On June 17th the Food Lab welcomed over 20 food and beverage professionals to Quebec, Canada, for a learning journey to dairy farms on both sides of the U.S./Canada border. This exploration of differences across the border arose from a crisis in U.S. 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 U.S. milk prices, below the cost of production for the past four years. Many U.S. farmers look to Canada as an example of how a country can use a controlled system to provide farmers with a living income. 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. With the dairy crisis as well as our work in coffee, cocoa and vanilla in mind, the Food Lab was interested in learning more about the dairy system in Canada and comparing it to U.S. dairy industry.
Dairy Farming in North America
Our time on the border began with presentations from our very own Don Seville, around the basics of the dairy industry in the U.S. 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?
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.