The dairy industry has experienced enormous changes during the last 25 years, providing more challenges — but also opportunities — than ever before. Looking for ways to meet these challenges, while adding value to our milk and providing opportunities for future generations, is what led us to expand our business five years ago. But instead of adding cows, we decided to produce specialty farmstead cheeses. 

Today, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese produces four specialty cheeses, using the milk from its 600 cows. It is one of a handful of farmstead cheese plants in the country.

New challenges
As we expanded our presence into processing and marketing, one of the challenges that soon became clear to us was the need for constant and consistent communication from all links in the food chain to consumers. 

In an ideal world, the producer, the processor and the grocer would all be “on message.” Consumers would get the same answer to questions about milk production, food safety and nutrition from the retailer, wholesaler or processor that they would get if they toured our farm and asked us directly.

Unfortunately, this is often not the case. We have been surprised, disappointed and sometimes horrified at the way retailers, buyers and media portray aspects of dairy farming. How can we expect consumers to believe we produce safe, nutritious, high-quality and affordable products from comfortable cows, while caring for the environment, if they keep hearing differently? Our industry must develop an effective, positive image among consumers in order to ensure success.

Open communication needed
When you add the misinformation that already exists to the very intentional misinformation campaigns led by the anti-animal protein forces, effective communication throughout the food chain becomes a priority. Consumers are constantly bombarded with mixed messages.

Most food-chain members communicate forward to reach the consumer, but rarely work to educate each other. As milk producers, we are the first link in the food chain, but we’re not usually the ones answering questions directly from the consumer. That’s why making sure that our other partners in distribution, sales, and marketing are prepared to answer these questions about modern dairy production is so important. This means educating chefs, retail buyers and deli managers, just to name a few. Cross-industry communication can help debunk the misperceptions being created about our industry and our ability to provide the safest, most affordable and nutritious food in the world. 

Step up to the plate
Telling our story to consumers -— instead of letting others paint the picture — will keep our industry a step ahead.   Pick any industry or company from Ford to Sunkist Orange Juice to Nike, and you’ll see how hard they work on their image and their story. We have to make sure that as dairy producers we are working on our image and our message just as consistently and as diligently. 

If we don’t position our products and ourselves as high-quality and professional — the best in the world — somebody else will do it for us. In some ways, they already have, forcing us to deny and defend when we should be telling our story in a proactive way.

Dairy farmers have a great story to tell. And if we focus on our strengths and a few key messages, then we can coordinate with other members of the food chain to deliver the same great message.

George and Debbie Crave are president and vice president of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese near Waterloo, Wis., and members of the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.