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Davis tells producers to see big picture

Group seeks to expand dairy industry

By Gary Gunderson

gunder@agrinews.com

ALBANY, Minn. -- Mitch Davis said as a dairy farmer and a member of a family-owned company that owns two cheese plants, he sees both sides of the milk protein concentrate controversy.

Lawmakers and dairy farmers need to see the big picture before attempting to limit MPC imports or to make the product illegal.

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It might be better to allow imports and develop a strategy that allows the United States to become the world's MPC supplier, Davis said. If MPC is eliminated, dairy farmers could be hurt because cheese plants may close and new uses for dairy products abandoned.

"I'm the first to say we shouldn't use imported milk whenever possible," Davis said. "I don't think MPC is necessarily bad for midwestern farmers. The alternative could be that plants close."

Davis said limiting MPC imports may result in retaliation from other countries and hurt U.S. exports.

Bashing milk

He added claims that MPC adulterates or reduces food quality are unproven. MPC is a dairy product, he said, and to say it's bad might reduce consumer confidence and allow animal rights activists and vegetarians to bash milk.

"It's tacky to bad-mouth the other guy," Davis said. "It's not justified. If consumers see that MPC is bad, what will they do? Eat an orange."

Davis talked to the Stearns County Dairy Advisory Committee, a group of dairy farmers, Extension educators and county commissioners who meet four times annually to plan how to maintain and grow the dairy industry.

Davis asked the committee to lobby lawmakers and Gov. Jesse Ventura to help retain the dairy industry. Davis is concerned that dairy production could shift to other states through benign neglect, which would hurt all farmers. Most of the MPC used in the United States is imported, so Davis understands why farmers are concerned it may be displacing domestic milk. But his family owns Davisco Foods International, which operates cheese plants in Le Sueur and Jerome, Idaho, with a new plant on the way in Lake Norden, S.D.

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Davis' main job is managing the family's two 500-cow dairy farms, but he also provides technical support for Davisco's cheese plants. In the company's plants, MPC is used to reduce lactose content, he said.

MPC also helps some Minnesota cheese plants make up for a milk shortage, Davis said. The Le Sueur plant obtains only about 45 percent of its milk from area farmers, with the rest coming from neighboring states and northern Minnesota.

MPC is widley used to produce processed cheese and non-traditional dairy products, such as sports drinks, Davis said. Without MPC, plants making processed cheese could close due to low profitability. And new alternative products using dairy products might not exist.

Davis said companies should not be discouraged from using MPC.

MPC's status

"I'm sick of people bad-mouthing Kraft" for using MPC, Davis said. "Thank God for their ingenuity. They're the biggest marketers of cheese in the U.S. If Kraft thinks they can do better using MPC, maybe we should figure out how to supply MPC to them."

Most MPC is imported because it's not highly profitable to make, Davis said. It's typically produced in New Zealand and Ireland, places with a lot of cows and few people. MPC is manufactured after demand for cheese and other products has been met. But MPC's lowly status might change if more uses for it are found, especially in new foods and products that haven't used dairy before, Davis said.

Davis said Davisco is building its new cheese plant in South Dakota because that state is more active in promoting new dairies, partly because leadership there understand agriculture's importance. He expressed frustration with the Ventura administration's focus on non-ag business development, especially since dairy is already established here.

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Minnesota's decline in dairy may be turning a corner, said Rose Arnold, Stearns County commissioner. The main objections to farm expansion has been concerns about odor and manure handling, but several new operations have proven that large farms can be good neighbors.

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