California's top agricultural official urged the state's dairy producers Thursday to put the past year's agony behind them and find ways to reinvent their industry.
"You've built a legendary industry, but you've got to look at things differently now,” A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told 275 dairy producers and industry representatives at Western United Dairymen's annual convention in Modesto, Calif.
"The dairy industry in this state is legendary in how it's perceived, in how it became a powerhouse,” he said. "But the biggest challenge ahead is whether you're going to allow things to move along as in the past.
"You have to decide what business you're in: the supply management business or the demand business,” added Kawamura, a third-generation produce grower from Southern California who was appointed CDFA Secretary in 2003.
Saying "it's hard to see our No. 1 agricultural industry suffering,” Kawamura challenged California's dairy producers to find new demand, build broader business partnerships and invest in green technology.
Creating demand is where the industry must get resourceful, he said. The state's dairy business must determine who its consumers are and how to effectively market its products to them. One way to improve demand might be bolstering support of milk in school athletic programs, especially since efforts are underway to ban non-dairy sports drinks in schools, he said.
While touting the opportunities that methane digesters present for renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Kawamura also apologized for the difficulties, or "friction costs,” that have blocked digester development.
"The state has been horrible in punishing early adapters of digesters,” he said. "We're trying hard to create ways to facilitate between the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and the air and water boards, to refocus, to encourage investment in the new systems and green technology that give you a better chance to stay in business.”
Kawamura also said the result of today's "luxury of abundance,” with so much food on the table, is the growing desire for people to want to cement their opinions in legislation.
"There are a lot of opinions driving our food system these days,” said Kawamura. "Agriculture is being defined by people outside of agriculture.”
It's troubling that 98% of people don't understand agricultural practices, animal welfare or food safety, he said.
Kawamura urged the industry "to find more stakeholders who'll show up at City Council meetings to fight for you.”
California is the nation's top agricultural state, with milk leading the state's farm commodities. A recent study released by the California Milk Advisory Board showed the California dairy industry generated $63 billion in economic impact in 2008 and created 443,574 jobs, accounting for approximately 3% of the jobs in the state.
Catherine Merlo is Western editor for Dairy Today. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.