Talking sustainable agriculture with Tara Vander Dussen


On Episode 57 of The Milk Check, Tara Vander Dussen joins us to talk about sustainable agriculture. She is an environmental scientist and fifth-generation dairy farmer known online as the New Mexico Milkmaid.

We celebrate some of the regenerative agricultural practices that people often take for granted, and Tara walks us through some of progress she’s seeing in New Mexico dairies today.

We discuss dairy’s image problem and the steps folks can take to help consumers see dairy in a greener light. Our favorite quote from Tara: “Agriculture sees a waste in their stream, they’re going to find a way to make it a value.”

T3: Welcome, everybody, to The Milk Check, where we talk about things that are relevant to dairy farmers. I’m really excited about the podcast that we’re putting together today. We have a special guest. Her name is Tara Vander Dussen.

But before I introduce Tara, I want to tell you who else is on the podcast with us today. Joining my father and I, we have Tristan Suellentrop. Tristan is in our sales and marketing department. And we have Josh White. Josh heads up our dairy ingredients division.

Tara, better known online as the New Mexico Milkmaid, she is a fifth generation dairy farmer, a farm wife, environmental scientist, mom to two girls, and a New Mexico native. She is a dairy advocate, a whiskey drinker, I like that, a fast talker, a lover of all things Southwest, and an avid boho braid enthusiast. Tara, I want to start off the podcast by asking what in the world is an avid boho braid enthusiast?

Tara Vander Dussen: I know. I’m kind of surprised I don’t have a braid in this morning. I almost put one in. No, I love braiding hair. Actually, when I first started sharing online, it was one of the things I shared about, and it was a great way to connect with people actually outside of agriculture and kind of bring them into the dairy fold.

T3: Awesome. Thank you. So what we want to talk about today is sustainability and how sustainability is relevant to the dairy farmer. From my perspective, we work with a lot of dairy farmers in this industry, and the idea that dairy farming as an industry is not considered sustainable, it just strikes me as something so counter to all of the dairy farmers that I know.

Dairy farmers work outside with nature. They care deeply about nature, they care deeply about animals. So when some of the things that I hear in the press about sustainability, about carbon emissions, and about dairy farming, more than anything else, what strikes me is if there’s one thing I fully expect dairy farmers to do is to resolve this, is to attack this issue and say it’s not just an economic issue, it’s deeply personal to the dairy farmers that I know. The last thing that the dairy farmers I know ever want to be considered is somehow anti-environment, anti-sustainable.

So my question to start this conversation off is what are the dairy farmers that you know, what are they doing, what is the industry doing to become more sustainable? You’re an environmental scientist. I’m sure you know the background there. And then once we become a sustainable industry, how do we go back to the media and the general public and convince them and send the message that it’s no longer relevant to consider the dairy industry unsustainable?

Tara: Yeah, so many good questions in there. I’ll start by saying I completely agree with you. That’s kind of how I started sharing online as I was working as an environmental consultant on dairies throughout New Mexico. And then at the same time, I was seeing so much misinformation online, and it was like if people could just see what I see every day, they would see how much dairy farmers are doing to be more sustainable. That’s really what led me to start sharing online.

And as far as how we’re like a piece of the land, one of the things I always tell people is the water that goes to my cows’ water troughs is the same water that goes in my house. So caring for their water ultimately means providing the same quality of water to my own children. That is of the utmost importance to me. I care about that just as much as anyone else cares about the quality of their drinking water.

So thinking about what dairy farmers are doing, I think sometimes in the media, we love a big flashy headline. We love a big project, we love something that’s going to have a big impact. And really, sustainability on dairy farms, sometimes it’s just making small management changes that have an impact every single day on dairy farms across New Mexico, across the country, wherever you’re at, that ultimately does have a big impact.

Here in New Mexico, obviously a big part of our focus is on water conservation. We do not have a lot of water. So limiting our water use, figuring out ways to recycle water, how to grow drought-tolerant crops, there’s a ton going on in that space. And for us, that’s truly the future of our dairy. We have to figure out how to dairy farm with less water.

But the possibilities are endless. I feel like across the spectrum right now, dairy farmers are doing so many different things. And if you’ve been following the USDA Climate-Smart initiatives that have been going on, I think the next five years is going to be even more exciting with research, technology, development of sustainable practices on dairy farms.

