Speech to the Dairy Growth Summit: The University's enduring commitment to dairy

Monday, February 9, 2015

Since I became President of the University three-and-a-half years ago, I’ve tried to roll up my sleeves to demonstrate our commitment to the agricultural community. This commitment has taken many forms — I think the hiring of CFANS Dean Brian Buhr was one — but my immersion in matters central to today’s gathering can, I feel, be best shown with this informative image.

President Eric Kaler milking a cow ... as best he can!!
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Is that a commitment to dairy, or what??!!!

I showed this photo to my Tennessee mother-in-law who grew up on a farm, and she said, “That’s nice, Eric, but next time put a bucket under the cow.”

Well, this IS an educational institution!

Seriously, the organizers of this meeting are calling this a Summit. It’s intended to be the kickoff and the jumpstart to a new era for the state’s and region’s dairy community, including the University. I prefer to view this as a celebration . . . a celebration of the historic and enduring partnership between the University of Minnesota and our incredibly diverse and constantly changing agricultural community.

As we celebrate that rich past, I also believe that this should be a time that drives us towards confronting the status quo. Just like higher education, the dairy industry is changing. We’re all in the same shifting landscape of market-driven forces, consumer demands and work-altering technologies. As it turns out, a central component of our new strategic plan on our Twin Cities campus is the University’s commitment to what we call “rejecting complacency” — I love that phrase — in all that we do.

In our world here at the U, complacency refers to doing things a certain way because that’s just the way we do them. Complacency means ignoring change in the world around us and expecting the world to change for us, rather than expecting ourselves to adapt to the world’s needs. But by rejecting all that — by rejecting complacency — we mean that we’re going to refuse to accept the status quo.

If we reject complacency, once a problem has been identified, we don’t simply live with it. Rejection of complacency gives an individual power but also responsibility. It takes greater courage to intentionally reject complacency than to rest on one’s laurels, than to be simply Minnesota nice. It takes a certain entrepreneurial spirit.

From what I gather, the dairy community is today in that same eager space that we’re in at the U. You’re eager to change while thoughtfully calibrating risk. You’re eager to be bold while seeking a realistic and thoughtful path forward. In my view, for all of us in higher education and in agribusiness, that path must be global, diverse, and must harness all we have at our disposal to become more efficient and effective. The path forward also demands that we work to ensure that this longstanding partnership between the U and the dairy community is embraced, renewed and, when ever possible, strengthened.

I’m particularly delighted that the Summit is on our campus because one of our roles as the state’s only comprehensive, public research university is to be a convener on pressing issues.

In the old days I guess this might have been called the Dairy Leaders Roundtable. What we’ll call this reinvented, 2-point-0 version of the Roundtable, I don’t know. That will be up to you. But I do know that the University wants a place at this table today and as this process unfolds.

As we do with all matters critical to this state and its people, we want to face, tackle and, ideally, solve the state’s, nation’s and world’s Grand Challenges. The future of safe food, sustainable land, global hunger, and the prosperity of rural Minnesota are certainly huge challenges.

In dairy, the U and producers and processors go back a long way, 163 years to the creation of the Morrill Act and our land-grant mission, to which agriculture is a key element.  By 1891, our Board Regents, in their wisdom, began a Dairy Department right here on this campus by hiring away from the University of Wisconsin — I love to hear that! — Professor T.L. Haecker, who went on to become the "Father of Dairying" in Minnesota.He purchased cows for a college dairy herd and, from this very campus, promoted the cooperative creamery movement.

That was then … this is now. Now, we’re creating the next generation of leaders and highly educated and prepared employees for the modern dairy industry, and we’re doing it in a wonderfully interdisciplinary way.

Let’s start with our National Dairy Education Center in New Sweden, a premier research and training facility for dairy science, bovine medicine and advanced technologic approaches to production.  And, as you know, we’re the state’s only College of Veterinary Medicine, and, under Dean Ames’ leadership, we’re very good. The New Sweden facility is a model public-private partnership with Davis Family Dairies, and New Sweden has become a key element in the Veterinary College’s dairy teaching and research program. It’s under the direction of our remarkable Professor John Fetrow, who I believe is here today. I know Mark and Mitch Davis are also here, and, gentlemen, thank you and your entire family for your generosity and insight in working with our students, who help to feed your 3,000 cows with 360,000 pounds of feed, and by delivering 30 new calves … every day. 

