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U.S. Dairy Exports a Sustainable Success, USDEC’s Harden Says

April 26, 2021

A career devoted to agricultural sustainability – capped by a stint as the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture – has prepared new U.S. Dairy Export Council President and CEO Krysta Harden well for her new role. Dairy’s stewardship at home is a powerful message to boost sales abroad, she says – and that story is becoming ever-more-important to hear as dairy’s critics try to shape global agriculture.

“Our future is exciting,” she said. “I think we have great products. I think our farmers are the most productive in the world. They’re ready to meet the challenges of the world. And there’s a great demand for what we produce. And so we’ve got to be there, we’ve got to be in those markets, we’ve got to be building trust, building our reputation, building our image.”

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Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Hello, and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast. Krysta Harden is two months into her new role as President and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council, but the time for transitions is short. Dairy has been growing ever more global for years, but the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the shift. The US exported more than two million tons of dairy solids in 2020. That’s an all-time record. And 2021 is shaping up to be another banner year.

Harden serves US dairy farmers as they chart a sustainable future in the global marketplace, and her career has suited her well for this role. She has served as Chief Sustainability Officer with Corteva and DuPont, previously served as the US Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, as well as USDA’s Chief of Staff and Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations. She also has been the CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts. The world needs US dairy and the world needs sustainability. Krysta Harden is here to talk about how they connect for everyone’s benefit. Krysta, thank you for being here.

Krysta Harden, USDEC: Thank you, Alan. It’s great to be with you and with your listeners.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: According to the announcement that we saw, when you became head of USDEC last February, here’s what you do. “Harden will direct a staff of dairy trade specialists, trade policy professionals, a global marketing team, a strategy and insights team, and oversee eight international offices working to facilitate dairy product and ingredient application knowledge, identify market opportunities, monitor regulatory activity, and work toward improving the business climate for US dairy.” That’s a lot.

Krysta Harden, USDEC: That is a lot, Alan. When you read that list, I’m like, “Boy! Am I tired?” Even in early mornings. But it really is about bringing all those elements together, to make sure that we are really working for dairy farmers and dairy industry to open markets worldwide. So, we have a great staff, a strong staff. USDEC was created 25 years ago, so we have a little track record, we know what we’re doing. I think the last four, under Secretary Vilsack, have been outstanding years. He opened a lot of doors for us. And I feel like part of my job is just making sure we get through those doors. And we continue to grow markets, we expand where we already are, but start looking for emerging markets.

So there’s a lot of challenges, there’s no doubt. We’re dealing still with the global recovery from COVID. And that is uneven, across the world. Some places are ahead, and they’re going back to work, back to restaurants. Other places are not. So there’s a lot of making sure that we are nimble and flexible and continue to build on, really, the good year we had last year.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And right before you came to dairy, you were at Corteva, but USDEC was not your first stop in the dairy sector. Tell us a little bit about the work you did with dairy before USDEC, and how that continues to connect with what you’re doing.

Krysta Harden, USDEC: I was really recruited by Tom Gallagher and Barbara O’Brien and Secretary Vilsack to come lead the global environmental strategy for Dairy Management Inc. It was a job that was extremely exciting. I came at a perfect time when the industry was coming together through the innovation center to look at our environmental goals for the industry. So, folks really were thinking about, “We want to be this environmental solution. We want US dairy to be better understood, about our commitment to the environment, to the community, to producing a nutritious product. But all under this auspice of sustainability, what does that mean for dairy?”

So I was so fortunate to be brought in at a really interesting time in our industry, a turning point in some ways, for us to define ourselves as US dairy. Not letting others describe us or define us, and making sure that we set goals that are right for us, that we’re visible, that we talk about those goals. We talk about how tough sometimes it is to reach those goals. So it was a perfect entree, I would say, into the dairy industry. I’d worked around the edges of dairy before, when I was at USDA, you mentioned that.

So there’s no way to work in food and agriculture like I have over my career, and not come in touch with dairy. Every farm bill, every major piece of legislation, dairy is often at the forefront. But really the year that I spent leading the Global Environmental Strategy, I think, really just helped me better understand dairy farmers, frankly. What they have to go through to really be that good steward. But I also saw their passion and their commitment and their vision for the future. So I’m so excited that I really did have an opportunity to work so closely with them.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And it seems like something that would springboard well then into USDEC, where you’re looking at US dairy farmer interests, but you’re now on this global stage.

Krysta Harden, USDEC: Most definitely. And I would really like to note, Alan, that my title always included global. I always had one eye, one ear, if you will, looking outward beyond our borders. Because we have very productive farmers. We have efficient and effective production in our country and we need additional markets. It’s the world today. It’s really open for us. But there are a lot of things that go into play when you’re looking at global markets. So I always had a keen interest in what was happening on the export side, paid attention to what was happening, what the requirements are, or how market excess was working. So really it was a good fit, frankly, for me to always be involved with a global focus, even though I was working very much with the domestic production.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And speaking of sustainability, we’re just coming off of Earth Day. I know you’re active in the World Economic Forum, the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, other organizations. How important is it for US dairy to be part of the discussions you hear in these organizations, about sustainability, the future of the planet, where agriculture fits?

Krysta Harden, USDEC: It is critical that we’re at the table. Otherwise, someone else, some other organization, some group of people … It can be competitors, it can be those who don’t understand, or like what we do, who define us, who decide who we are and how we do what we do. We have to be there with our own voice to help everyone understand, really, the toughness, the hard effort that dairy farmers have to go through. But also their passion and their commitment to doing the right thing, for farming in the right way, how modern we are today, how developed we are, how we adopt technologies and we invest in science. I want everyone to know that, but I’m not going to leave it up to somebody else and hope that they tell our story. I want to be there doing that for dairy farmers.