And then for your final question, how do we get that out to the public, I think that’s already a now problem. We’re already doing really cool things. We don’t have a product problem, we have a marketing problem, and we’ve got to figure out how we market what we’re already doing. And then as we’re building on that, take them along on that journey.

T3: I couldn’t agree with you more.

Josh: We jumped right into a discussion, but I think maybe one of the biggest challenges in the industry is people don’t really understand what is meant by sustainable. Can you help, I guess, define what sustainability means to you and how you would define that?

Tara: This week on the podcast that I co-host, Discover Ag, we talk about an article called greenwashing. I feel like greenwashing at this point goes side by side with sustainability. Everybody has a different definition of sustainability and then everybody’s throwing sustainable messaging at our consumers left and right, and it’s just really greenwashing it. So what is truly sustainable?

I think sustainability, I kind of like the regenerative ag concept. It’s not a label. It is what are you doing in your area, in your region, on your farm to be a little bit better than the last year? To be a little bit more efficient. I know people hate that word, efficiency, especially when talking about animals, because they think it means something bad. But efficiency is sustainability.

I think sustainability in New Mexico is going to look very different than a dairy farm practicing sustainable practices in Michigan. We just don’t have the same resource concerns. So it’s about consciously thinking about what your resource concerns are, what your region or area needs, and then working your farm towards that.

In New Mexico, I mentioned our drought-tolerant crops. Yeah, we are not growing corn and alfalfa like we were. We’re growing haygrazer, we’re growing oats and canola and all these things I never grew up with in dairy as a kid, but we’re trying them out because that’s what makes sense for our farm right now and moving forward, keeping the farm sustainable for the next generation of farmers that’s going to come after us.

Josh: So Tara, one of my favorite things is when you debunk some of the different misinformation that I would call it. And for me, I’m in my 40s. I grew up in an agricultural-based family. My grandparents all went through the Depression and post-Depression, through the war, and I can’t think of anybody that does everything that they can to be thrifty to avoid being wasteful than the agricultural community that I grew up in, and that’s not the message that the loud voices want to portray, the current dairy industry and the current agricultural community.

I’m not an environmental scientist and I certainly don’t have the education in that space that you have, so hopefully you can help me. And when you get into these conversations with people, I find myself stuck. And I have the impression, and maybe you could help me here, that the current larger dairy operation, that might be different than the hundred cow type dairy operations I grew up around, is more efficient and more sustainable than even we were 20, 30 years ago. Can you help me build the case to help educate people on practices, as you mentioned, that are done on the dairy farm today that many may not have in their tool belt when confronted with those type of conversations?

Tara: Yeah, you started that with kind of sharing about how people in ag do recycle. We’re super inventive with how we are able to utilize things. And one of the things I love to share about with dairies, as you guys know, the amount of byproducts that dairy cows consume and utilize on dairy farms, that is often missed in the conversation. That’s an area, I think, that I know I love to touch on, because when people say, “Let’s just remove animal agriculture,” it’s like you don’t even realize all the repercussions all the way down the food supply chain that happen when you remove dairy, because dairy is the ultimate recycler.

So you love your orange juice. What are we going to do with all the pulp that you don’t like in your orange juice? What are we going to do with all the citrus peels? Let’s move to California. You love your almond milk. What are you going to do with all the almond hulls when you no longer have dairy cows to consume them? I mean, the list goes on and on. You could pick a state and name a commodity or a byproduct in that state. Cottonseed. Tons of options. And people just don’t think about that as the greater food system.

Agriculture sees a waste in their stream, they’re going to figure out a way to make it a value and add value to the system, which is really incredible. We should get more credit, I think, for that piece of what we do.

I always laugh that people have Pinterest to save recipes. I use Pinterest to save different white papers and research papers on greenhouse gas emissions. I have it all broken down into, “Here are my facts on dairy cows and greenhouse gas emissions. Here is my methane facts,” and being able to pull those when you’re having conversations and being able to back up what you’re saying.

And again, it goes back, dairy does not have a problem with that. We have tons of research, tons of facts. We have really great lifecycle analysis assessments. It’s combining those facts with what are the practices. You can spew all the facts, but then you’ve got to say like, “Yeah, we save water on a dairy farm. Here’s how we actually save it.” We recycle water on our dairy farm up to five times, and here’s the steps and here’s why it matters to us that this is the future. The longevity of our farm is dependent on it. So it’s kind of that combination of combining all of those things whenever you’re trying to get the message out.

