The COVID-19 pandemic threw a curve ball at Dairy Management Inc.’s 2020 plan to promote the industry though the Dairy Checkoff program, but DMI repositioned itself and hit the ball out of the park.
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Jersey cows look up from their feed on the Ballard Dairy in Gooding, Idaho. The Dairy Checkoff pivoted during the pandemic and maintained demand for dairy products. Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press File

“The 2020 plan wasn’t sufficient for the circumstances we had. We had to redirect and move milk in other ways,” Marilyn Hershey, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer and DMI chairman, said during a phone conference with the media.

The program in place for 2020 was shifted and redirected, and partnerships and relationships were critical. That included partnerships with Feeding America, foodservice, state, regional and national affiliates and farmers, she said.

Things happened rapidly with COVID, and DMI’s promotion plan in 2020 and in 2021 reflects that, she said.

Through September, combined domestic sales and exports were up 1.2% for about 2.7 million pounds of milk equivalent, DMI CEO Tom Gallagher said.

“I think people were never going to guess (in March) we’d be at that level,” he said.

Through September, domestic sales were only down 1%, and exports were up 15%, he said.

“We pivoted on a dime in both those areas, and the industry did an excellent job,” he said.

On the domestic side, everyone’s early expectation was that sales would be down much more, he said.

“I think we will finish the year in positive territory domestically if cheese keeps going the way it’s been going,” he said.

Retail sales did well but were nowhere near enough to offset the loss at restaurants. DMI’s efforts in four areas are the reason domestic sales are about flat and moving to positive, he said.

First were the pizza promotions with Papa John’s and Domino’s, he said.

“Pizza has done excellent because of contactless delivery. Where did that come from? That came from us testing that in the early days of COVID with Domino’s in Japan. We helped to fund that and without contactless delivery being tested, proved and worked through, we wouldn’t be where we are,” he said.

The second effort was continuing to press foodservice to introduce new products, he said.

“All of this is aimed at overcoming what we lost to restaurants,” he said.

The third area was GENYOUth’s work in schools. It’s collected $17 million so far this year from non-dairy sources to keep school feeding programs going locally, which means great things for students and continued sales for dairy farmers, he said.

“So that channel didn’t go as low as it otherwise could have,” he said.

GENYOUth is a partnership between the National Dairy Council and the National Football League and was created by the Dairy Checkoff.

The fourth area was the work by DMI’s state, regional and national staff to help divert food to food banks, he said.

DMI also worked at getting the dairy sustainability message to Generation Z people using popular gamers like MrBeast to explain farming and sustainability in the video game Minecraft, he said.

The videos had 12 million views, and the MrBeast video was the No. 1 trending video on YouTube for gaming for 24 hours and had 75 million followers, he said.

Dairy products and, in particular, grass-fed products are performing strongly post-covid in overseas markets.

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