Finding More Markets for Wisconsin Dairy Products

With the U.S. saturated with milk and Wisconsin dairy farmers desperately seeking buyers, a new state-led dairy trade mission to Mexico announced Thursday comes at a critical time.

Ben Brancel, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, will lead a delegation of state officials and representatives from nine dairy and agricultural companies to Aguascalientes, Mexico, May 4-7 where they will attend Expo Leche, Mexico’s largest annual dairy industry conference. State officials say the goal is to strengthen Wisconsin’s relations with its existing dairy customers but also to find new opportunities for the state’s dairy businesses.

Brancel said the trade mission to Mexico was in planning long before the recent situation that was created when Grassland Dairy Products Inc. of Greenwood informed several dozen Wisconsin dairy farms it no longer would accept milk from them after May 1. Grassland lost its Canadian customers, who each day purchased more than 1 million pounds of ultra-filtered milk, a product with elevated protein content that’s typically used in cheese production, so Grassland had to reduce its milk intake.

With U.S.-Mexico relations strained from recent actions by the Trump administration over construction of a border wall and a pledge to reopen negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Brancel wants Mexico to know Wisconsin values its trade partnership. About $3 billion in Wisconsin exports went to Mexico in 2016, making it the state’s second-largest trading partner behind Canada.

“But we also are trying to identify new distributorships so we can market (Wisconsin dairy) products,” he said. A significant player and potential major customer could be the Domino’s Pizza operation in Mexico, Brancel said.

“We want to encourage them to use Wisconsin cheese on their pizza,” Brancel said. “Another aspect of this trip is to make sure our customers in Mexico are getting what they need, payments are coming to (Wisconsin) and products from Wisconsin are arriving in good quality with no problems.”

Brancel also has meetings scheduled with Mexico’s minister of agriculture and other government officials to discuss potential opportunities for Wisconsin dairy products. Wisconsin sends a lot of finished products to Mexico, including cheese, but there could be opportunities for whey protein and other milk products as well as ingredients used in food production, he said.

Mexico purchased about $247 million in dairy products from Wisconsin last year, according to state estimates.

 Mark Stephenson, director of dairy policy analysis at UW-Madison, believes Mexico could purchase more dairy products despite a strong U.S. dollar.

“One of the reasons we have to focus on Mexico is that they are one of our biggest trading partners,” Stephenson said. He said other dairy producing nations, including New Zealand, also may see opportunity in Mexico, but the U.S. has the advantage of proximity.

“The strong dollar, I’d categorize that more as headwinds and shouldn’t impact sales too much, but we may have to discount prices to make our products more competitive on the global market,” Stephenson said.