T3: These methane digesters and these gas plants are producing renewable energy that’s being used to power buses in major metropolitan areas. How great advertising would it be to have on that bus, “This bus runs on renewable energy produced from cow manure. Dairy, making the world a greener place,” forgive me for saying this, but “one turd at a time.” Whatever it is.

Tristan Suellentrop: Talking about the dairy myths, is there any particular one that you find frustrating to hear because it gets repeated over and over to you?

Tara: I feel like there’s too many to count. It depends on the day of the week. For some reason right now, rBST has been hopping back up. I don’t know what is going on with that. Other weeks, it’s antibiotics, the conversation around antibiotics and milk.

You mentioned, Josh, bigger farms. There’s a lot of misconceptions about bigger farms. I think some weeks, it seems like there’s that big is bad, small is good mentality, and it’s not that simple, as we know. Just because you’re bigger doesn’t mean bad. It takes all types of farms. It’s like a cycle. It seems like every six months, it’s like, “That’s coming back up again. There must have been some article that got posted or something going on.”

So I think at the point I’m at now is my followers, a lot of times, will send posts to me. So then it helps me really keep a finger on the pulse. Because the algorithm feeds you what you want to see, but if other people are sending you what they’re seeing, it’s interesting to be like, “Wow, four people sent the exact same video. It must be blowing up online. It’s a good time to address it.” So that kind of helps me keep an eye on what is relevant to people right now and how can I kind of set the record straight.

Josh: So I think you’re unique, obviously, in the industry, because you have the scientific background, you’re not afraid to voice your opinion and defend what you know and believe to be true. But if I’m generalizing, that’s not the typical dairy farmer. If I think about comparing to a Midwestern dairy farmer, they’re not a loud voice and they don’t want to scream at the mountaintops. They do their job. And the information that is flooding the market tends to be people who do scream at the mountaintops. So what’s the industry going to do about that? I guess we just need more Taras.

Tara: No, it’s funny you say that. When I first started sharing, my husband was literally like, “I don’t understand what you’re going to share about. Yeah, I don’t get it. Why does anyone care about this?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to share about recycling water,” and he was like, “Cool. So does every single person that we know. Every dairy farmer we know does the exact same thing.” There’s really not anything special about our dairy. Our dairy is a cookie-cutter New Mexico dairy, and it was getting past that, that that’s not what it’s about. I’m not promoting any one product. I am literally like, “Choose milk, and know you can feel good about whatever milk you choose on the shelf. No matter whether it’s conventional, organic, you can feel great about the milk you choose for your family.” That’s always been my stance.

It’s not a natural characteristic always of dairy farmers to want to get out there and share, but the way I see it moving forward, and I kind of convinced my husband about this along the way as well, is it is kind of a part of our job now. Consumers want to hear from farmers. They want farmers to be more transparent about their food system. We can have every co-op, every brand we want out there telling our story and sharing for us, but it does not come off as authentic. And I know people hate that. Another buzzword is authenticity. But it’s true, it just comes across more forced. And when people can actually hear from the farmer, there’s a really great Farm Bureau study that showed that 88% of Americans find farmers trustworthy sources. So when they hear it from a farmer, they believe it to their core. It’s harder to shake them on those beliefs if they’ve seen it firsthand, talked with a farmer.

I know that we have enough jobs out there already, but I think it is part of our job now is to make the consumer feel a part of their food system and feel more connected. The further removed you are from your food system, the more you fear it. The closer you are to it, the more comfortable you feel. When people are like, “Well, how can you know conventional’s good?” And I’m like, “Because I know exactly what ingredients are going in my cow’s diet, and I feel so good about that.” The more connected you are, I truly think that in some ways, the less afraid of it you are.

Josh: So Tara, when I think about sustainability and agriculture, two things immediately come to mind. The first is, again, the misinformation that is infuriating. The other part of it is just simply education. I was at a board meeting not that long ago and listening to professionals in the dairy industry talk about what’s being done. It was framed in a way of saying, “Look at how much we’ve improved on our sustainability study over the last year.” But when I heard about the improvements, it was reporting improvements. There was no change in practice.

