Dairyman pushes industry to seek growth abroad
Next generation's help allows Esplin to focus on trade groups
By JOHN O'CONNELL
SHELLEY, Idaho -- Foreign markets have little use for most U.S. butter, which is typically salted and has a different fat content than they prefer.
Brian Esplin, owner of Diamond Three Dairy in Shelley, believes U.S. dairy processors must begin making products aimed at customers beyond American borders.
In the past, U.S. dairymen never worried much about exports, knowing if prices dropped, the government would help. That safety net has eroded, Esplin said.
Esplin is more than two years into an appointment on the National Dairy Board, which has focused on trade. He also serves on the Western States Dairy Producers Trade Association and has spent 20 years on the Idaho Dairy Products Commission.
Esplin said the U.S. dairy industry has increased its foreign exports from 6 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2011.
"There's a big push now by the National Dairy Board to try to get processors to make more products for exports," Esplin said. "We're still a small player compared with the New Zealands and Australias and some of those other countries, but China and some of those Asian countries are getting more interested in our powders and things like that."
Esplin sees potential in China in particular, where he said U.S. milk is trusted for its quality and doesn't stay long on grocery store shelves.
With WSDPTA, Esplin explained he's working to revise the farm bill to "get rid of arcane price-support programs" in favor of a more modern program to protect dairymen from catastrophic losses.
Esplin grew up on the family dairy and farm in Shelley. He took over the dairy portion of the business 33 years ago, when his brother, Keith, assumed responsibility for the farming side. In 1995, Esplin bought the dairy from his father and renamed it Diamond Three Dairy.
He and his wife, Trina, have maintained the family's commitment to high-quality milk, winning Members of Distinction by Dairy Farmers of America in 2007. They employ 13 full-time workers and have 1,100 cows.
Esplin, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, said having his 24-year-old son Jared oversee employees and run operations when needed has freed time for him to participate in trade organizations.
"I know we're going to have our struggles and trials as far as the dairy industry goes, but we'll still need dairy products. We'll still need milk and cheese," said Jared, whose son Bhren could represent the sixth generation of dairy farmers.
Esplin explained the Idaho dairy industry grew rapidly starting in the late 1990s as land values forced producers out of California. Lately, he said the industry has been depressed and dairies have been "on the very edge of survival."
He feels fortunate that his cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, which has the contract to supply milk to the new Chobani yogurt plant in Twin Falls, hasn't had to implement supply management practices.
Having family members who farm has also helped his dairy. They're lenient in taking payments for the alfalfa and feed they supply him, and he provides them a stable source of manure.
"That's the best thing about agriculture I think, ... the opportunity to work with your family," Esplin said.
Diamond Three Dairy
Location: Shelley, Idaho
Farmers' names: Brian Esplin and his son Jared Esplin
Number of years in business: Since 1995 as Diamond Three and the early 1940s as Esplin Dairy
Cooperative Membership: Dairy Farmers of America
Total number of cows: 1,100
Total number of employees: 13 full-time
Quote: "What really affected dairy was the surfacing of the ethanol industry. It became very hard for animal agriculture to compete for the corn. It's hard to maintain a milk price high enough to beat those increased costs." -- Brian Esplin