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State Leaders Say Foreign Trade is Vital to Wisconsin Agriculture
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 09/02/2020

Wisconsin's dairy industry could compete more effectively on the global stage if trade barriers were eased and product labeling restrictions are eliminated. That was the general consensus of a group of key ag leaders from the state who participated in a virtual town hall on Tuesday about the role dairy exports play in Wisconsin's economy. The discussion was part an informational series called AgTalks, which was co-hosted by the National Milk Producers Federation, U.S. Dairy Export Council and Farmers for Free Trade.

"One-hundred percent of our milk comes from 87 Wisconsin dairy farmers, who are not only incredibly efficient, but produce some of the best products in the world," said Jeff Schwager, president of Sartori Cheese. "But any success is hard fought, especially this year with COVID-19. As a result, we have learned that it's important to be in all channels and markets, both domestically and abroad."

Schwager adds that tapping into the European market has been difficult in recent years because of their policy on geographical indicators. Specifically, those countries are restricting the purchase of cheese products that have common names like parmesan, feta, asiago, and muenster because they claim those terms are confined to Europe.

State Agriculture Secretary-desginee Randy Romanski says he feels Wisconsin is well positioned to become a bigger exporter in the years ahead. But that will be tough to do until business relationships can be done face-to-face again.

"Zoom meetings and phone conversations are fine if you have an existing working relationship," Romanski explained. "But getting the ability to get foreign buyers back into Wisconsin for personal visits is really the key to building new relationships."

Meanwhile, Chad Vincent of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin says you cannot discount Mexico and Canada, which he calls 'the monsters next door' with tremendous potential to purchase more Wisconsin products. He also feels there's opportunity in Asia and North Africa as consumers there adjust their dietary preferences.

"As the middle class grows in these areas of the world, they are spending more of their disposable income on foods with higher protein, such as dairy products," he noted.

As for trade wars and foreign policy that comes from Washington, D.C., FarmFirst Dairy Cooperative General Manager Jeff Lyon said it does hinder progress when the administration in the White House changes hands ever four- to- eight years.

"This puts us at a disadvantage because the leaders from many other countries often stay in power for much longer periods of time," Lyon said, to which National Milk Producers Federation CEO said Jim Mulhern added that putting tariffs on nations that we disagree with does not work for us in the long-term.

"We know China is an abuser of policy and a huge problem to deal with. But they are also a huge market for our industry," Mulhern said. "Fortunately we in dairy have larger markets to rely on besides theirs; unlike grains that depend on them more."

Nationally, dairy exports have increased by 600 percent in the past 25 years, Mulhern stated. Right now, about 15 percent of U.S. dairy products are sold beyond our borders.

Tuesday's virtual town hall was moderated by USDEC CEO and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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