While Wisconsin’s dairy industry has become more of a global exporter over the past few years, state leaders believe it has the potential to become an even stronger international player while strengthening its hold as a national power.
“I would say that we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a lot of the growing opportunities,” said Jen Pino-Gallagher, one of the leaders of the international trade office in the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).
As the World Dairy Expo takes center stage here this week, those opportunities along the entire spectrum of the dairy industry — from Wisconsin’s advancements in bovine genetics to its products like milk yogurt, whey and its many cheeses — are being showcased all around the Alliant Energy Center.
They are why Wisconsin’s dairy exports increased 22 percent to $282 million in 2012 compared to 2011, according to DATCP.
That helped the state export a record of more than $2.9 billion worth of agricultural products to more than 149 countries in 2012, the report said. The state also moved up three spots to 13th in the country for agricultural exports.
“You name it, we’ve got it,” Gov. Scott Walker said during an appearance at the Expo on Wednesday morning.
But Walker and DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel have made it clear that those numbers are merely a good trend as the state’s dairy industry moves past the infancy stage of its international trade movement.
State dairy industry leaders agreed with them.
“It wasn’t until 2007 that we really started to recognize our export opportunities. That wasn’t very long ago. We’re still learning,” said Mark Stephensen, director of the Center for Dairy Profitability at UW-Madison.
Pino-Gallagher said Wisconsin won’t compete on a price basis with coastal states on some products because of its transportation costs.
“But we will be one of the highest providers in terms of quality,” she added.
Brancel has expanded DATCP’s international trade team to include Pino-Gallagher and four other full-time positions since he arrived two years ago. They have helped improve the export numbers by making numerous strong connections with international trade groups in China and other countries with rapidly growing populations and economies, Brancel said.
Also, the few state companies that have established offices overseas are team players and have helped other state companies overcome hurdles to get established there, Brancel added.
“It really shows when you do focus your energy correctly you will get positive responses,” Brancel said.
Wisconsin already exports more whey — $114 million in 2012 — than any other state and in 2012 ranked second in the export of bovine semen ($50 million) and fifth in the export of live bovine, another component of livestock genetics, according to DATCP. State live bovine exports rose 111 percent to $24 million in 2012.
It also ranked second in cheese exports at $149 million in 2012, but those numbers paled to California’s, which has made a strong effort to export more of its dairy products, according to John Umhoefer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
Roughly 5 percent of cheese made in the United States is exported, but less than 1 percent comes from Wisconsin, he said.
“It’s a growth area for us. It’s not there yet at all. It’s the future,” Umhoefer added.
The best opportunities for Wisconsin cheesemakers will come in China, even though California cheesemakers are producing cheese and other dairy products for global companies like Pizza Hut and McDonald’s that are making inroads there, Umhoefer said.
“What we will send to the Pacific Rim is the specialty cheese,” Umhoefer said. “We have to go on the high end.”
But expanding opportunities for the state dairy industry look just as bright nationally. California, because of its global vision, has taken its eye off selling cheese to heavily populated states like Texas and Florida, and that is opening doors for state cheesemakers to take over market share there, Umhoefer said.
“Sales will tell us who will win that fight,” he added.