To your point before, we’re already doing good things and we’re helping people understand the good things that the industry’s doing. But there also is the other element about what we can do better and what we can do differently going forward. I think if we want to spend a couple minutes just discussing about two or three things that you think the industry will have to do differently or better going forward in this area, I would love to hear it.

Tara: I think we’re in a phase right now that’s data collection. We know what we’re doing is good, but we have to have data to back it up. We’re going to get stricter and stricter requirements on this greenwashing, trying to cut back on greenwashing. So we need to be able to prove our data. So I do think that’s kind of the phase we’re in.

But moving forward, what all can dairy farmers do? I agree with you, there’s always room for improvement. I don’t think we’re ever done or ever going to stop. I think there will be growing pains along the way. One of the things my husband and I always talk about is we’re a branding state in New Mexico, so we by law have to brand. And I always tell my husband, “This is just a practice that is not going to be around long term. I really think it’ll be something that has to be phased out,” not because I don’t agree with it, but because consumers are demanding different things from us, and we have to deliver on that.

So I think there will be things moving forward like that, that the consumers dictate… They have more power than we think. I always compare it to thinking about my grandfather dairy farming. He never thought about what the consumer thought or how the consumer was going to impact his farm, because he didn’t have to. But that is the world we live in nowadays, that we do have to think about, “Okay, this practice, how do we defend this practice? How does it look from the outside of the industry if you haven’t grown up in ag? How do we convey the messaging behind it, whatever that practice is?” I mean, you could compare it to GMOs, you could compare it to rBST, even. That was a safe product, but it was consumer perception that forced us to stop using it.

So just all of those kind of tools in our toolbox. How do we convey the message to consumers? How do we get them to trust it, know it, understand it enough that they’ll buy that product? And if they won’t buy that product even after we’ve done all that, is it time for us to face something out and move on? Because I think the black eye that some things give us is worse than the benefits of them.

Josh: When you talk about people that are green-focused, focused on our future, it almost feels like we have this opponent kind of view. And I really think that the average dairyman or woman is actually very much a teammate in that area. What I mean by that and what I’ve always enjoyed about the agricultural industry, and I think there’s a lot of other industries that could be commended in that same area, is this idea of finding an economically viable way of accomplishing a greener or less of a carbon footprint, just improving the overall business. I feel like if I think about all the practices over the years, again, as you mentioned, food waste being fed to the animals and stuff like that, that was a normal practice on our farm. And there’s a lot of things we can learn from the agricultural space and that we can learn from how the dairy industry works that can be improved beyond just the farm.

I’m rambling a bit in that area, but I just really feel like we need, as an industry, to continue to really educate people on all of the great things that are being done, because those can be case studies to go into other industries and other areas that will have significantly more of an impact than challenging whether or not a large dairy operation exists, in my view.

Tara: Yeah, so that’s interesting that you touched on that. If food waste was a country, it would be the third highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. And when people hear that statistic, it really shocks them, but it’s like you can make a difference right in your own home. And more food waste happens in your home than you realize. A lot of people like to look to restaurants and to hotels and venues, and yes, we need to address that too, but a lot of food waste happens right in the home. We waste one-third… It’s about 40% of our food in this country. Let’s cut back on that before we start cutting out nutrient-dense foods. That is a huge piece. But until consumers know that, it’s really difficult.

And then on the flip side of that, a really interesting study I just learned about is all of those byproducts, all that food waste and all the byproducts that cattle consume, if we composted that instead, which is best case scenario, if we’re being honest, chances are it’s not going to get composted, but we’ll roll with it, you would increase emissions by five times. If it went to a landfill, which is probably what’s going to happen, the most likely case scenario, it would increase emissions by 49 times. So you’re talking about cattle emissions, but if you’re, again, removing them, what are those impacts? So how are cattle helping us? In this system we’ve created with food waste and byproducts, cattle are helping us and they’re turning a food and a nutrient source that we can’t consume into a nutrient-dense food. There needs to be a little bit more credit on that side of things for animal agriculture.

T3: Tara, my question would be when we talk about greenhouse gases and carbon emissions on the dairy farm, a lot of it relates to manure. How much is carbon emissions reduced on a dairy farm that has a methane digester and then maybe has a gas plant on top of that? What’s the scale of reduction?

