RIO, Wis. – Becky Levzow had the experience of a lifetime in November 2021 when she visited the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She was not there on vacation but traveled halfway around the world to help promote U.S. dairy products. The five-day mission was packed with opportunities to shed light on the quality, diversity and abundance of American-made dairy foods.

“It was an amazing and wonderful experience,” Levzow said. “Dubai is a place I never thought I’d see, and I was honored to go.”
The trip was sponsored by Dairy Management Inc. and the United States Dairy Export Council. Levzow, three other dairy farmers – Larry Hancock, who milks 4,000 cows in Texas; Marilyn Hershey, who milks 900 cows in Pennsylvania; and Alex Peterson, who milks 120 cows in Missouri – and USDEC staff made the 20-hour trip to Dubai. Local USDEC staff joined the group when they arrived.
“We all come from family farms that practice sustainability, and this was a great opportunity for us to tell our story,” Levzow said. “It’s good for these countries to hear from farmers – who we are, what we are, what we do. We put a human face to our experience, and that goes far for our sales. I milk 150 cows, and Larry milks 4,000. But in the end, we all strive for quality and are devoted to animal care.”
The trip’s goal was to increase dairy product exports into the Middle East by way of Dubai, a dynamic regional trade hub. The trip provided the Dubai market with direct dairy farmer contact and an opportunity to learn more about the people behind the products.
“The markets want to know about sustainability, animal care and health, how we produce our products and what we do on our farms,” Levzow said. “USDEC is doing a lot to promote U.S. cheese, and this trip was a positive experience for the dairy industry. They’re not pushing just one product but all of the U.S.’s dairy export product potential.”
Levzow and her husband, Ralph, and their son, Ken, milk 150 registered Jerseys and Holsteins and farm 950 acres on their fourth-generation farm near Rio. Their daughter and son-in-law, Amanda and Ryan Seichter, who are full-time teachers, also help.
In addition to her work on the farm, Levzow has been doing ultrasounds at a hospital in Madison for 40 years. The Levzows raise their steers for beef and run a cash grain business, selling corn and soybeans.
“Our farm size was unique to the people in Dubai, as their farms are very large,” Levzow said. “For example, there’s a dairy outside of Dubai that milks 14,000 cows. We didn’t visit any farms on our trip, however, as that was not the focus of our mission.”  
USDEC works in Mexico, Central America, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South America, South Korea, the European Union, and the Middle East and North Africa region where Dubai is located. In 2020, the U.S. dairy export value grew to 20% in the MENA region, making it the seventh largest market for U.S. dairy exports. Mexico is No. 1 followed by Southeast Asia, Canada and China. Japan is also a growing market for the U.S.
“The United Arab Emirates imports 90% of its food, and Dubai is a concentrated area where we’ve made good inroads,” Levzow said. “It has a lot of buying power, and the MENA region is really receptive to dairy. They drink a lot of milk, eat a lot of ice cream and cheese, and use a lot of butter. Yogurt is also really big there with whole store sections devoted to yogurt of all kinds.”
Highlights of the Dubai trip included a visit to the International Centre for Culinary Arts, an appearance at a cooking studio and stops at grocery stores carrying U.S. dairy products – specifically the LuLu Hypermarket chain.
The International Centre for Culinary Arts, a highly respected culinary school, is USDEC’s first culinary partner. USDEC works with the ICCA to educate the next generation of chefs about U.S. cheese through a special program started in 2018. USDEC developed the curriculum in which students study the flavors, versatility and history of U.S. cheeses. The USA Cheese Specialist Certification has 157 graduates thus far in the UAE and over 1,071 around the world.
“The centre is putting graduating U.S. cheese ambassadors all over the world, giving this program a lot of reach,” Levzow said. “To me, this is a really good investment.”
The young chefs come from well-known restaurants and hotel chains worldwide and are handpicked to learn the culinary trade, Levzow said. She and her group sat in on a class, and the four farmers were part of a panel in which students asked them questions directly.
“They were very hungry to learn and appreciative to have this experience,” Levzow said. “They asked us all kinds of questions, from what we feed our cows to which breed’s milk is best for making cheese. It was a really nice dialogue.”
The students also made various creations to be judged – from lavish cheese boards to fancy dairy-based desserts Levzow and the group tasted. Levzow’s favorite dish was a four-cheese Phyllo Dough appetizer with plum sauce.
Her group also attended the graduation ceremony for the USA Cheese Specialists.
Their time in Dubai also included a stop at a cooking studio to film a segment that would be used on social media to share the U.S. dairy farming story. Levzow and Hancock starred in the show with TV personality Nicole Maftoum and master chef and dietitian Nikita Ghandi Patni from India. Levzow and Hancock talked about their farms while Ghandi Patni made a roasted pepper queso dip served over nachos.
At the Lulu Hypermarket, Levzow witnessed Dubai’s passion for U.S. cheese, which could be found in six sections of the store. U.S. products account for 54% of the 300 items found in the dairy case and deli.
The partnership between USDEC and LuLu began in 2018. Since then, the company’s usage has increased from 60 to 120 metric tons, for a $1 million jump in dairy product sales.
“U.S. cheese is promoted heavily in the LuLu Hypermarket, and it’s amazing how many people are in this aisle every day trying and buying our cheese,” Levzow said. “The deli makes cheese boards, and there are tasting demos held throughout the store. The people in charge of demos are thoroughly educated on the cheeses before doing demos. We’re not just going in and dumping cheese and hoping people buy it.”
Another Dubai customer is the Talabat online food delivery service.
“It’s a booming enterprise with 12,000 SKUs, and we’re talking with them about cheese options,” Levzow said. “They already carry Crystal Farms and Schreiber cheese.”
The cost to get products to Dubai is a challenge, but USDEC staff have a marketing plan to facilitate trial and show value of importing U.S. dairy products. Products arrive primarily by air and must have between six and nine months of shelf life. An active candy making and dessert industry is a big consumer of dairy products like milk powder and butter. Butter exports to the region have increased 250%. Much of the cheese coming into the region is from New Zealand and Europe, but Levzow said the U.S. is making great strides.
“We’re not going in to badmouth other cheeses,” she said. “We go in on our own merits and show them why they should buy our products. We offer quality and consistency, and we promote the versatility in U.S. cheese and the fact we can deliver.”
The U.S. continues to work on penetrating the global market and moving more product internationally. Exports of U.S. dairy products are now 17% of U.S. sales, which Levzow said equates to 1 in 6 tankers of milk leaving the country.
“Going on this mission really opened my eyes,” Levzow said. “We saw firsthand how our dairy promotion dollars are being spent to expand these markets, and I think it’s been spent very well the last few years. This is an investment we have to make if we’re going to continue with our level of milk production in this country. We can’t eat our way out of this. We have to find markets that want our products to make more room on our shelves here.”