IOWA: How Exports to Mexico Create Jobs in the Midwest

Iowa’s Swiss Valley Farms exports not only to Mexico, but 22 other countries, keeping five plants in three states humming.

In a year in which the terms of U.S. trade with other nations are being debated, scrutinized and in some cases, renegotiated, we have a positive story to tell the American public, no matter what your politics may be.

U.S. dairy exports account for more than $5 billion in annual sales, an estimated $15 billion in U.S. economic impact and 100,000 American jobs.

You don’t have to work in the dairy industry to know that is good news. When dairy exports bring jobs and dollars into local and state economies they create economic impact that goes far beyond the farm and cheese factory.

As swelling middle-class populations exert growing economic influence in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and our №1 customer to the south, Mexico, demand for high-protein dairy products will continue to grow.

In fact, the demand is projected to far exceed the volume of dairy products many of these countries can create themselves.

That’s where our exports come in, presenting a long-range growth opportunity for the U.S. dairy industry and the U.S. economy, if we are up for the challenge. I think we are.

When I served as governor of Iowa and eventually secretary of the U.S. Agriculture Department, I saw the growing potential for sending U.S. dairy products beyond our borders. Since becoming CEO and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council in February, I have a fresher and more focused perspective.

I say this with utmost confidence: U.S. dairy has the capacity, know-how, technology, food safety practices and desire to meet the needs of global demand, boosting the U.S. economy in the process.

Today, one out of seven gallons of milk leaving American farms ends up in dairy products sold overseas. We have set a goal to increase that to one out of five gallons within a three-to-five-year window. I know we can do it, overcoming aggressive global competition abroad and a variety of challenges at home, including the uncertainty of our country’s evolving trade policy.

How do dairy exports create jobs? Let me tell you a story about a fellow Iowan.

Chris Hoeger made his first export expedition in 2008, venturing from Davenport, Iowa, to Mexico City. Armed with cheese samples, he wondered if he was chasing fool’s gold.

Chris Hoeger in front of one of his company’s plants, employing hundreds of people.

Could a farmer-owned dairy company far from shipping ports succeed against bigger players on foreign soil? Hoeger’s first meeting was with a gruff and burly Mexican food buyer in an old jail building that had been converted into an office.

Hoeger offered samples of Swiss Valley gouda and cream cheese.

The buyer did not hold back expressing his disdain. In fact, the response was so negative, Hoeger won’t share the details.

The point is this: Hoeger could have given up. He didn’t. He returned to Iowa to make cheese more palatable to Mexicans’ palate that precisely met the specifications of Mexican cheese brokers, buyers and companies.

Today, Swiss Valley Farms, a subsidiary of Prairie Farms Dairy, exports not only to Mexico, but 22 other countries. Those exports help keep five plants in three states humming, employing hundreds of people directly and others indirectly.

Tom Vilsack is president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. He is a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and a governor of Iowa.