An Exploration Between Canadian and US Dairy

Since the Food Lab’s beginning 15 years ago, learning journeys have been a core part of our DNA, always accompanying annual summits and sometimes other events too. This year, in lieu of a summit, the Food Lab opted to hold smaller events with more focused conversations. One such event took place in June, a learning journey to dairy farms on both sides of the US/Canada border.

This was a powerful Learning Journey: One person commented after visiting Canadian farms that “I have never before heard such optimism from farmers, a real joy in farming.”

This exploration of differences across the border arose from a crisis in US dairy: financial hardship, suicides, and farmers ending their businesses. Cabot Cheese, part of Agri-Mark Cooperative, is a Food Lab member, and a year ago they had held a Dairy Crisis Meeting focusing on consistently low US milk prices, below the cost of production for the past four years. That’s where the idea of the learning journey originated. Working with Canadian farmers Jason Erskine and Nick Thurler, over 20 food and beverage professionals joined a 3-day exploration.  Many US farmers look to Canada as an example of how a country can use a controlled system to provide farmers with a living income. And in the larger Food Lab community, many commodities suffer from volatile pricing, often below the cost of production. For example, coffee, cocoa and vanilla farmers frequently face a gap between actual incomes and a living income.

Our time on the border began with presentations from our very own Don Seville, around the basics of the dairy industry in the US and moved to a presentation by Erskine and Thurler about the structure of the Canadian supply management system. The preceding day included field visits to 2-Canadian dairy farms, a Canadian processor and a U.S. farm.  Our gracious hosts at each location were able to share their careers as dairy farmers, what the future held for them and the benefits and drawbacks of the system they worked within.  The following day staff worked with participants to explore questions like: What are the strategies that are worth exploring that could reduce volatility and/or improve economic viability for farmers? What can be done as farmers? Buyers? Through changes to the market system? What signals would make doing the right thing for the farm or the supply chain also be doing the right thing for the overall system?

While our staff is still making sense of the experience, from our quick look into the dairy industry in Canada, it was clear that farmers felt financially stable, leading to better planning and investment in their farms and for young farm family members, a feeling of hopefulness for a future in farming.  We saw that the Canadian dairy system wasn’t static — farmers were investing in technology, animal welfare, productivity and becoming more efficient.  Consolidation and change was happening — but slowed through the supply management structure.

If you’re interested in learning more about our trip, contact us today and make sure to subscribe to our newsletter as we continue to explore financial sustainability for farmers.

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