The I.D.F.A.’s annual meeting served as a platform to introduce Mr. Vilsack as the new president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (U.S.D.E.C.), Arlington, Va
Mr. Vilsack encouraged industry executives to “collaborate, cooperate and communicate” because he believes speaking with a unified industry voice will have a significant impact on policymakers and bring positive outcomes for dairy.
“As I begin my new role, my focus will be on promoting exports, securing additional access, increasing demand and facilitating sales,” Mr. Vilsack told U.S.D.E.C. members in a memo the previous week. “I also want us to strengthen our relationships, within the broader dairy industry, in Washington and with our customers around the world.
“That’s why this job is exciting. There’s room for us to grow and expand. Growing the global market for U.S. dairy products is essential to the future of the dairy industry and America’s dairy farmers.”
Mr. Vilsack added that he sees more opportunities for U.S. dairy exports, in particular with Africa and Cuba.
“Cuba is just 90 miles away,” Mr. Vilsack said. “There’s tremendous demand there. We need to lift the embargo.”
The previous day, Michael Dykes, I.D.F.A.’s president and c.e.o., delivered a similar message regarding industry collaboration.
“We’ll be stronger working together,” he said.
He identified key areas where the dairy industry should come together in their efforts. These include building relationships with the new administration and new Congress, and pursuing common goals on the farm bill, the school lunch program, trade policy, the Nutrition Facts Panel and G.M.O. disclosure standards.
Mr. Dykes joined I.D.F.A. on Oct. 1. He told attendees the dairy industry cannot turn back the clock and do things the old way.
“We are in a new food culture,” he said.
That new food culture is not just the information-craving, food-skeptical consumer. It is also Mr. Vilsack’s replacement at U.S.D.A.
Mr. Vilsack explained to Dairy Forum attendees that it’s tradition to leave a letter for the incoming secretary, a position appointed — still to be confirmed — to former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.
“I did not write a letter,” Mr. Vilsack said. “It was a 24-page memo. I wanted to make sure he understood that U.S.D.A. is a department that is significantly less partisan. And that agriculture is a surplus economy that supports jobs.”
The two also had a half-hour phone conversation.
“We talked trade,” he said. “I emphasized the importance and significance of trade to agriculture.”
Mr. Vilsack said that it is important for farmers and food companies to talk about the positive impact of trade, including job retention and growth across the country.
“Despite the big challenges, I think our best days are ahead,” he said.