working longer at home than they did in our offices.

In every area in which we are active – Capitol Hill, USDA, FDA and other regulatory agencies, trade, environment and the FARM Program, member services, administrative services, and communication – each staffer has made notable contributions to advancing the interests of the dairy community at this crucial time.

Through the industry’s combined efforts we’ve already achieved gains that will help all of agriculture, such as coronavirus stimulus that includes significant food purchases, emergency flexibility in service hours for milk transporters, the relaxing of FDA facility inspection schedules and the reaffirmation of agriculture as critical infrastructure by the Department of Homeland Security. Legislation Congress passed last week contains provisions we sought to provide additional needed financial support for dairy. In a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue we outlined some of the key areas of need as government dairy product purchases for distribution to food banks; a program to assist with potential milk disposal; and reopening 2020 Dairy Margin Coverage sign-up, as well as other efforts.

While many people across the dairy industry have helped protect and advance our collective interests, I do want to highlight the efforts of Clay Detlefsen, our staff counsel and head of our regulatory team, who is doing an incredible job for the entire food industry as the private-sector chair of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Food and Agricultural Sector Coordinating Council, an initiative between the federal government and food companies that works to address issues in the food chain when a crisis hits us.

The Department of Homeland Security’s March 19 reaffirmation that agriculture is a part of critical infrastructure – a federal signal to other government entities that the important work of agriculture should proceed unimpeded – was in no small part the result of Clay’s hard work. He has tirelessly worked across the breadth of the food and ag sector and the federal government to get the message across that plants have to operate, workers have to be on the job, and trucks all have to move, to ensure that U.S. consumers get the nutrition they need. Clay deserves gratitude from all of us, as well as our support as he continues to lead this important organization as it handles the thorny issues coronavirus raises.

Even a few weeks ago, when we saw headlines and knew it could come here, few of us truly grasped the profound disruption coronavirus could have on our lives and our industry. Although even then we were preparing: Our coronavirus website, now rich with information for dairy farmers and industry, debuted March 6, preparing for the storm when we were still unsure of its severity.

But this is where we are. To meet the challenges of coronavirus – and they will be many and difficult – we need resolve, we need persistence, and we need to be leaders. Even in what, unfortunately, may still be the early days of this unprecedented crisis, I’ve already seen enough to have the confidence – and comfort – that we will emerge from this strongly.

Let’s support one another and do what our dairy community does every day: Get the job done.