And just as importantly, I want them there. And we’re so great to have very articulate farmers who have a passion for what they do. They love what they do for a number of reasons. And one of them, is because they understand wise use of natural resources, and they care about their footprint, they care about being a good neighbor. That’s the image of US dairy that I am determined the world needs to see and will see, over the next months and years.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Well, as you said, it’s a competitive marketplace. You’re trying to craft a narrative. When you’re doing this, what strengths of US dairy can you leverage? What areas do you think the story could use some improvement?

Krysta Harden, USDEC: Well, I think really it’s defining who we are. I think a lot of folks around the world, and sometimes even in our own country, frankly, have this image of dairy that’s very dated. They think about what they’ve seen and they learned as children or as younger adults. They don’t see that modern farmer today, that commitment to technology, the one who makes investment in science and is making changes on their farms every day to make sure they’re more productive, but they’re also more efficient. And also caring about our natural resources, the water use, where their feed comes from, all the different elements of a farm.

So, I really think part of what we’ve got to do is make sure that we’re a little more transparent. We talk about what we do. We talk about what we don’t know. And that’s very vulnerable. Makes a farmer vulnerable, I think, when they say, “We don’t have all the answers.” But when I think about those goals, that the innovation center set. March was a year ago. Bold, brave time in this industry’s history, when those CEOs agreed to say, “We’re going to set really important environmental goals,” right when COVID was starting. A great time to pivot, a great time to do something else, kick the can down the road. But no, they were brave, bold, and they did it. They’re saying, “This isn’t easy. We don’t have all the answers. Our goals are for 2050, because there is a path that we’re going to have to follow. There’s research that needs to be done. There’s testing, there’s measurement, there’s emerging technologies and practices that have to be adjusted.”

And I think admitting that is something that’s hard to do, that we have to say, “We don’t have all the answers today, but we’re committed to finding them. And that we are going to find them. We are going to work to make sure that we do.” That’s the story I want to make sure that the rest of the world understands, and sees US dairy as a leader when it comes to sustainability. They’re good stewards, our industry from, really, throughout the chain, is very committed to this set of goals. And we have the opportunity to be able to do that. We are productive, we are efficient, we are an effective partner. That’s what we’ve got to continue to tell and to help us really explain to our customers and to consumers.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: Let’s zero in on that discussion you had about technology and science and dairy farmers seeking solutions, because there’s a key date coming up in September. The United Nations is holding a Food System Summit. It’s very clear, from the discussion around this, that in some places, the European Union, NGOs, others, that technology, precision agriculture, a lot of the things US farmers do and use to improve their stewardship, are under attack. What do the opponents miss about the US dairy story?

Krysta Harden, USDEC: First, I want to just step back just a little bit, Alan, and make sure that listeners understand that the UN Food Systems Summit is really a globally influenced event that could really impact food, farm and trade policy, going forward. Its stated goal is to radically change the way we produce, process and consume food. If that doesn’t wake you up and make you think, “We better be involved and we need to make sure that US dairy’s voice is heard and understood.” That we do talk about technologies, we do talk about things as simple as precision agriculture. I’m a daughter of farmers, we’ve been using precision ag for many years. Things that are just trusted by farmers. And things like crop rotation, cover crops, some of those kinds of practices, we have to explain what they mean for a farmer.

But also methane digesters, and what happens to products after the methane digester. There’s a number of technologies. Feed additives, for instance,. We’re testing now, hoping to get approval by FDA, in the near term. All these different issues will help make our farmers more sustainable. We need the opportunity, the chance, to be able to test these, to prove these out, to measure. We don’t need somebody or some group of folks telling us that we can’t do that. Our farmers, our industry, needs the opportunity to be able to do that. And I know we’ll make the good decisions, we’ll make the right decisions, if given those opportunities.

So I really just think that our opponents miss modern agriculture. What’s happening in the world today, what’s happening on farms today. How critical it is that we do have technology. We use technology in all of our lives, every aspect of our lives. And certainly farming is no different. In fact, in some cases we are a leader in the adoption of technologies and we have been, and I think we’ll continue to be, here in the US.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: So what does the future hold for US dairy exports?

Krysta Harden, USDEC: I believe it’s very bright. I’m very excited about what’s happening. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to work in this industry, and wanted this position, frankly. Because I believe our future is exciting. I think we have great products. I think our farmers are the most productive in the world. They’re ready to meet the challenges of the world. And there’s a great demand for what we produce. And so we’ve got to be there, we’ve got to be in those markets, we’ve got to be building trust, building our reputation, building our image.

And I’ll just remind folks, USDEC as an organization, we don’t export one drop of anything, or one product. We export value, we export consistency, an image and reputation that our industry is building and has built, frankly, for decades. So I’m very excited to be able to look ahead to exciting new markets. What’s the next Indonesia? Is it the Philippines? Is somewhere in Southeast Asia, likely? How do we build on traditional markets and bring them new products? It’s just so exciting to think about what’s around the corner. It is really going to be a fun ride and an exciting ride, so hang on!

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: We’ve been speaking with Krysta Harden, the President and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. Krysta, thank you for your time.

Krysta Harden, USDEC: Thank you. It’s been great. I enjoyed it very much.

Alan Bjerga, NMPF: And that’s it for today’s podcast. For more on the US Dairy Export Council, including rich data resources and an up-to-the-minute blog on trade developments, visit, that’s For more from us, this podcast is on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and Google Play under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.