Growing US exports

How USDEC is increasing worldwide demand for American dairy products

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WASHINGTON — Within 25 years, exports of U.S. dairy products have increased nearly sevenfold. Today, almost 20% of U.S. dairy production is exported, which means that one in six tankers of milk leaving a dairy is going for exports.

“Exports impact every farmer,” said Krysta Harden, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “Exporting gives protection to farmers to ensure there is a home for their milk, whether it’s around the corner or around the world. Exports are becoming a much more important factor in U.S. dairy, and for us to grow as an industry, we must have markets outside the U.S.”

USDEC was created 28 years ago by dairy farmers through the national dairy checkoff program. USDEC is an umbrella organization bringing together elements of the dairy chain to build and grow markets around the world.

“It’s a collective effort that adds value to farmers’ milk checks by adding new markets for commodities,” Harden said. “This is especially important if you have a new generation that wants to come back to the farm. USDEC wants to help the young farmer figure out how they fit into a global market and the growth that provides.”

The U.S. is the third largest exporter of dairy products in the world, following New Zealand and Europe. Harden said the U.S.’s biggest market and closest ally for exports is Mexico.

“Mexico is a large consumer of dairy, and they love our cheeses,” she said. “Dairy is a big part of their diet, but it’s not a market we take for granted. We sit down with Mexican dairy farmers and processors regularly. If there’s more demand for dairy in Mexico, it helps Mexican dairy farmers and U.S. dairy farmers.”

Harden said Mexico imports about 30% of its dairy consumption even though the country has a successful dairy-producing industry.

“Our trade is not about displacing any farmers; we need more farmers in the world, not fewer,” she said. “We work hand in hand in many cases because Mexico still can’t meet the demand.”

Harden said USDEC sees potential in Central America and South America. The council is also focused on Southeast Asia and has a brick-and-mortar office in Singapore that includes a test kitchen, chef and meeting space.

“It is a big world, and we have to look at it market by market and situation by situation,” Harden said. “Southeast Asia is a very large market with a potential for dairy ingredients.”

With additional offices in Mexico, South America, Korea, Japan, the Middle East, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, USDEC has outposts around the world. There are 10 in all, including the main office in Washington, D.C., with more offices to come. Among the prospects is Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We’re making sure U.S. dairy is front and center in emerging markets, growth markets and established markets,” Harden said. “We have to be aggressive and strategic and make sure we know and understand these markets. We work closely with our governments and governments in these key countries to ensure our products are allowed in. There are a lot of requirements to make that happen.”

The U.S. is rebounding from a tough year for exports last year following a record-breaking year in 2022, when U.S. dairy exports totaled $9.66 billion.

“We were a little lower last year, but we’ll climb back up this year,” Harden said. “Right now, about 17%-18% of production is going into exports. That helps the milk check. If we don’t have a place for those products, where are they going to go? Exports give a home to milk that would otherwise be in a surplus which causes oversupply and less money for farmers.”

With 96% of the world population falling outside U.S. borders, Harden said there is a responsibility to help feed a hungry world.

“There are opportunities to grow markets that may not have dairy in their diet to the extent they should,” Harden said. “Many countries are deficient in the vitamins and minerals found in dairy and do not reach the suggested intake for dairy products. This is a great opportunity for us to give more of the world a healthier diet through the sustainable nutrition that comes from dairy.”

Harden also sees exports as a way to help people understand the many uses of dairy, from traditional foods to ingredients to proteins and permeates.

“There are all sorts of things we can do with dairy,” Harden said. “We export a lot of cheese, and there is growing demand for U.S. cheese around the world. But powder, proteins and other ingredients from dairy are critical.”

Milk processors play a role in exports, and USDEC is often the facilitator, matching up exporters with buyers. The organization works with governments around the world to ensure standards and qualifications are met.

“We help facilitate the process for our member companies and cooperatives, making sure those who want to buy from the U.S. know who to buy from,” Harden said. “If you want to sell outside the U.S., we help make sure you understand what that’s going to look like.”

The high-quality and high-value reputation of U.S. dairy products makes it an attractive option for countries looking to import. Building relationships and partnerships with these countries is the important next step, Harden said.

“When I look at where this industry will be in 10 years, we will be exporting more, and we will be taking market share from our competitors,” Harden said. “There will be new markets that we’re not doing business in today that we’ll be doing business with in 10 years.”

Taking market share from competitors is something that Harden sees as inevitable.

“We have the resources to grow production here: land, water and a much more favorable regulatory environment than our competitors,” Harden said. “Some states have stricter environmental regulations than others, but by and large, we are a business and ag-friendly country.”

USDEC is gearing up for World Milk Day June 1, which will kick off June Dairy Month.

“We’ll have celebrations with our counterparts and consumers in every one of our locations and in every language,” Harden said. “That day and all of June Dairy Month is a time to say thank you to our great dairy farmers.”

As exports grow, Harden sees it as key to helping sustain the dairy industry and drive growth.

“I want dairy farmers to look at exports and trade in a positive light,” Harden said. “It is an opportunity for us to grow as an industry and is a positive reason to stay in dairy or bring in the next generation.”

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