Dairy Processors’ Advocacy Yields Results

Rebekah Sweeney Senior Director, Programs & Policy,
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association

March 3, 2024

There are more than 12,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, DC, outnumbering members of Congress by approximately 22:1. In Wisconsin, more than 700 lobbyists roam the halls of our State Capitol in Madison. They have meaningful connections, valuable experience, and some have deep pockets, but I’d argue few can make an argument more compelling than you.

Just a few weeks ago, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) held its annual Advocacy Day, with more than 60 dairy processors sending staff leaders to share their interests, from immigration reform to increased dairy hauling capacity. Their voices were heard – by Congressman Derrick Van Orden; members of the Evers administration cabinet, including high-ranking representatives from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Department of Natural Resources, and Department of Transportation; and state lawmakers who’ve championed our industry’s priorities – and a few who have not.

Events like this one, paired with personal meetings throughout the year, have helped WCMA members develop open lines of communication with elected officials, and earn positive results. That’s especially clear, as we take stock of our “wins” as Wisconsin’s 2023-24 legislative cycle draws to a close.

As a historic investment, Wisconsin lawmakers directed $150 million to an agricultural roads improvement program, specifically targeting dollars for routes that are off-limits for heavier milk trucks during the spring thaw season, which taxes the infrastructure. Lawmakers in America’s Dairyland have also just given the green light to a bill that will allow liquid dairy hauling at 98,000 pounds over six axles, a rare, special dispensation for our industry that offers labor relief, cost savings, and sustainability benefits. Special kudos go to Agropur, BelGioioso Cheese, Klondike Cheese, Milk Specialties Global, and Novonesis for their effective advocacy on transportation needs.

In 2023, cheese makers in Wisconsin also secured nearly $8 million per year in support for the Dairy Innovation Hub, supporting industry research and development at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Madison, Platteville, and River Falls. Since its launch in 2019, the Hub has funded more than 200 impactful projects and 17 critical faculty positions.

WCMA member testimony helped to build an enhanced state dairy processor grant program, now offering $1 million via the biennial budget for facility improvements, trainings, and consulting service. State lawmakers also agreed this cycle to extend $1 million per year for agricultural export efforts, with half of all funds dedicated to dairy.

Late in the session, dozens of dairy processors picked up the phone, sent emails, or engaged in meetings, urging lawmakers to press pause on a dangerous proposal to legalize the retail sale of raw milk. I witnessed them illustrate their genuine concern for public health with story after story of illness outbreaks triggered by raw milk consumption. And, do you know what? The bill ended up with few co-sponsors, and no public hearing.

Every legislative success we have seen in this session came to be because dairy business leaders made time to advocate – and not out of self-interest, but in the interest of the industry’s greater good. We need their work to continue, and to inspire others, because there is much to be done.

While Wisconsin lawmakers prepare to recess this month, negotiations continue in Washington, DC on policy packages significant to American dairy operations, including federal funding for nutrition programs and the now long-overdue Farm Bill. With increasing dysfunction and decreasing productivity out of the nation’s Capitol, advocacy is essential to securing support for the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative, the reauthorization and expansion of Healthy Fluid Milk Incentives Projects, for permanent adoption of the Dairy Forward Pricing Program, and more.

As we are doing at the state level, in the year ahead we must also work to build bridges with federal regulators. It is easy to complain amongst ourselves about agency officials’ action or inaction, but far more productive to communicate directly. Dairy processors and American consumers need the Food and Drug Administration to enforce its standards defining dairy products as being made from the milk of dairy animals, and we must make FDA leaders hear our case, over and over, until that happens.

A lobbyist – or trade association – certainly plays a part in advocacy campaigns, but I would suggest it is a supporting role. We are here to help industry find common ground, organize outreach efforts, and, most importantly, amplify voices like yours. As you share your concerns and ideas with lawmakers, we will see more successes realized.


Rebekah Sweeney

Rebekah Sweeney serves as Senior Director, Programs & Policy for the
Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

She can be reached at rsweeney@wischeesemakers.org or by phone at 608-286-1001

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