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Two questions for the second half of 2020

Progressive Dairy Editor Dave Natzke Published on 23 June 2020

Like the parable of the “Blind Men and an Elephant,” any personal statements regarding the first half of 2020 will likely fall short of accurately describing the overall picture.

We tend to make claims to “truths” based on our limited, subjective experiences while ignoring other people’s limited, subjective experiences. (I stole that from Wikipedia.)

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What did the first half of 2020 feel like for you? Your description likely depends on where you lived (rural Wisconsin), whether you knew someone who suffered or died from COVID-19 (I did), whether you were deemed “essential” (I wasn’t), whether your job or business survived (it did) or, last but not least, the color of your skin (see author photo).

Specific to dairy farming, your description might even get down to where your milk was marketed, what dairy product it was processed into and even what size or form of packaging that dairy product was put in for distribution.

As far as my work goes, travel restrictions related to the coronavirus had only a marginal impact. My wife had knee replacement surgery in January and hip replacement surgery in June, so I wasn’t going anywhere, regardless. There were no meetings or conferences, but I “attended” lots of webinars and podcasts to stay close to article sources and resources. Our annual Progressive Dairy staff meeting was a series of successful Zoom calls.

One thing I did become more keenly aware of was our checkbook. With my wife’s surgeries and recovery, in addition to doing most of the cooking, some of the cleaning and occasional stints as a physical therapy assistant, I did all the food shopping. On the days of checkbook reconciliation, it was not uncommon to see a dozen consecutive entries to the local grocery store.

Now, I confess my menu planning frequently started with this question: “How do bratwursts and cheese curds sound?” However, I have become more creative in meal planning and, as a big consumer of dairy and being in charge of all aspects of the process, our daily dairy intake has increased.

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Grocery store sales data over the past few months reveals I’m not alone (see What Happened? What’s Next?). While our lives got more complicated, in many ways they became more basic. As Phil Plourd, president of Blimling and Associates, noted in one webinar I attended, dairy does pretty well in a “back-to-basics” environment.

Which gets me (finally) to the headline for this column: What questions do I have as a result of the first half of 2020 that will give my pursuit of information some direction in the months ahead? Perhaps they’re too broad or philosophical, but here goes:

  • How long will the grocery store spending trend continue, and what should dairy do about it? Prior to COVID-19, “food” spending in restaurants and foodservice outlets was about equal to that in grocery stores. Really. But if we pay more for services in restaurants but get more food in terms of volume per dollar spent in grocery stores, are there more ways to enhance partnerships with grocery stores that meet at the intersection of “back to basics” with consumer preference for convenience, service and experience?

  • Is there ever a sweet spot between specialization and diversification? Dairy, like other industries, often travels on two tracks: specialization and diversification. With the closure of the foodservice industry this spring, we saw some relatively short-term but intense dairy supply chain disruptions when big, efficient and specialized wasn’t necessarily able to pivot quickly. Will diversification become an even greater business risk management tool, even if it means letting some capital investment underperform while waiting for the next opportunity (or crisis)?

With strained China-U.S. relations, a presidential election and the speed of an economic recovery all uncertain and affecting dairy, there’s ample opportunity for a few more elephants to wander into our reach in the second half of 2020. That may lead to more and different questions.

But for now, since it’s almost lunchtime: “How do bratwursts and cheese curds sound?”  end mark

Dave Natzke
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