Dairy Academy of Excellence: Understanding Milk’s Roadmap

Dairy Academy of Excellence

Don Dvorak, dairy/frozen manager for Woodbury Cub Foods in Minneapolis, was one of 31 people who recently attended the Midwest Dairy Academy for Retail Excellence coordinated by Midwest Dairy Association.

The day included workshops presented by dairy farmers and industry professionals in the morning and a bus ride to tour Becker Dairy in the afternoon. Brothers Joe and Vern Becker and their families own and operate Becker Dairy, a 1,000-cow dairy near Eden Valley, Minn.

The Beckers led the group through their family dairy farm, walking all the way through each ­aspect of the farm. They emphasized the importance of cow comfort in the free-stall barn, where cows can move around, eat and drink, or lay in stalls at any time; the quality of the cows’ feed, which is a mixture of homegrown feed that is balanced for the proper nutrients by the farm’s ­nutritionist; and the manure from the dairy that is used as natural fertilizer. Participants got to witness firsthand how a modern dairy farm functions.

“The rewards go beyond measurement. We are proud to produce food for the world,” said Joe Becker.

The Becker family was also proud to showcase their farm to the Dairy Academy.

“What an eye-opening experience this had to be for the participants,” said Becker.

Many participants visited with Becker throughout the day, and several commented that they didn’t realize how safe their food supply really is. As a dairy farmer, Becker feels this is a win-win situation for both the producer and the retailers.

“They also were impressed with the day-to-day quality care our animals receive,” Becker said. “Retailers are better prepared to answer questions and promote dairy to the consumers that come through their stores.”

Launched as a pilot program three years ago, the Dairy Academy for Retail Excellence is a one-of-a-kind program that takes stores mangers, dairy managers and dietitians out of the store and puts them on the farm and in the dairy plant.

Gregg Fogleman, marketing manager for Midwest Dairy Association, is the lead person on this program. Fogleman wholeheartedly believes in it, as it helps dispel several common misconceptions for partners managing dairy departments in grocery stores. The association provides them with fact- and science-based information.

“Dairy managers are the first and sometimes only interaction consumers have when purchasing dairy products,” said Fogleman. “Helping these managers understand the entire dairy product cycle—from the farm, to the processing facilities, to their retail stores—provides them confidence about the strict quality controls that ensure safe, high quality milk and dairy products for their ­customers. The look of the family farm and technologies have changed over the years, but they witness firsthand that dairy farmers’ values of caring for their land and animals is foundational to their business. Providing them with this information, which they can then share with their customers, helps accurately answer questions and ultimately sells more dairy products.”

During a Dairy Academy workshop, grocery store personnel visit a dairy farm and a dairy ­processing plant, and hear from experts such as food scientists, dairy scientists and dairy producers over lunch. Each participant takes a pre-test and post-test to determine the Academy’s impact on their knowledge and attitudes.

“Teaching those involved in the retail arena about dairy was the main goal for the day,” said Cindy Sorensen, VP of strategic information and relationship management for Midwest Dairy. “They are the first line of communication with the consumer, so it’s important for us that they really understand the road milk takes from farm to table.”

The one-day workshop training objectives include:

  • Understanding the sustainability practices used by dairy farmers in the areas of animal care, environmental stewardship and quality assurance to maintain and improve local ecosystems.
  • Learning the differences and similarities of available dairy products and what the science says about the wholesomeness and safety of those products.
  • Being able to identify the quality control measures required on the farm and during processing to assure milk safety and nutrition.
  • Having a better understanding of Midwest Dairy Association capabilities and how to ­effectively use it as a resource.
  • Learning best practices to increase dairy sales in their own departments.

Retailers also were given information and ideas for dairy case management, including proper temperature control, rotation of products and merchandising ideas.

Coming back from this recent Dairy Academy experience, Dvorak gave high reviews.

“I would recommend this program to any dairy manager,” Dvorak said. “This one-day workshop was packed with valuable information that we can use in our daily lives, at work and to better help our customers by being more informed about our product and the process it goes through.”

Sorensen reiterates the significance of this program, underlining its need.

“Dairy is a great opportunity for retailers because it accounts for 20 percent of the store profits and there are a lot of health and wellness products coming in,” she said. “With the growing interest from consumers for how their food is produced, retailers can do a lot of good if armed with the right information.”

Midwest Dairy approaches various retailers who then determine and encourage participation by targeted candidates. To determine the level of knowledge coming into the Dairy Academy, ­participants take an online pre-test. Following the workshop, participants take an online post-test to assess dairy knowledge gained. Finally, applicants who receive a score of 80 percent or better on their post-test scores and complete two in-store retail activation activities within six weeks receive a credential from the Dairy Academy for Retail Excellence.

Between the pre-test and post-test, scores on fact-based questions in the Dairy Academy exam have improved 12.3 points, or nearly 60 percent, on average, among all participants.

A short time ago, Tom Schaefer, manager for Supervalu University, gave his endorsement for the Dairy Academy on Linkedin: “This is a great event. The dairy merchandising information is great and the dairy farm trip is excellent. It gives you a great perspective and helps you understand your dairy department much better.”

The one-day mobile training session with learning modules include participation from a team of experts from Midwest Dairy Scientific Advisory Council. Topics include: quality assurance and products with Dr. Lloyd Metzger, South Dakota State University; sustainability, Dr. Leo Timms, Iowa State University; on-farm practices, Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois; farm practices on milk, Dr. Ron Kensinger, Oklahoma State University; and animal well-being, Dr. John Fetrow, University of Minnesota.

Midwest Dairy strongly believes in the power of the program and plans to continue offering it in the future. Chuck Cruikshank, SVP of industry relations for Midwest Dairy, believes its power stems from retailers who are not only in direct conversation with the consumers, but who also have the ability to deliver the facts to them.

“The Dairy Academy is vital to Midwest Dairy because we have so many large retailers based in our ­geographic area, and we have the opportunity to make a difference to our farmers by working through these retailers and the market reach and impact they have,” Cruikshank said.

Paul Fritsche, one of the dairy farmers who presented at the workshop, agrees.

“The retail person is honestly just like the average consumer, three-to-four generations removed from agriculture. Educating them on the quality standards, requirements and responsibility it takes to produce milk is much needed,” said Fritsche, who milks 30 cows on his family dairy farm near New Ulm, Minn.

He enjoyed the interaction between producers and retailers, which raised a lot of good questions.

“Probably the biggest surprise for them was the strict quality controls in place for dairy—from the farm to the processing plant, to ensure a wholesome, great product in their dairy case,” Fritsche said.

The workshop also was beneficial to Rick Ubel, store director for Festival Foods, who ­attended the Dairy Academy in 2011. He recommends the Dairy Academy and says his experience was eye opening.

“At the farm I was thrown back by how far the dairy business has come,” Ubel said. “Everything from the new technology, cleanliness of the farm and how well the cows are treated, I can venture to say most consumers of dairy products have no idea how far this business has come. I was also very impressed how fast the product gets to ­market. The farm was phenomenal.”

Midwest Dairy Association represents more than 9,500 dairy farm families to 38 million consumers across 10 Midwest states. It works on behalf of dairy farmers to increase dairy sales, foster innovation and inspire consumer confidence in dairy products and practices.

—Submitted by the

Midwest Dairy Association



About The Author

A nine-year employee of The Shelby Report who writes for and about food. In previous lives, she worked at a police department in Texas and an amusement park in Arkansas. She also was a newspaper publisher for more than a decade. Not sure which of those qualified her for this job.