CHICAGO – Dairy consumption, like most things, looked a little peculiar in 2020.
    In a news conference Dec. 17, Dairy Management Inc. leaders presented a national checkoff review of 2020 and a look ahead to 2021. Like many, the novel coronavirus pandemic considerably shifted DMI’s planner.
    “COVID-19 threw a lot into the promotion plan,” said Marilyn Hershey, Pennsylvania dairy farmer and DMI chair. “There were not many moments that went past until the whole plan we had in place for 2020 was shifted and redirected.”
    One of the main issues affecting dairy farmers early on in the pandemic was retail stores limiting milk sales.
    “(Producers) had milk to sell, … but stores were panicking,” Hershey said. “There was a lot of confusion across states and regions, and store managers needed to be let known milk is available.”
    Due to proactive producers and regional communication with store managers, a lot of those limitations were lifted.
    Hershey said the plan for 2021 reflects the changes made in 2020.
    “We have a lot of positive things planned to highlight and promote the good work of farmers,” she said.
    DMI CEO Tom Gallagher shared available figures through September, stating both domestic sales and exports combined were up 1.2% for 2.7 million pounds of dairy products.
    “That’s something we probably wouldn’t have guessed in March,” Gallagher said.
    On their own, milk sales in America were down 1% in September, although Gallagher anticipated that number to be positive by the end of the year.
    “With exports, we were able to pivot on a dime, and I think the industry did an excellent job of adapting,” Gallagher said.
    In the early days of the pandemic, DMI began partnering with pizza companies in Japan, testing to see if contactless delivery would be successful. It was, and DMI was able to take that and excel domestically.
    “We did a lot of work with pizza, anticipating the struggle within the food service industry,” Gallagher said. “We had a promotional deal with Papa John’s and also with Dominos where we rewarded kids who missed their graduation.”
    Within the food service industry, the pressure was on to introduce new products. Working to keep schools offering dairy products as they closed down was a challenge as well.
    “We directed a lot of those resources to hunger issues and food banks,” Gallagher said. “I think this really helped; our losses would have been much worse.”
    To focus on Generation Z, DMI entered the world of gaming in a partnership with YouTube personality, MrBeast Gaming. The player built a dairy farm world on the game Minecraft and hosted a virtual tour emphasizing sustainability on his YouTube channel. MrBeast Gaming hosted a 100-player building challenge, putting up $50,000 of his own money to the winner of the most sustainable virtual dairy.
    DMI president Barb O’Brien dove deeper on consumer trends and demand.
    “Coming through COVID-19, an unexpected trend was consumers placing more weight on social responsibility and environmental stewardship,” O’Brien said. “They care more about these things than taste even.”
    According to research conducted by Kearney Consulting in April, 50% of consumers said the pandemic made them more aware of the environment. In the same study, 58% of Americans were found to believe we should respond to climate change with the same urgency as we have responded to the pandemic.
    “We have got to earn consumer trust because those expectations are real,” O’Brien said.
    Gallagher agreed.
“The beautiful part of the U.S. dairy industry is that we have the best sustainability story in the world, and we’re telling it,” he said.
    In 2019, the organization rolled out their Net Zero Initiative, encouraging farms of all sizes to meet industry climate and environmental goals. In the second year of that plan, large strides were made in partnerships with Nestlé and Starbucks, making it more accessible for farms of all sizes to adopt new technology and practices that are affordable.
    “Over the last few months, we’ve seen companies putting money behind dairy farmers’ efforts,” O’Brien said. “Environmental progress needs to make economic sense, and companies are starting to see dairy as an environmental solution.”
    As various companies diversify their menu to include non-dairy alternatives, O’Brien urged producers to not take it personally.
    “If a family of four has one person who is vegan, (the company) is not going to risk losing the business of the entire family because they are not meeting the needs of one individual,” O’Brien said. “This related to farmers and their proactivity on maintaining sustainable practices, putting themselves at the table. And, frankly, it’s worked.”
    Looking to 2021, DMI continues to highlight the noble work of America’s dairy producers.
    “We’re leaning into a continuation of a four-year framework, accumulating sales and positioning U.S. dairy as a vital part of the international food system,” O’Brien said.
    Plans to secure millennial parents and Generation Z as consumers are a priority, focusing on modern science backing nutrition and also environmental resources.
    “We also know the power of partnerships is as critical as ever,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to continue to work with them to tell dairy’s story, drive sales and promote dairy’s reputation.”