Sustainability seems to be a buzzword that is connecting with consumers. According to the International Food Information Council’s annual food and health survey, 59 percent of Americans say it is important for the food they purchase or consume is produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Seventy-six percent of consumers consider themselves omnivores. Nine percent of the people surveyed identify themselves as vegetarian and 2 percent are vegan. The report said the consumption of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives is up. Forty-three percent said they would assume that a product described as ‘plant-based’ would be healthier than one that is not, even if it had the exact same nutrition facts label. Regarding COVID, the IFIC survey found 60 percent of Americans are cooking at home more.

COVID hits restaurant business hard
    According to the National Restaurant Association’s state of the industry report, more than 110,000 bars and restaurants closed this past year. For the restaurants that closed for good in 2020, the majority of the operators had been in business for an average of 16 years. While there is pent-up consumer demand, the report said consumers are also finding new ways to enjoy their favorite restaurants, including restaurant subscription services and meal kits.

Midwest Dairy launches new strategic plan
    Midwest Dairy launched a new three-year strategic plan earlier this month. The new plan takes into consideration lessons learned in the COVID pandemic with objectives to boost dairy sales, advance dairy research and grow trust in dairy nutrition. Midwest Dairy CEO Molly Pelzer said consumers are thinking about health now more than ever. “Dairy has immune-boosting nutrients.” Pelzer said Americans continue to eat more food at home and the dairy industry is watching for the return to restaurants. “We certainly know Americans consumed lots of cheese in restaurants and we were pleased to see cheese and butter diverting to home use. Although we’ve enjoyed the baking, we’re looking forward to going out again.

Peterson does not expect the Dems to retain the majority
    Former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson plans to stay involved in farm policy issues. In his address to the American Sugarbeet Growers Association virtual annual meeting. Peterson voiced concern about the current ag committee. “I think the Democrats are going to have a hard time finding enough people that are going to be willing to serve on the ag committee. I think they’re going to have to draft people to serve and these may be people that don’t have that big of an interest in being on the committee.” Peterson said the direction of the next farm bill will depend largely by who is in charge. “It depends if the Democrats retain the majority in 2023 or not. Reading tea leaves, given what some of these so-called Progressives are pushing, my guess is that Democrats will not be in charge in 2022.”

Vilsack faces Senate Ag Committee
    On Groundhog Day, Tom Vilsack ironically found himself back in front of the Senate Agriculture Committee for a confirmation hearing. Vilsack is returning to the job he held for eight years during the Obama Administration. The former Iowa governor kicked off the hearing by saying this is a fundamentally different time in agriculture. “I recognize the unprecedented challenge we face with COVID and while pursuing these ‘why not’ opportunities will not shirk the duties and responsibilities of the Department.” Regarding the use of Commodity Credit Corporation funds, Vilsack said he’d ask for the same flexibility that was given to Secretary Perdue. Climate change, food security and market transparency were addressed during the hearing.

NMPF asks White House to join CPTPP trade deal
    The National Milk Producers Federation is urging the Biden Administration to join the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. That’s the trade agreement that President Trump dropped in 2017. England is petitioning to join this Pacific Rim trade deal and NMPF wants the U.S. to follow suit. The dairy industry is dependent on the export markets and National Milk sees opportunity in key markets like Vietnam and the Philippines.

Regeneration nation
    The National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance has launched its Regeneration Nation initiative. The NAFA describes alfalfa as the “ultimate regenerative crop,” helping farmers build soil health and reach sustainability goals. Alfalfa is the third most valuable field crop in the U.S., but acres are trending lower. The Regeneration Nation effort is being used to tout those benefits to dairy and forage growers.

New scholarship opportunity for water quality certified farmers   
    The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is offering a scholarship for farmers tied to the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program. AgCentric Director Keith Olander said the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program Farm Business Management Scholarship provides tuition buy down for the Farm Business Management Program. “For those who are water quality certified, there are opportunities to have tuition bought down as much as 75 percent based on qualifications. Farmers must also be water quality certified through the agriculture department.” The program is an opportunity to compare profitability between farms enrolled in the state’s water quality program and those who are not. “They’re looking at the economics around the adaptation of environmental and conservation practices and water quality,” Olander said. “We’re trying to identify within that how those farmers stack up against their peers.”

MN House Ag Committee reviews farmer-lender mediation bill
    The Minnesota House Ag Committee met Monday to consider House File 80, legislation proposing an extension for the farmer-lender mediation period of an additional 60 days. University of Minnesota Extension Statewide Mediation Coordinator Mary Nell Preisler showed support for the Farmer-Lender Mediation Act extension from 90 days to 150 days, partly due to the COVID pandemic. “I’ve been doing this since 1986 and 90 days has never been long enough. However, if we have an agreement before 90 days, we can stop the mediation. We really haven’t run into this issue before, but the pandemic brought it to a head we’ve never had enough time.” The committee laid the bill over for possible future inclusion. Last year, the committee took similar action to get farmers through the pandemic. The Minnesota House Ag Committee also heard from the Rural Finance Authority Supervisor Matt McDevitt on ag loan activity during the hearing.

Cattle inventory report released
    According to USDA’s semi-annual cattle inventory report, beef cow numbers are down 1 percent from one year ago and dairy cow numbers up 1 percent. For dairy cows, the inventory in Minnesota rose 2 percent. South Dakota’s dairy herd is up by a whopping 11 percent; Iowa is up 2 percent; Wisconsin and North Dakota are unchanged from one year ago. At 4.6 million head, dairy replacement heifers are down 2 percent from last year. The number of milk replacement heifers declined by 35,000 head in Minnesota. Dairy replacements increased in South Dakota, Iowa and North Dakota and declined in Wisconsin.

Trivia challenge
    Ricotta is the Italian cheese made from heating the whey left over from the cheese making process. That answers our last trivia question. For this week, Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow represents what state? We’ll have the answer in the next edition of Dairy Star.
    Don Wick is owner/broadcaster for the Red River Farm Network, based in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Wick has been recognized as the National Farm Broadcaster of the Year and served as president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Don and his wife, Kolleen, have two adult sons, Tony and Sam, and five grandchildren, Aiden, Piper, Adrienne, Aurora, and Sterling.