“We sort of stole one meeting. We said, ‘we want to look at stores in Torreón.’ So they took us out, and it just blew me away” — Evan Hillan, a fourth-generation Wisconsin farmer, Land O’Lakes elected leader and representative on the National Dairy Board, describes a meeting with dairy industry counterparts in Mexico, where their conversation veered into action.
Every year, the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) sponsors board members’ visits to an international market site to discover how checkoff dollars are spent to promote dairy abroad. This year, the meeting was hosted by a Mexican team in Torreón, Mexico, a city 350 miles south of the southwest Texas border and neighbor to one of Mexico’s largest dairy companies, Grupo Lala.
Hillan is in the second year of his board term now, but he wasn’t always involved in industry advocacy: “When I first began, I didn’t know a lot about the checkoff program. Then, when I was asked about joining, I thought it was a great opportunity to learn more. It’s really opened my eyes to what we’ve been doing to help promote dairy products domestically as well as internationally.”
Along with USDEC representatives, Evan and four other members of the National Dairy Board met with their counterparts in Mexico, including the Mexican national livestock organization, Confederación Nacional de Organizaciones Ganaderas, and chamber of milk manufacturers, Cámara Nacional de Industriales de la Leche.
The groups’ meeting was timely, given the pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement, currently under review by U.S. lawmakers, which will update trade laws in North American countries, including those affecting dairy.
According to Hillan, “We’re both in the same state of ‘Is this going to pass? Isn’t it going to pass?’ So we talked about it — about the trade between our countries and how we will have to work with each other to prepare and adapt to current and future laws to increase dairy availability in Mexico.”
The meeting also happened at an opportune time and place because Mexico is currently the United States’ No. 1 export market. In fact, export volume to Mexico has been on the rise for nine years straight. Hillan and the other board members wanted to see how the Mexican industry was moving milk off the shelves and understand how to further strengthen the sales opportunity.
Milk and Innovation in Mexico
The group’s flight touched down on October 20. Following introductions and meetings all day Monday, the group toured farms and a plant on Tuesday, then wrapped the day touring stores in Torreón.
Evan describes what stood out most to him: “They took us to a Walmart and an H-E-B. It blew me away that at Walmart they had an entire aisle of just fluid milk, and another aisle of drinkable yogurt and other yogurt, and another aisle of U.S. cheese — and that was not including all of the other cheeses that were there.”
Large shelf space dedicated to milk signified great opportunity to Hillan. “We’re constantly reading and hearing about how the fluid market is on the decline. It doesn’t sound good. But there, they’ve been innovating, they’ve been trying different things. We came to partner and find out how to help increase fluid sales.”
Some innovative products on the shelves included ultra-filtered milk and a massive section dedicated to drinkable yogurt in many flavors.
After the tour, the group discussed the differences in their market. For example, in Mexico, fresh cheese moves more — as opposed to aged, hard cheese in the States.
“When we started selling aged cheddar,” Hillan says, “it was too strong of a taste. It’s not part of the cuisine as much as fresh cheeses are.” Part of his trip was spent understanding how to adapt products for different dietary norms and tastes in order to sell in other countries.
But it’s not all differences. U.S. and Mexican markets share a lot in common. For instance, the day before Hillan’s arrival in Mexico, a popular Mexican actor and comedian had spoken out publicly against dairy. The group from the U.S. was able to share with Mexican counterparts the strategies American dairy uses to educate consumers. One particular area of interest was around alleviating concerns about animal welfare practices. The U.S. group shared information about the National Milk Producers Federation’s National Dairy FARM program, which provides consistency and best practices in responsible animal care and quality assurance across the dairy industry.
Sustainability, too, is just as pertinent a topic for Mexican and U.S. dairy industries. From water management to greenhouse emissions, Hillan says, “We can use our tools and our research to help each other.”
Continued Partnership on the Horizon
Hillan’s one word for describing the trip overall? Partnership.
“Personally, the ‘wow moment’ was learning more about our Mexican counterparts. Especially in this day and age, it’s important to remember that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Hillan encourages others to stay informed about trade policy and to get involved in industry advocacy. He says, “Many legislators may be so removed from the farm that they’re missing basic knowledge. They need to talk to farmers face-to-face.”
Hillan also wants to spread the word about the wins in dairy. While media may focus on shortcomings, innovative new products and international partnerships prove promising. Currently, 90% of Mexico’s dairy imports come from the U.S. In the future, Hillan is hopeful that Southeast Asia — where USDEC plans to open an innovation center — will become another booming market.“Trade is always a two-way street,” Hillan reminds. “If we want our products elsewhere, we need a happy consumer there.” Partnership, advocacy and innovation help us get there.