Nearly 2,500 cheese industry leaders, suppliers and manufacturers gathered in Madison for the Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference (WCIC), organized by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Center for Dairy Research. One of the most influential conferences affecting the industry, the event is a great opportunity to observe important trends. Steve Lutzke, Technical Sales Manager, Whitehall Specialties, and John Umhoefer, Executive Director, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, share three takeaways from the event.

International opportunities are increasing

Historically, international cheese manufacturers and suppliers have had pricing advantages over U.S. firms due to government subsidies. Those international companies, now forced to invest their own capital, are facing rising operating costs which create new product pricing challenges. Today, with many exchange rates improving, new products for international markets present huge growth potential.

“The greatest opportunities abroad include sales into Mexico and the Pacific Rim. Additionally, U.S. cheeses are supporting American restaurant chains that are growing throughout eastern Asia,” said Umhoefer. “America has become a reliable, low-cost provider of high quality dairy ingredients worldwide—a position that should continue as political issues and trade discussions ebb and flow.”

“Gouda is one of the fastest-growing cheese flavors in international markets, and Whitehall Specialties is ready to capitalize on this trend,” Lutzke added. “We can please the palate of international customers with our blends, substitutes and imitation cheeses. Plus, our products export well because of their longer shelf life and overall consistency.”

Like U.S. citizens, consumers in South Korea—one of the largest markets for U.S. cheese—prefer American cheese but require lower sodium levels. Whitehall Specialties has been able to leverage its ability to provide customized cheese formulations such as reduced sodium to international markets without sacrificing quality, texture or taste.

Changes in generational demands must be identified and capitalized on

According to WCIC presenter and author Kit Yarrow, the food habits and buying preferences of today’s consumer are completely different than they were just a decade ago. Research shows that American millennials prefer snacking as an alternative to the traditional three meals a day that previous generations preferred. Healthy-for-you, go-to snack foods that meet work-life challenges, provide new flavor offerings and address “I’ll know what I want when I taste it” challenges are driving new product introductions.

Not only are millennials frequent snackers, but they lean toward organic products. Millennials also prioritize protein in their diets more highly than other generations—just one reason why items like string cheese and protein packs with cheese, meat and nuts continue to offer growth opportunities.

“The industry should unleash high quality cheeses tailored to [those] who snack and want bold new flavors, trusted brands and prepared cheese-based foods that are ready to heat and serve.”

Umhoefer adds, “The rising tide of millennials will demand that dairy companies tell the story behind their foods, including the care for the dairy cows that produced the milk and the sustainability practices of the cheesemaker that brings the product to market.

Addressing worker shortages requires a refocus on recruiting and retaining efforts

A shortage of skilled workers and a tight labor market—especially across the Upper Midwest—have forced cheesemakers to refocus on recruiting, training and retaining efforts in order to compete for high-quality workers as older workers retire.

“Recruiting needs to be an active, ongoing priority in our industry. The ad in the newspaper isn’t enough anymore,” said Umhoefer. He suggested members become aware of prevailing wages in their region, reach out to high school and tech school counselors, support local events and job fairs, and learn to use social media for recruiting.

“There’s a great body of work and know-how that speaks to training and rewarding employees that isn’t always about money. People want to see a pathway of advancement, and they want the company to care about their personal growth,” Umhoefer added.

“I believe [the industry] has the unique opportunity to convince its current employees and the upcoming generation of workers that we have a special, craft industry in Wisconsin. This is an industry filled with passionate people and a worldwide reputation for excellence. There’s room to advance from line worker to Master cheesemaker. Cheese making isn’t a job—it’s a skill that people are proud to talk about.”

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