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Major Chinese cheese buyers visit Idaho

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

MOUNTAIN HOME – Representatives of major cheese buyers from China looking for additional supply options got a close-up look at the U.S. dairy industry during a reverse trade mission in May.

The multi-day tour, which was hosted by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, included visits to major cheese processing facilities in Idaho and California as well as one-on-one meetings with U.S. manufacturers.

It culminated with a visit to TLK Dairies in Mountain Home, where the trade team, which communicated through an interpreter, was impressed with how much milk each cow produces as well as how the animals are cared for.

“They are really impressed with the way we take care of our dairy cows and how we feed them a balanced, nutritious diet,” said Missha Hu, a USDEC representative in China. “It’s really important for them to know that.”

Hu said that before the visit, the trade delegation wasn’t sure the U.S. dairy industry was focused heavily on exports but that thinking changed as a result of the tour.

“Now they have actually switched their thinking,” she said. “Now they see that we are open to exports and willing to adjust our production to the needs of overseas customers.”

The trade group included major cheese buyers from China who are mainly purchasing product from Oceanic countries.

“The Chinese cheese market wants to find more supply alternatives from outside of Oceania,” Hu said. “And the U.S. is at the top of the list because we have the capacity to provide the products they need, and we are able to supply them with technical assistance and innovation.”

The Chinese cheese market is booming “and we wanted to provide an opportunity for these important cheese buyers in China to really get to know the great taste, quality, variety and versatility of U.S. cheese,” said Kristi Saitama, USDEC’s team leader for China. “That’s why we brought them here – to see, experience and enjoy first-hand the wonderful abundance of cheese we have in the United States and especially here in Idaho.”

One of the biggest benefits of bringing the representatives here, Saitama said, was so that they could “meet with industry face to face and see first-hand our commitment and interest in export markets, all the way from the farm to the processors.”

Cheese demand in China is booming, she said, as that nation’s middle class continues to grow. China imported about 13,000 metric tons of  cheese from the U.S. in 2017 but the U.S. market share was only about  12 percent.

Estimates are that cheese demand in China will grow by about 15-20 percent a year and the U.S. has a good opportunity to help meet that demand as well as capture a greater market share, Saitama said.

“The U.S. farming community is well suited to grow its milk capacity to meet their cheese demands in the future,” she said.

The U.S. dairy industry exports about 15 percent of its production on a total milk solids basis. The goal is to increase that to 20 percent “and China will be a very important part of that,” Saitama said.

During their tour of TLK Dairies, which milks 10,500 cows, trade delegation members started punching numbers into their calculators when TLK owner Terry Ketterling informed them the operation’s average cow produces 80 pounds of milk per day and 25,000 pounds per year.

After converting those numbers to metric, one delegation member said, through an interpreter, “The production of milk is quite high.”

Ketterling said the operation has increased its production per cow by one-fourth in the past six years and has achieved that increase by focusing on genetics and nutrition.

Idaho is the nation’s No. 4 milk-producing state and most of that milk is turned into cheese.

Idaho’s 490 dairy farms, which have a combined 580,000 milking cows, produce more than 14 billion pounds of milk per year and the state has 22 dairy processing plants that turn that milk into cheese and other products, such as butter, dry non-fat milk and whey.

The trade mission was a great opportunity to educate potential customers about Idaho’s dairy production capacity, said Cindy Miller, communications director for Dairy West, which partners with United Dairymen of Idaho and facilitated the TLK tour.

The trade delegation met with Idaho cheese processors before touring the dairy May 11.

“Any time we can invite potential customers to learn more about the dairy industry’s facilities, quality and farmers, that’s good for business,” Miller said.