In the end, New Sweden demonstrates that the University is committed to train students for producers large and small.And those students will come from a variety of disciplines for this new dairy talent force … be it finance, animal science, genomics, environmental studies, nutrition, informatics, robotics, veterinary medicine and others.

Of course, CFANS has many key teachers and researchers, among them the nationally recognized work of Assistant Professor Marin Bozic, one of the true rising stars of dairy economics, and a driving force behind this Summit.Then there’s Professor Marcia Endres, whose research work in dairy robotics and cow comfort is also nation-leading, and whose outreach through Extension brings undergraduates and their applied research together with producers of all sizes in Minnesota. Our involvement with the Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center shows our collaborative nature with industry and our colleagues at Iowa State and South Dakota State universities.

Our partnership with the state in our research initiative known as MnDRIVE has Global Food as one of its four key elements.  And one of the first projects funded by MnDRIVE is around bioresponsive packaging to monitor food spoilage. This research on modernizing food spoilage information is typical of state-of-the-art, world-class research, combining investigators from Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, from Food Science, and from Applied Economics, all working together.

Oh, and did I mention our Minnesota 4-H dairy enrollment, under the leadership of Extension Dean Bev Durgan? It stands now at nearly 2,200 4-H youth in the dairy program  across the state, and it’s thriving. I like to say these kids take their first U classes as part of 4-H, and it pays off: 4-Hers are heavily recruited by the University of Minnesota Department of Animal Science and, upon enrollment, most gravitate to our Gopher Dairy Club. Much of that recruitment is led by Professor Les Hansen, the dairy geneticist who is also the Gopher Dairy Club’s adviser. Thanks to Les, the Dairy Club is the single largest student club on campus, with more than 100 members. They are the future, which is where I’d like to turn now.  

In the very immediate future, we have a biennial budget request and a capital request before Governor Dayton and the Legislature. The cornerstone of our biennial request is to keep this university affordable with another tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduates and, this time, graduate and professional students, too. Freezing tuition saves a student on all of our campuses more than $2,000 over four years, reduces debt for students and families, and allows them to graduate on time and move more quickly into the workforce. In 1997, less than 20 years ago, the state provided 70 percent of the cost of a student’s tuition. Today, that’s down to just 42 percent of the cost of educating a student. And that’s even as we’ve been able to reduce our costs by more 11 percent to graduate a student.

So, we’re more efficient in producing top-notch, highly educated graduates, but the public’s share of public higher education has diminished. The driving cost of the increase in tuition is the state's disinvestment. A college degree is a wonderful achievement for a student, but it’s an economic and cultural benefit for the entire state. We need to rebalance who pays for this public good.

The highlight of our Capital Request is new Veterinary Isolation Labs, a short walk from here. The old labs, built in 1958 — when I was two years old — simply don’t meet current biosafety standards and are inadequate to do the kind of research that we need to support the animal agriculture industry in the state. This project will augment the work of the college’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, which is a national leader in protecting animal and human health. I know that many of you shared this information with legislators during Dairy Day last week at the State Capitol. Thank you for that, and I’ve brought additional materials for you today about our requests. I encourage you to continue to support our requests, which are focused and address real needs of the state, our students and their families.

In the longer term future is, of course, the Dairy Research, Teaching and Consumer Education Center concept that I know the Dairy Authority and Dean Buhr have been discussing with industry leaders like you, and with our state officials. We have a long way to go on this, and, I suspect Brian will be talking more about this idea today with you. Such a world-class center could be a wonderful boost to your industry and to the teaching, research and outreach land-grant missions of the University. It would differentiate us from every other American university.While I am supportive of the concept, any project this big and this bold must unfold and be funded with a true partnership of industry, the citizens of Minnesota, and the University. That’s exactly the kind of partnership we’ve enjoyed for more than a century.

So, in closing, we at the U have shared our human capital, our research, our resources, our alumni, and our expertise with you. You all have shared your knowledge, your needs, your leadership, your generosity, and, as always, your wise opinions. And now today we launch this exciting new initiative, with redoubled energy and ambition. I know the title of this Summit declares that as a dairy community we are “Stronger Together,” and I pledge to you the University’s commitment to that increased strength, today and for the years to come. Again, welcome to the University of Minnesota and have a wonderful and productive day.

Here's some news coverage of the event.