June 10 2021 12:52 AM

Anchored by a strong farm background, Krysta Harden has a clear vision to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council into a new era of growth.

Early in life, Krysta Harden (right) learned the importance of what it means to grow products that feed people. She learned that important life lesson on her family’s peanut farm. Shown with Harden is Casey Cox (left), who is a sixth generation Georgia farmer

Krysta Harden’s work ethic matches that of any U.S. dairy farmer. As a daughter of multigeneration Georgia peanut farmers, Harden knows the value of a full day’s work on the family farm.

Despite success that saw her climb to the rank of deputy secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, Harden remains a farm girl at heart. To remind her of her roots each and every day, a picture depicting the dirt road where she grew up hangs directly over her desk.

“It is everything to me. That’s my heart and soul,” Harden said of her farm upbringing, noting that the picture also shows her family’s Georgia farm. That upbringing is reconfirmed by her distinct Southern accent. “The lessons that I learned about the land, my faith, the importance of family, hard work, and commitment all started there. I also learned what it means to grow products that feed people.

“I can make more money, I can have fancier titles, and I can do other things,” she continued. “However, I cannot imagine not working in agriculture and with the people who grow our food.”

Steeped with a strong background in sustainability, Harden started her journey with the U.S. dairy industry when she joined Dairy Management Inc. as the executive vice president of global environmental strategy in April 2019. When Secretary Tom Vilsack returned to the post of USDA Secretary, Harden stepped up to lead the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) as its president and CEO. She is just the third person to serve in this role since its founding in 1995 and the first woman to lead USDEC.

With this as a backdrop, Hoard’s Dairyman had a conversation with Krysta Harden on her vision for U.S. dairy exports. This extended conversation will continue in the July issue.

What excites you most about your new role?

I have to tell you that I absolutely love it. What excites me most is the potential. We have the best farmers and processors in the world who can compete head-to-head and toe-to-toe with anybody.

We are producing very healthy and nutritious products and doing so in a very efficient way. We make a difference for the health and wellness of populations. There is a hungry world. There is a world that needs these products. There are populations growing all around the world, outside of the U.S. I am excited about making sure that we can be a part of that healthy, nutritious diet for more people around the world. Even in the countries that produce their own dairy products, we still have a role to fulfill.

What may be some challenges?

Recovery from COVID-19 tops the list. We are ahead of the game in the U.S. when it comes to vaccinations based on regular conversations with our overseas offices. The rollout of vaccines is slower in many parts of the world. In many countries, it’s been a seesaw, getting a little bit better and then getting a little bit worse.

The recovery from the pandemic is being compounded by what’s happening in our shipping ports . . . being able to get product shipped to honor contracts in Southeast Asia, China, and other key markets. Part of that issue is COVID-19 related because the U.S. is importing more consumer products from many of these markets. There is a great demand for tankers to return to their home country so they can fill up again and come back to us. They are not waiting in the long lines to be refilled in our ports, which has really caused major delays in moving U.S. dairy products.

The delays in ports have become so significant that shippers are turning around and going back empty. That just kind of blows my mind that it makes more financial sense to go back empty than it does to wait and reload with perishables like dairy and other products.

The shipping issue remains top of mind. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we just don’t know when that is going to improve.

How do we ensure that the Mexico-U.S. partnership remains robust and healthy?

Mexico is critical; there is absolutely no doubt about it. Mexico is really key to the success of our member companies and U.S. dairy. It can’t be the only market. COVID-19 certainly brought that to light.

It’s a little bit of a challenge right now because of Mexico’s recovery from COVID-19, which is a little bit slower. We’ve seen cheese come back based on our March numbers, and its tourism is rebounding. The service of that sector will be important.

We also have to have a good relationship government-to-government and industry-to-industry. There are all these little hiccups from time-to-time that we have to work through.

I’m anxious to make sure we have a good U.S. ambassador to Mexico; one who truly understands agriculture. The government-to-government relationship is just so important. We need good communication and good collaboration. We know we are not going to agree all the time, but we have to make sure we have the ability to work through these complicated issues.

Southeast Asia has been coming on strong as a buyer of U.S. dairy products. What makes the people of Southeast Asia potentially great dairy customers?

There is a lot of opportunity. The region’s focus on health, wellness, and nutritious diets has been helping us. People in these countries talk about dairy as part of a balanced diet. If you think about Japan, they see dairy and its protein source as critical to their diet.

The different ways to use dairy ingredients is just starting to happen in these countries. We are going to see this more and more. This holds true especially when being creative by looking at dairy as an additive ingredient in certain products such as sports bars and smoothies.

Dairy ingredients also go into meatballs or what those in Southeast Asia refer to as “fish balls.” Dairy ingredients can help bolster protein levels. We are going to see some creative uses to reach that health and wellness goal.

How has USDEC prepared itself to serve these customers?

When we opened the U.S. Center for Dairy Excellence in Singapore last year, it sent a very strong message. It’s about trust. It sends a message that we are serious about the market. It’s critical. Our competitors are there. We have to be there. It says to customers in that region that we are serious and we are going to be here for the long term. Our message to our customers there is, “You are going to be a focal point. We want to work with you. We want to grow with you. We want to help you learn. We want to learn from you.”

You can say all those words, but until you spend the money and invest on the ground, there are some questions. They may ask, “Are you going to come? How consistent are you going to be as a partner?”

It’s unfortunate that we launched our U.S. Center for Dairy Excellence there at almost the same time as COVID-19 hit. Quite frankly, we have not been able to take full advantage of that center, nor have our members been able to do so. Many of our members are very interested in using its test kitchen, and the entire facility for that matter, to bring buyers to experience U.S. dairy products and ingredients.

It’s also given a reason for some of our members to consider opening an office in Singapore. A ripple effect will take place because we opened that office.

We will get through COVID-19. When we do, we are going to have a world-class facility in Singapore to service that region, for both existing customers and to grow more relationships with new customers. It’s an exciting opportunity for our member companies and the industry. It will pay dividends when we get past this hiccup called COVID-19.

What are some other growth markets for U.S. dairy?

Southeast Asia, short term, we clearly have a great opportunity if we get that shipping issue worked out. Indonesia has been an exciting market. The Philippines could be the next Indonesia; obviously, there is Vietnam, and possibly Taiwan.

Our member companies are seeing more and more interest in cheese and our dairy ingredients in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Long term, we are looking at other parts of Africa and Sub Saharan Africa. We are also seeing some other U.S. agriculture commodities doing some of the same things. That is long term.

It also depends on where the U.S. might look for trade agreements. Those would include agreements with the United Kingdom and Kenya. We also have to look to the Americas beyond Mexico, where we have had some good success in Central America and some of the Latin American countries.