Industry invests in future dairy foods researchers

Eric Bastian, vice president of industry relations for Dairy West, talks about a collaborative effort by the dairy industry and western universities to attract and train the next generation of dairy researchers during the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual conference in Sun Valley on Aug. 10.

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Training the next generation of dairy scientists has long been a priority in Idaho’s dairy industry, and it’s depended on the Western Dairy Center to educate and mentor students who will ultimately fill critical roles in the dairy foods arena.

The center — one of six across the country established through the dairy checkoff in the late 1980s — is a collaboration of western universities, which has produced numerous scientists working in the dairy industry today, Eric Bastion, Dairy West vice president of industry relations, said during the Idaho Milk Processors Association annual conference.

But the center has been losing funding and faculty, and there’s been a decline in the universities’ ability to train young dairy scientists, he said.

Bastian, who led research and development at Glanbia for 18 years, said the industry was seeing a significant decline in output from the center. He and noted dairy scientist Don McMahon, the director of the center, teamed up to address the issue.

In 2012, they co-founded BUILD Dairy — Building University-Industry linkages through Learning and Discovery — a network of professors, researchers, students and dairy food companies.

The program’s goal is to attract talent and build a pipeline of technically trained experts to sustain the industry going forward, he said.

In the beginning, Glanbia was the sole funding organization until United Dairymen of Idaho, now Dairy West, decided to tackle the problem from within the organization, he said.

To that end, Idaho dairy farmers have contributed $1.46 million in checkoff money to the BUILD program, and co-funding from processors and universities has added $600,000.

The model is to build on university funding to recruit and train students from western states in dairy food technology and innovation.

United Dairymen of Idaho organized a research advisory council to guide the program in 2015. The following year, it hired Bastian to focus on accomplishing the mission and head up conversations with processors and universities to assess research needs and priorities.

The council identified 24 research priorities and put out calls for project proposals in 2017.

That resulted in 19 new dairy research projects with 19 new students at the cooperating universities, bringing total program students to 29. BUILD Dairy projects are taking place at Utah State University, University of Idaho, Washington State University, Oregon State University, Brigham Young University and Boise State University.

The training goal is to bring 20 students into the program annually, with another 20 graduating each year, providing access to most of the technically trained talent industry will need in the next five years, he said.

Another call for project proposals went out in March.

“These trained students are going to become our future leaders,” he said,

They will face a whole slew of issues, from GMOs to animal activism, and will be the industry’s future advocates, he said.

“This is where the future has to be for our industry,” he said, applauding BUILD Dairy students sharing the podium.

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