ST. PAUL, Minn. –Sustainability is becoming a bigger topic for all levels of the food supply chain, and those in dairy community are trying to further the conversation and action.
    “Earlier this year, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy set some aggressive new collective environmental stewardship goals to help advance our industry’s role in building a sustainable future,” Andy Vance said. “It includes ambitions to achieve neutral or better carbon emissions, optimize water usage and improve water quality by 2050. Those goals will help dairy build upon and quantify industry progress for our vision of being an environmental solution.”
    Vance was the master of ceremonies for the virtual Dairy Experience Forum July 15 hosted by Midwest Dairy. Vance was also the moderator to further discuss sustainability through an environmental solutions panel featuring three people.
    Suzanne Vold shared her experience as a dairy producer who owns Dorrich Dairy in Glenwood, Minnesota, and as an environmental stewardship committee member for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Bob Huffman gave insight from the processor standpoint as the president and chief executive officer of First District Association in Litchfield, Minnesota, and as a board of director member for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Brian Zook talked about the retailer perspective as the director of milk sourcing and dairy sustainability at Bel Brands USA and as a member of the environmental stewardship commitment taskforce through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
    When all three panelists had the opportunity to define sustainability, each one of them said it was a key component to their business. Vold said sustainability is leaving the farm in better shape than before she received it.
    “We (farmers) think in terms of generations,” she said. “So, when we talk about leaving it better than when we came, we’re talking about leaving it better for our children, for our grandchildren and those who may come after us. It encompasses everything from how we take care of our cows, our natural resources – the air, the land, the water – and how we take care of our communities. It really is the whole picture.”
    Huffman said sustainability is doing what is right.
    “Within our role from farm to table, it’s a really easy decision for First District to sign on and adopt the U.S. dairy stewardship commitment,” he said. “For us, that reinforces our commitment and our role to building a sustainable future, and what we demonstrate with that commitment to our customers and ultimately our consumers.”
    Zook said Bel Brands has been using the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management program to help communicate what dairy is doing to be more sustainable. This includes areas like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and complying with animal welfare standards.
    “There’s certainly a value from a global standpoint,” he said about being sustainable.
    He also finds value in a program recognized worldwide.
    “The FARM animal welfare program is above and beyond any other nation’s in the world,” Zook said. “It is internationally recognized as the standard and it is above any other species in the country delivering on food.”
    At First District, all members are also committed to the FARM program. Huffman said the cooperative is also reusing water and tracking waste usage. Last year, it reused 185 million gallons of water at the plant site. The cooperative also reuses 99% of its waste into other agricultural uses, and is actively trying to reduce the 1% that goes to the landfill. Huffman said documentation is important.
    “We need to show what we’re doing and walking the talk,” he said.
    At Dorrich Dairy, the Vold family has approached sustainability through automation. Most recently, the dairy switched to robotic milking along with robotic barn cleaners. Four years ago, the dairy started using manure solids for bedding to reuse resources.
    “Farmers across the U.S. are doing all sorts of amazing and different things because our dairies are so unique and different,” Vold said.
    However, sometimes sharing the victories of sustainability on farms is not shared as much as it should be, Vold said.
    “We don’t do a great job of sharing what we’re doing on our own operations because we are independent operators and that’s what makes us good farmers,” she said. “But we need to tell our story. We heard from the consumer group. They don’t know a lot about how we take such good care of our animals, how we do things on our farm to recycle water many times.”
    Huffman agreed.
    “We have to do a better job of telling our story, telling the facts and making sure the consumers understand the type of products we put out on the shelves,” he said.
    Vold said she relies on others in the industry – her cooperative and regional promoting group as examples – to help her family tell their dairy’s story.
    Zook said there is a great story to share.
    “The dairy cow itself is one of the best recycling machines we have in taking hundreds of thousands of tons of byproducts and materials that would normally go to a landfill and convert them into healthy, nutritious and safe food,” he said.
    Huffman added that along with nutritious products, dairy has diversity with many product options for snacks, meals or drinks.
    The final topic of the panel included using technology to track sustainability. All three panelists agreed that having data is key to helping share dairy’s sustainable message.
    “We are a global world and an internet-connected world,” he said. “It helps us as we compete against all other proteins globally.”
    As part of the FARM environmental stewardship module, Vold said her family’s dairy is evaluated and tracked to gather data.
    “I want to assure farmers that if you’re asked to participated in FARM environmental stewardship, please feel confident your data privacy will be protected,” she said. “That is something our committee and industry takes very seriously. We look at the data as an industry basis, not as an individual farm basis.”
    She encouraged dairy farmers to be involved in tracking data to help share the sustainable dairy story.
    “When you’re asked do the FARM environmental stewardship survey, please participate because the more data we have, the better we can do as an industry of showing what a great job we are already doing in being sustainable,” Vold said. “There’s more work to be done, no doubt about it, but we are already doing some amazing and wonderful things.”