July 12 2021 11:39 AM

USDEC’s new president and CEO pushing back on geographical indications, working toward greater sustainability, cultivating relationships, and developing a more diverse workforce will take U.S. dairy exports to the next level.

Krysta Harden begins her tenure with the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) at a time when U.S. dairy exports have been experiencing growth. For a number of years, every U.S. dairy cow produced milk one day each week for the export market. In March 2021, that number shifted to one out of every six days as 18% of all U.S. milk, in the form of dairy products, left our shores destined for international customers. Then, in April 2021, volume on milk solids grew over 25% when compared to the same time last year.

With this as a backdrop, Hoard’s Dairyman had a continued conversation with Krysta Harden after the June 2021 article, “She’s unabashed in support for U.S. dairy exports.” Harden shared her vision for U.S. dairy exports and how U.S. dairy must work together to move the entire dairy community forward.

When USDEC tracks metrics, China is such a large dairy customer that it isn’t grouped into the Southeast Asia category. What does the future hold for U.S. dairy in China?

When you have that kind of population and that kind of density of people, it’s up to us as an industry, with the help of our government to develop that market. We are seeing with the sales that there is an appetite for U.S. dairy products.

I always call whey the workhorse. Exports to China are really helping our export numbers as it rebuilds its hog herd after the African Swine Fever outbreak.

How do we develop that further?

The focus is on dairy as a part of a healthy diet. We also must work through any hiccups we have with trade agreements and retaliations. We want to put that behind us and look forward to the great potential and building trust.

Last year, there was a big meeting of Chinese dairy processors. Typically, our CEO, at the time, Secretary Vilsack, would have gone in person. However, last year the event was virtual. When Secretary Vilsack spoke, there were 79,000 participants. I spoke at the same event on sustainability, and 59,000 people tuned into that session. That is the potential we have and the interest we have for U.S. dairy. We just have to take advantage of it.

Let’s talk geographical indications

or GIs.

This is a fight we have to fight with and for our members.

We are working with a greater coalition. It’s not just U.S. dairy. There are a lot of other agricultural interests such as the wine and meat sectors that have some of the same issues at stake that we do.

It’s been important that we come together and be clear with our positions. We have to make sure the issues are fully understood and what could happen after decades and even centuries of the use of these names. The use of common food names involves conditioning and expectations from consumers. We have to make sure that we show the ramifications if geographical indications keep being deployed by the likes of the European Union.

I cannot completely predict what will happen, but I remain cautiously optimistic that we will have positive rulings on these decisions. We have had some indications that we will.

Volume versus value: How do we capture more value-added sales?

You have to look at both numbers. We have to look at volume, but we also have to look at value. For March, for instance, volume is up 24% and value is up 16%.

Keep in mind, USDEC does not sell one drop of milk or one ounce of product. We are selling reputation, value, and quality. We are building trust. As we do that, we are making sure that there is a place for U.S. dairy products.

We are listening to global customers and global consumers about what they want and how they want it. We also need to convince them that U.S. dairy is the best way to meet that demand or that need. Above all, as a dairy sector, we have to be relatable to consumers whether they are in northern Virginia or Vietnam.

The USDEC opens doors and creates relationships. Describe the importance of partnerships with U.S. dairy cooperatives and U.S. dairy processors in serving customers around the globe.

A diverse workforce helps the U.S. Dairy Export Council better relate to customers around the world. That diversity includes women and strong leadership from DMI board chair Marilyn Hershey (left). It is one of the many reasons USDEC President and CEO Krysta Harden (right) became intrigued with serving U.S. dairy farmers.
Secretary Vilsack opened a lot of doors with the many great relationships he developed over the years. Ultimately, USDEC helps lead the industry through those doors to expand those partnerships and relationships.

I believe our farmers, our cooperatives, and our processors understand that situation. We will help them with market access and all the regulations that it takes to get into a market. However, it’s up to them to deliver.

What inspired your interest in sustainability?

It started with growing up on a peanut farm in Georgia. The land and natural resources were critical to our success.

I grew up with a family who had great respect for natural resources and making sure we used those resources wisely, to treat them well and to leave them better than we found them. Wildlife habitat on our farm was always very important, as was taking care of the soil and the water. It was just instilled in me all the way through growing up on our family farm.

I made a very conscious decision to work for the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) early in my career. I wanted to make sure that farmers’ voices are at the table . . . having the voices of farmers, ranchers, and landowners heard is so critical. Decisions must be practical and based on common sense.

How important is sustainability to our customers and to our future?

First, we must recognize how far we have come in sustainability commitments as an industry. Dairy did the first life cycle analysis in the ag sector back in 2007. The dairy industry said then, “We are going to ask these tough questions ourselves. We are really going to find out the answers.”

Dairy continues to invest in good research and invest in new farming practices. You have to be growing or you are going backward. That applies to everyone.

It’s an evolution, not a revolution, that’s happening on farms. Decisions must make good business sense and improve profitability. Those principles must be front and center. I think our dairy farmers know that what they do is also good for the environment, our natural resources, and it’s good for business.

Our competitors also are doing this. So, if we want to be competitive in the marketplace, we have to do this. Our members know that, farmers know that, and our industry knows that.

Sustainability sets the U.S. dairy industry apart from its competitors. Part of that narrative included the Net Zero commitment by 2050. When the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy took a roll call vote of CEOs to adapt the sustainability goals for the industry, it literally gave me chills to see that kind of leadership and boldness in agriculture. That sets us apart.

We will be part of an environmental solution. That says a lot. Solution. That’s a big word. It’s not a “problem” but a “solution.” It’s the future. We don’t have a choice. I think our industry knows that and we are going to define that ourselves.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council has a diverse staff to better connect with customers around the globe. Why is diversity in the workforce so important?

This is an important area for me. Maybe it is because I am a female and was told time and time again early in my career that I couldn’t do something because of my gender. I have so many countless stories that are still pretty painful.

We must be a reflection of our ultimate customer. That involves being able to relate to consumers and have diversity of thought, mindset, cultures, experience, and talent. That makes our industry stronger.

The messenger also matters, not just the message. For instance, if I am talking to a group of young mothers about health and nutrition, they want to talk to somebody who might be able to relate to them. They want to hear from somebody who has had to make some of the same decision that they are facing in their lives.

Our USDEC staff is very diverse. We speak many languages. Our staff can talk all over the world and relate to our customers and our potential customers with authority and with a comfort level. There is a security in knowing, “I understand you.”

I will always look for diversity of thought, somebody who is going to challenge me in my decisions and have me look at a situation in a different way.

Hats off to the U.S. dairy industry and USDEC for putting an emphasis on developing a diverse staff so we can better relate to our customers, not just ourselves. I think our members and our dairy farmers understand and appreciate that. They value what that diversity brings to the table.