USA Today Article - Earth Day for a dairy farmer: Thinking decades down the line

Published: April 22, 2019

This story originally appeared in USA Today on April 22 - May 6, 2019 

What U.S. dairy farmers of today are doing to preserve our environment

Austin Allred Family
2018 U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award winner Austin Allred, wife Camille and their children. Allred was honored for his commitment to transforming his farm into a zero-waste business. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)

I’ve had the honor of working with dairy farmers for years, and a lot of what you think about them is true. They’re modest. They’re connected to the earth. And they work incredibly hard. Every day, they’re up before dawn, working 12 and 14-hour days, whether it’s 90 degrees out or 50 degrees below zero.

They choose this hard work because they believe in the importance of providing nutritious, great-tasting food, like the milk in your child’s glass or the slice of cheese on her favorite sandwich.

What you might not know is that dairy farmers are working just as hard to ensure our children inherit a healthy planet. They know it’s the right thing to do. And when 95% of dairy farms are family-owned, they do it to ensure the land is there for their children. 

But the issues facing our planet require more than just individual action, which is why the U.S. dairy community has made sustainability an industry-wide priority. Years’ worth of investments, research — and, yes, hard work — have allowed us to address critical environmental issues, like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Tara Vander Dussen Family
Dairy farmer and environmental scientist Tara Vander Dussen with her family on their farm, Rajen Dairy. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)

Ten years ago, the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — created by dairy farmers to identify best practices and unite around common goals — established a voluntary yet aggressive goal for the industry. The U.S. dairy community would reduce greenhouse gas emissions intensity 25% by 2020. 

Today, we are on track to meet that goal. 

In making the investments necessary to meet the goal set, U.S. dairy farmers have become global leaders in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report earlier this year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector, North American dairy farmers are the only ones who have reduced both total GHG emissions and intensity over the last decade.


Dairy farmer and nutritionist Rosemarie Burgos-Zimbelman, who has dedicated her life to dairy nutrition. (Photo: Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy)

It’s not just greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. dairy farmers work more closely with animals than just about anyone, and they know that while they are taking care of the cows, the cows are taking care of them. That’s why they created the National Dairy FARM (Farmers Assuring Responsible Management) Program, the first internationally-certified animal welfare program in the world.

The U.S. dairy community’s commitment to sustainability isn’t new. It has been going on for generations. Indeed, producing milk now uses fewer natural resources than it ever has before. Over the course of the lifetime of today’s average dairy farmer, producing a gallon of milk now requires 65% less water, 90% less land and 63% less carbon emissions. 

While progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done. That’s why the U.S. dairy community and dairy farmers are committed to identifying new solutions, technologies and partnerships that will continue to advance our commitment to sustainability.  

So why do America’s dairy farmers work so hard to farm more sustainably? Why spend countless hours looking for innovative ways to be more efficient when they’ve already put in a 14-hour day?

It’s not because anyone told them to, or because regulation forced them to. It’s because so many of them are farming land their families have been farming for generations. They know they’re just the latest people entrusted as stewards of the earth. Farmers came before them, and farmers will come after them. Sure, they have more information than any of their predecessors did, and they are now tackling challenges, from climate change to global trade, that their forefathers could scarcely dream of. But the responsibility of today’s dairy farmer — leaving the planet better than they found it — is no different. 

This Earth Day, and every day, America’s dairy farmers are living up to that responsibility. May they never tire.

Vilsack is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the current president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.