By STEVE BROWN
Increasing overseas demand for dairy products has helped stabilize Washington state's processors and producers, industry representatives say.
"Meeting the global demand for dairy products is far more than just shipping milk powder, whey, cheese and butter overseas," said Kima Simonson, a board member of the U.S. Dairy Export Council and dairy farmer near Spokane. "Our global customers want a consistent product, consistent suppliers and products that are designed for their specific market and culture."
China, for instance, prefers to make its own cheese and yogurt, but it wants U.S. powder milk. South Korea, on the other hand, has become the fastest-growing cheese market in the world, largely because of the growing popularity of pizza.
"The challenge is developing products other countries want and can afford," said Dermot Carey, senior vice president of Darigold's ingredients division. "Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East and Northern Africa are growth areas and each has their own requirements."
Washington's proximity to Asia is a distinct advantage, especially as the population there grows and many countries cannot produce their own dairy products.
Darigold, a cooperative based in Seattle, processes and sells more than 8 billion pounds of milk annually and is among the top dairy processors in the world. About 550 regional dairy farms supply milk to its 12 processing plants.
Half of the co-op's milk powder production and three-quarters of its whey products are exported.
"Foreign markets are becoming critical to the survival of a domestic dairy industry," said Janet Leister, general manager of the Washington Dairy Products Commission. "With sustained dairy exports Washington's dairy producers have a buffer from the roller-coaster ride that is domestic demand for dairy."
In Washington, milk is second only to apples in production value, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Dairy's 2011 value of $1.28 billion was an increase of 34 percent from the year before.
According to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Washington is one of the nation's largest producers of milk powder. It also exports significant volumes of cheese, whey and butterfat.
The council reports that U.S. milk production is up 17 percent -- a gain of nearly 30 billion pounds -- since 2003. More than 60 percent of that increased milk production has gone to export.