Tara: That’s such a good question. I don’t think I have exact numbers for you on that. I wish I did. I’m going to go try to find those now. I’ve never seen that. But yeah, I think that the key there is also looking at technology like that about how it makes the most sense for your farm.

I think digesters are amazing and do a really great job, but I don’t think they’re always the only solution. There’s a lot of steps along the way. You can do step one to reduce this much, step two to reduce… There’s other options along the way than just committing to a million dollar digester project right off the bat. But it is really cool. And I think in states like California where there’s a lot of tax incentives, there is a lot of opportunity there to reduce methane. It’s a really great PR conversation starter and it has some really great numbers.

I was following a dairy farmer in California who had a methane digester, and one of the things he was able to do was say, “Our digester powers X amount of homes. It’s the same as removing X amount of cars off the road.” You can relate it back to ways that people understand and things they understand. It sticks in their mind better.

So I’m sorry I don’t have an answer for you on that. I’ll have to look into it.

T3: Well, if you find the answer, let me know. I’m very curious.

Tara: Okay, I will.

Tristan: If consumers in the U.S. were going to learn one thing about agriculture, what would you want them to understand?

Tara: This is always my most asked question. I always say it’s not what I want them to learn. I would rather have them go find a farmer to follow online or someone local to them and ask them your questions. When you have questions, ask them. Find a farmer. And I just feel like in this day and age where we all have this free app where we can connect with people across the world, I always default to social media, but it doesn’t have to be social media. It can be somebody local you know, if you know of a farmer, and ask them your questions. Get it from the source. I think that so many consumers have questions across the board, that if they can just go ask those questions, that’s the best place to start.

Josh: What’s the lowest hanging fruit to help the industry not only improve, but help educate the consumer, in your mind?

Tara: I think we have to reach outside of ag. To me, that’s a low-hanging fruit. We have an ag echo chamber where we talk amongst ourselves. We think certain things are a bigger deal than they are, and then other things that we don’t even realize are happening, are happening, and we’re missing the mark. So I think we’ve really got to keep our finger on the pulse of what is happening outside of ag.

Right now, I feel like you can’t get on TikTok without seeing things about seed oils. In my mind, I’m like, “How can we jump on this as an industry and be like, ‘Dairy, no seed oils.'” That’s a leg up for us. We’re a single ingredient product. Keeping our finger on that of what are people talking about in the food space, what are their concerns. Just being able to stop caring as much about inside of ag and start caring more about outside of ag, and I think by default, we’ll end up educating them. We’ll end up having better conversations with them.

We actually covered this topic a little bit on Discover Ag podcast about Amazon having trucks that are powered by cow manure. And I’m like, “This is such a missed opportunity to partner with Amazon.” And I mean, we were rolling off the jokes about A-moo-zon, and all the ways this could have been clever and funny. And that, I was like, “We should have teamed up.” I don’t know if Amazon would’ve wanted to team up with dairy farmers, but I’d like to think maybe it would’ve been good PR for them. And I said, “This Amazon truck is powered by cow manure. How do we make that partnership?” Because that has a really cool implication, long-term, positive reinforcement that no one expects to see an Amazon truck drive by that’s delivering your packages that says, “Powered by cows.” I mean, I think about a really cool Holstein spotted truck with the Amazon logo. Lots of opportunities there. So it is about who do we need to talk to, how do we collaborate with them and get them to say, “Let your messaging and our messaging combine forces and really propel this forward.”

T3: Absolutely. Tristan, dad, Josh, any more questions for Tara? Tara, do you have any questions for us?

Tara: No, but I appreciate you guys having me on. We were all over the place. I loved it. We had really great conversation, and I feel like you guys… You challenged me on getting all my facts, so I loved it.

T3: Well, we really appreciate you joining us today. Thank you so very much. This is a topic that’s so important to everybody in our industry. And what you’ve been doing in social media and your participation on the DMI board, we need more people like you being involved in that kind of things, because you’re absolutely right, the dairy industry has a marketing problem, and the more that all of us can get out and be talking about all the great positive things that we’re doing in dairy, the better. So thank you very much.

Tara: Awesome.

T3: And thanks for joining us today.

Tara: Thanks for having me on.

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