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New England dairy producers discover ways to promote the industry

Jennifer Janak Published on 22 August 2014
Deb Erb, Terry Appleby and Lorraine Merrill

There are 313 million people living in the U.S. Of that 313 million, only 2 percent are directly involved in agricultural production, and few more understand the importance of it for the sustainability of our country.

It has become farmers’ responsibility to educate consumers and bring about awareness for the dairy industry. Whether that is at a professional event or while in line at the checkout counter of the grocery store, dairy producers have the opportunity to be spokespersons for the industry and share their stories.

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In 2008, New England dairy producers gathered their ideas and created a farmer-driven, fair-trade campaign for fluid milk in an attempt to bring the public closer to the dairy industry.

“Based on research, we found that consumers were willing to pay more for milk if the additional cost was going back to dairy farmers,” says Jennifer Karl, vice president of marketing and communications for the New England Dairy Promotion Board. “We felt there was enough out there that a fair-trade concept could be adopted onto milk.”

Keep Local Farms, as it would be called, was created in the depths of the Great Recession, when milk prices were at a record low. It was a time where dairy producers were concerned about their businesses and, unfortunately, consumers could not afford the additional costs to support the campaign.

Implementing the program was not the challenge, rather encouraging the community to continue supporting local dairy producers was the issue that was immediately recognized.

“Usually with a crisis event people will give, but they don’t give for years and years,” Karl says. “How do you keep people giving for something that is a chronic issue?”

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“Our timing was a bit off,” Jane Clifford adds about beginning the fair-trade campaign during the Great Recession. “It was a great effort, and we did see some support from the communities.”

The program received immediate support from colleges such as the University of Vermont, St. Michaels, Champlain, Harvard and Boston University, as well as Ski Vermont and regional medical centers.

For every single serving of milk sold within the schools, $0.10 of the total cost would be donated to the campaign to support local dairy farming. In a similar way, Ski Vermont established the 5th Grade Passport Program, where a portion of the proceeds went back toward the Keep Local Farms campaign.

After a couple years, the campaign was able to collect enough money for each farmer signed up through the program to receive $100. However, in order to make an impact on dairy farmers’ lives, Keep Local Farms needed to raise millions of dollars, which simply was not feasible.

“The initial implementation was spread very thin and tried to include many, many businesses – and therefore only brought in a small amount of dollars,” Deb Erb says.

Erb is a board member of New England Dairy Promotion and spends much of her time focusing on campaigns for the New England dairy industry.

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Clifford, a dairy farmer from Vermont, adds, “Financing producers was wonderful, but it was more important for us to tell our stories and make people aware that milk is a business.”

In 2012, with the assistance of Vermont and dairy checkoff dollars from the New England Dairy Promotion Board, Keep Local Farms morphed into Must Be the Milk.

“Must Be the Milk was established as an educational platform. It helped us realize there was this gap and we needed to put the dairy farmers front and center,” Karl says.

The newly redesigned campaign focuses on educating the consumer about dairy farming – not only the products that are produced but also the people who make it their lifestyle to produce those products.

“As the consumer gets further away from farming, we are in danger of our consumers not understanding what we must do to be economically successful farmers,” Erb says. “Websites, events and pamphlets help get the good word out about farming.”

Similar to other promotional programs across the nation, Must Be the Milk offers videos, a website and media campaigns that promote the people behind the product and encourages the public to learn more about dairy farming in their area.

“Fifty years ago, there was a large connection with the farm; now very few still have that connection. People need to understand that farming is not all rainbows and sunshine, and at the same time, all farmers have a passion to produce a quality product, no matter if the farm has five cows or 5,000,” Clifford says.

To date, the program has been a great success and has been well implemented into the communities. Must Be the Milk is even a part of other industries’ promotional tools, such as New England clam chowder. One of the advertising slogans reads: “What makes New England clam chowder so tasty? It Must Be the Milk.”

Keep Local Farms isn’t completely demolished. In fact, it still remains a key part of Must Be the Milk.

Colleges and Ski Vermont continue to contribute to Keep Local Farms, so much so that a fund has been established for community members who still wish to fund-raise money for their local dairy farmers.

The Keep Local Farms Fund creates revenue that will be used as financial support for dairy producers in the New England area. After going through an application process, producers will be able to use the funds to better their farm in one of three categories – energy, environment or efficiency.

“It’s important to us that the funders’ money is appreciated and being utilized in the best way,” Clifford says. “We’ve been very thoughtful in deciding the best way their precious dollars can be used.”

Erb, Clifford and other dairy farmers take pride in Must Be the Milk and the efforts that have been taken to bring awareness to the New England dairy industry. While their original campaign fell through, they continued looking for ways to educate consumers and have found a platform that showcases their lifestyle in the best of ways.

Clifford adds, “It has been the ability of farmers coming together with an idea and taking ownership to promote our industry.”

“When one door closes another one opens, and you find really great things that you hadn’t anticipated,” Karl says. PD

PHOTO:On June 19, 2010, Deb Erb (left) stands with Terry Appleby, Co-op Food Stores General Manager, and Lorraine Merrill, New Hampshire Commissioner of Agriculture, as Co-op Food Stores announces that they will contribute 15 cents for every gallon of milk sold to the Keep Local Farms initiative. Photo courtesy of England Dairy Producers.

Jennifer Janak

2014 Editorial Intern

Progressive Dairyman

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