PHOENIX – Dairy farmers in Arizona are dealing with challenges brought by tariffs and competition from alternative milk products, such as almond and soy milk, as well as persistent drought across the Southwest. But they’re forming new partnerships and adjusting their agricultural practices to stay competitive in the rapidly evolving world market.
One such farmer is Jim Boyle Jr., 44, whose family has been dairy farming in Arizona for five generations. Boyle’s father bought a large farm near Mesa in the 1970s. Boyle has since expanded operations to Casa Grande, south of Phoenix.
In Casa Grande, his land is surrounded by dairy and alfalfa farms. In Mesa, his land is in a small farming enclave not far from a highway and suburban homes. It is surrounded by other dairy farms, some of which keep cows in pens and others which graze cows in green pastures.
Since Boyle’s father started the Mesa farm, the family has partnered with the United Dairymen of Arizona, or UDA, a co-op that processes, manufactures and markets Arizona dairy products in and outside the United States. Roxy Helman, communications manager for the UDA, said the system “helps the farmers focus on making the best product possible, while we do the work for sale.”
Every day, the UDA plant in Tempe receives fluid milk from 74 family farms across Arizona, amounting to about 150 to 200 truckloads of milk, each holding 6,000 gallons of milk and stamped with the words “Undeniably Dairy.” Before the milk is offloaded, it’s tested to make sure it meets federal standards for temperature and the presence of antibiotics, among other things. The milk then travels through the plant to become butter, cheese or powdered milk. Some fluid milk is sold to local grocers for gallon bottling or sent to other dairy processing plants, where it becomes yogurt or sour cream.
With so much milk coming in, the UDA has enough to export to 20 countries. According to Boyle, the importing countries “tend to be protein-short countries,” including Algeria, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. American dairy products, he said, “are seen as a great source of protein.”
What’s sold overseas is mostly powdered milk, which is popular in Asia and North Africa. Because of its longer shelf life, Boyle said, it can travel long distances while retaining essential vitamins and nutrients.
The Tempe plant also makes butter and cheese, but these can only travel shorter distances and are sold mostly to Mexico, Arizona’s largest international trade partner. Canada is third, after China, according to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.
Data collected by the University of Arizona shows that 61% of Arizona’s agricultural products in 2016 were purchased by Mexico and Canada, the United States’ partners in NAFTA and its proposed replacement, the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement, which awaits congressional approval. About 30% of the dairy that leaves Arizona goes to Mexico.
“We have a plentiful supply,” said Paul Brierley, executive director of the University of Arizona Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture, “why not share it with the world?”