Dairy leaders talk in Hilmar about trade and labor. And what ‘natural cheese’ means

Dairy industry leaders convened Wednesday at Hilmar Cheese Co. to ask three congressman to help expand their markets.

They seek to reduce barriers to exports and to reform immigration laws to bolster the dairy farm workforce. And they want Congress to bar the “natural cheese” label on products that also contain emulsifiers and other non-milk ingredients. They are also known as “process cheese.”

The closed-door meeting included Reps. Josh Harder, T.J. Cox and Jim Costa. Their districts lie at the heart of one of the world’s leading dairy regions.

Top executives from Hilmar Cheese and eight other California producers took part in the meeting. Afterward, they told The Modesto Bee that foreign trade is a top issue.

“A good portion of our business goes overseas to key markets like Mexico and China and southeast Asia,” said David Ahlem, president and CEO at Hilmar, “and those are critical to preserving the jobs here in the Central Valley.”

Hilmar Cheese exports cheese and also sells the powdered byproducts, such as whey protein concentrate, for use in infant formula, sports drinks and many other foods. The cafe in the visitor center mixes the whey into fruit smoothies.

The company employs about 1,400 people total at the world’s largest cheese plant in Hilmar and at a plant in Dalhart, Texas.

About 300 people work at Joseph Gallo Farms near Atwater, which makes cheese under the Joseph Farms label. Mexico is one of its main markets, and part of a trade agreement still in the works.

“Having that ratified would be important, that our customers know where they stand,” CEO Mike Gallo said. “As it is, they’re kind of on pins and needles.”

Dairy is the top-grossing farm sector in California, with an estimated $6.37 billion in income to farmers in 2018. But they often struggle to make a profit because of labor and feed costs.

“Our dairy industry has been really hurting over the last decade or so,” Harder said. “Just as we were starting to get that back on track, (President Donald Trump) started these trade wars around the world.”

Harder said dairy labor is especially tight because the farms need people around the clock every day of the year.

The state’s dairy industry estimates that it creates about 416,000 jobs and $26.5 billion in annual income. This includes farming, processing, trucking and other goods and services.

Also on hand in Hilmar was Michael Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. It promotes exports from its Washington, D.C., headquarters and is pushing the “natural cheese” labeling bill.

“It’s a big issue for that product definition, so people actually know what they’re eating,” Dykes said.

The meeting also included leaders from the Valley Milk powder plant in Turlock, the Saputo cheese plant in Newman, the California Dairies plants in Turlock and elsewhere, and others.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.