DMI exec talks sustainability strategy after six months on the job

By Beth Newhart contact

- Last updated on GMT

“It’s impressive to see how this industry comes together. They don’t point fingers at each other, they work together." Pic: Getty/AlbertPego
“It’s impressive to see how this industry comes together. They don’t point fingers at each other, they work together." Pic: Getty/AlbertPego

Related tags: Dairy Farm, Dairy farmers, Dairy farming, Sustainability, Environmental impact

After years of working under former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden officially joined Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) in April of 2019. Her role as executive VP of global environmental strategy has put her focus on telling the sustainability stories of US dairy farmers.

Before DMI, Harden had not worked directly in dairy, though she grew up in agriculture as the daughter of peanut farmers in Georgia. She said she’s energized about the dairy industry and excited to learn from dairy farmers.

​[I’m] learning at their level, and what they’re up against, with the economy and environment. By trying to maneuver through some difficult situations, they’re the most resilient group of people I believe there ever was,”​ Harden said in a press call with DMI last week.

“They are strong minded, strong willed, they work hard and they’re focused. They love what they do and I think that’s why they’ve been successful.”

Harden said she wants to bring more attention to the environmental issues facing dairy, and to elevate the good work farmers are already doing by telling their story. She believes it occasionally gets lost and that it’s more common to focus on the efficient side of dairy.

DMI krysta 1

After learning that dairy production only accounts for about 2% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, Harden said it made her realize there is already a great dairy story to be told. When Harden was with USDA in 2009, US dairy set a goal for reducing industry-wide emissions by 25% by 2020.

“It was almost unheard of at that time for an agriculture industry to be that bold, if you will, to say we’re going to tackle this head on,”​ Harden said.

Results from this goal and similar emissions talks will continue next month at a DMI summit held in Indianapolis that will have a specific focus on sustainability in agriculture. Leaders of the dairy industry will come together to continue learning from each other, Harden said, and talk trade, outreach, best practices and more.

Encouraging farmer outreach and collaborative efforts

In particular, Harden wants to open communication with the next generation that’s willing to come back and take up the dairy challenge, even in a tough economy. They are more likely to pursue higher degrees of business and science before returning to the farms, bringing a new level of expertise.

“It’s impressive to see how this industry comes together. They don’t point fingers at each other, they work together and they talk about these tough issues,”​ she said.

A lot of the younger members of the dairy industry feel responsible for community outreach and explaining their work to customers, but Harden thinks DMI can help empower farmers to do even better.

“I think the messenger often does matter, so the farmers themselves are just the best spokespeople there are. We need to have them out there talking about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it as much as we can,”​ she said.

Though dairy is an industry “from field and farm to glass and plates,”​ Harden maintains that farmers are her specific focus in sustainability work. “But you don’t do anything in a vacuum,”​ she said. “We all have to be working together and having these conversations.”

“My heart and my passion is in agriculture, and right at the center as it should be, in my mind, is the farmers themselves,”​ she said.

Barb O’Brien, president of DMI, said, “Dairy farmers are the original environmental stewards and by creating this position we will continue to ensure that US dairy is well-positioned to meet the heightened demands of the global marketplace."

“With her background and leadership, Krysta is the ideal person to not only share US dairy’s positive environmental story and progress to date from farm to table but to also chart a path that reinforces the vital role dairy and farmers can and will play in global and sustainable food systems.”

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