Dairy and beef farmers adapt to changing demand

The USDA says there’s many factors that go into the drop in milk consumption — including the rise of plant-based alternatives.
Published: Apr. 26, 2023 at 6:55 PM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - “Sometimes we feel like we’ve kind of lost an entire generation of milk drinkers,” Jordan Hansen of Hansen’s Dairy, said.

It’s a problem many dairy farmers face — demand for milk drying up.

“Somehow milk has gotten to be somewhat of a bad guy,” Hansen said.

Hansen runs marketing for Hansen’s Dairy in Hudson. She says the farm has been in the family for more than 150 years — and became a creamery in 2004.

She says she’s seen the drop first-hand.

“We’ve seen at least a 50% drop in the amount of milk that people are buying from us at our stores, you know, basically since we started in 2004,” Hansen said.

But she says they’ve seen more demand for cheese and ice cream, and have started making more of those. Hansen says they’ve recently introduced 2% milk to their lineup in hopes of reaching a new group of consumers.

The USDA says there’s many factors that go into the drop in milk consumption — including the rise of plant-based alternatives. It’s competition that has caused some lawmakers to re-introduce the Dairy Pride Act, a bill that would stop plant-based alternatives from calling their products “milk” or “cheese.” But in February, the FDA said it would allow those companies to keep using those terms.

“The lobbyists and the concerns and the competition is like a little bit of this like culture war issue too over how what we eat says something about who we are politically,” Megan Goldberg, professor of American politics at Cornell College, said.

Goldberg doesn’t think the legislation will impact competition between the dairy industry and companies producing plant-based alternatives. She thinks people choosing alternatives won’t be persuaded by different labels.

Hannah Johnston, a barista at Roaster’s Coffeehouse in Cedar Rapids, says she stopped eating dairy for health reasons.

“I’ve been like lactose intolerant my whole life,” Johnston said.

She says she’s seen an even split of people ordering milk and plant-based alternatives like soy and oat milk.

Changing consumer preferences are also affecting beef. A 2020 Gallup poll shows 23% of US adults claim they have reduced how much meat they consume.

Jamie Reichert of Iowa Farm Fresh Meats in West Branch has noticed that trend.

“I do hear about it a lot like farmers markets that people think that eating beef is irresponsible and that it’s taking up too many inputs basically like environmentally mostly because of the grain production,” Reichert said. “But we don’t have that going on here, like we don’t even spray pastures.”

Sustainability is also important to John McGrath, the general manager of Amana Farms Beef. But he’s seen demand go up as a result of slow growth over the years.

“Due to the production constraints of the cattle business with a cow only having one calf every year, it’s very slow to to expand and contract,” McGrath said.

McGrath says he’s optimistic overall beef consumption will increase over the next few years.

University of Iowa economics professor Silvia Secchi is less optimistic, saying declining demand for beef and dairy will likely continue, but it could be an opportunity for Iowa farmers.

“I think there’s going to be an opportunity in the Midwest to relocate back some of that daily production just because we have more water and we have the landmass,” Secchi said.

Hansen says she will continue to try to reach younger generations in the hopes that people circle back to drinking milk.

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