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  • What is Tom Vilsack Saying so far about U.S. Dairy?

    By USDEC February 2, 2017

    A roundup of recent comments by USDEC's new president and CEO, compiled from speeches, memos, news releases and interviews.

    Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack began his tenure as president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council this week with a running start. In multiple venues, Vilsack shared his vision for increasing U.S. dairy exports.

    Vilsack21-1.jpg"As I begin my new role, my focus will be on promoting exports, securing additional access, increasing demand and facilitating sales," Vilsack told USDEC members in a memo. "I also want us to strengthen our relationships, within the broader dairy industry, in Washington and with our customers around the world."

    Why would one of the longest-serving U.S. Agriculture secretaries and a two-term Iowa governor take a job in the dairy industry? 

    One reason, he said, "is it gives me the chance to continue my work in advocacy for farmers and agriculture generally, and for rural America. It also gives me an opportunity to continue the work that I started as a small-town lawyer representing farmers and making a case for farmers and carrying that over into my public service. I now have an opportunity to continue being an advocate."

    In the memo sent this week to USDEC members, Vilsack said "I am eager to let you know how excited I am to be working for you and with you." He acknowledged challenges and opportunities. 

    "It is incumbent on all of us to work together in protecting the progress made the past 20 years," Vilsack told members in the memo. "USDEC has spurred this work through outreach to the new Congress and Administration about the importance exports play in our economy. I encourage you all to reassure your customers that they can rely on our industry to remain dedicated to serving them around the world."

    Vilsack succeeds Tom Suber, USDEC's first and only president from 1995 to 2016. During that time, annual U.S. exports increased from $778 million to nearly $5 billion.

    What follows is a roundup of excerpted news releases, transcripts, articles, memos and even tweets capturing the buildup to the Vilsack era. 

    News releases

    With dairy industry speculation and media reports circulating for weeks, Vilsack's appointment to USDEC was hardly a surprise. On January 17, the official announcement came in a news release, Tom Vilsack to Take Helm of U.S. Dairy Export Council.

    The news release explained that as president and CEO, Vilsack will provide strategic leadership and oversight of USDEC's global promotional and research activities, regulatory affairs and trade policy initiatives. This includes working with industry leaders to develop a long-term vision for building sales and consumer trust in U.S. dairy. Together with the USDEC board, he will create strategies to successfully achieve the shared vision. He will serve as the organization's primary spokesperson and ambassador to a host of global and domestic stakeholders.

    "Growing the global market for U.S. dairy products is essential to the future of the dairy industry and America's dairy farmers," said Vilsack.

    Tom Gallagher is CEO of Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), the umbrella organization that represents the broad interests of U.S. dairy. DMI founded USDEC in 1995. 

    "The global dairy market is more competitive today than ever," said Gallagher. "Ambitious trade agreements, reasonable labeling and product standards, and other issues are vital to the growth of America's dairy industry. Secretary Vilsack's impressive record of leadership and his proven ability to manage complex issues, combined with his breadth and depth of industry knowledge, made him the preeminent choice to take the helm of USDEC. I look forward to working with him." 

    Teleconference with media

    In a January 17 teleconference with dairy trade media, Vilsack laid out his three priorities at USDEC:

    • Secure additional access for our dairy products abroad.
    • Increase the demand for our dairy products.
    • Facilitate the sale of our dairy products.

    "One of the responsibilities we have at the U.S. Dairy Export Council is to make sure we are constantly on the lookout for barriers and areas that make it more difficult for us to market products," he said. "We want an open market. We want a competitive market. We are happy to compete."

    He reiterated the importance of building relationships with customers, being sensitive to their demands, and marketing "very aggressively."

    He said the U.S. dairy indusry "is the best in the world at producing a wide array of dairy products, and we are going to see increased demand for those products around the world. I’m excited about the opportunities for us to maintain markets that we currently have in Mexico, Southeast Asia and Canada, and expanded opportunities potentially in China, South America and Korea. We obviously have the safest and most sustained supply of dairy products in the world. We can sell and market our steady and reliable supply."

    Remarks at Dairy Forum

    On Tuesday, Vilsack gave an address at the Dairy Forum, sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association. With the new Trump administration making headlines about its relationship with Mexico, Vilsack strongly urged exporters to reassure their customers in Mexico by reaching out to them. 

    "We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to maintain and strengthen relationships with those that we work with in Mexico to reassure them that we're going to continue to be open for business and that we're going to continue to look for ways to work with them," Vilsack said at the Dairy Forum. "I think the relationships at the ground level, at the grassroots level can often times overcome any stormy seas that might be created by comments coming from Washington, D.C." 

    USDEC has joined 130 other farm and food organizations in calling on President Trump to preserve hard-fought agriculture market access in Mexico, which is the No. 1 market for U.S. dairy exports, totaling $1.2 billion in 2016.

    The response to Vilsack's Dairy Forum address was positive. Here is a sampling of industry tweets:





    More tweets from Dairy Forum can be found at #DairyForum

    Newspaper articles 

    As the leading paper in Iowa, The Des Moines Register knows Vilsack well.  He was mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, was later elected to the Iowa State Senate and ultimately elected to two terms as governor before serving as U.S. Agriculture Secretary from 2009 to 2017.

    A headline in The Register said this: "Milkman in chief: Vilsack confirms he'll head US Dairy Export Council." In a video interview below with the newspaper, he talked about the "amazing story" of the U.S. agriculture economy.


    Vilsack said he sees more opportunities for U.S. dairy exports. "That's why this job is exciting. There's room for us to grow and expand," said Vilsack,

    The newspaper quoted economists and farmers who said Vilsack was a good fit for the U.S. Dairy Export Council.  

    "With Vilsack's knowledge, experience and prestige, he'll carry a big stick" in trade discussions," said Dermot Hayes, an Iowa State University economics professor. "People know and respect him."

    Agri-Pulse, which broke the news that Vilsack would become USDEC's new president and CEO, emphasized his USDA longevity in this article.

    Vilsack is "one of the longest serving agriculture secretaries in history, having served all eight years of the Obama presidency," the publication said. "Orville Freeman was the last person to hold the job for eight years, having served through the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies.: Vilsack is the only USDA Secretary since Orville Freeman in the 1960s to hold the job for eight years." 

    Considering Suber served for 21 years, it may be difficult for Vilsack to break the longevity record at USDEC. But Vilsack's comments as he starts his new job make it clear he is enthusiastic and optimistic about taking U.S. dairy exports to levels never seen before. 

    Mark O'Keefe is vice president of editorial services at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

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    The U.S. Dairy Export Council fosters collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. USDEC is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy farmer checkoff. How to republish this post.  

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