Regional cheese board

Northeast Dairy Innovation Summit Is a Success 

By Katie Spring, Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center 

On April 2-3, over 220 people from around our 11-state region gathered for the Northeast Dairy Innovation Summit. 

The summit focused on the future of regional dairy: the challenges, the opportunities, and how we can work together to create resiliency from farm fields to processing plants to store shelves.  Throughout the two-day summit, attendees delved into four key areas: workforce development, farm innovation, processing innovation, and opportunities for small ruminant dairy.   

The summit opened with a panel facilitated by Agela Abdullah, President of the Cheese Culture Coalition – a nonprofit dedicated to making the cheese industry more inclusive and equitable.  Joined by Kyra James, a cheese educator and creator of Own Your Funk, Greselda Powell, cheesemonger for Murray’s Cheese, and Leslie McCrorey Wells, a restaurant owner, sheep farmer, and member of the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Vermont Agriculture, the panel shared their own entryways into dairy, the barriers that often keep people out, and how we can create more accessible pathways for people to become part of the dairy workforce across the industry.   

Four women - Agela Abdullah, Kyra James, Greselda Powell, and Leslie McCrorey Wells - sitting in chairs on stage, speaking into microphones
Agela Abdullah, Kyra James, Greselda Powell, and Leslie McCrorey Wells speaking on Expanding the Dairy Workforce

“Education is the biggest breaker in barriers,” said James, citing her own journey of learning about food that ultimately led her to receive a Masters in Gastronomy.  Powell echoed this, highlighting that in order to grow a more diverse workforce, we need to increase exposure, education, and experience through programs like 4-H.  McCrorey Wells spoke about how business owners can affect change by making thoughtful decisions on everything from sourcing from like-minded businesses to investing in the local economy and building supportive work environments.  While James shared the statistic that businesses are 60% more successful when they’re diverse, Abdullah emphasized the need to build trust and develop genuine relationships in order to grow and sustain diversity across the dairy sector.   

Building on workforce development, keynote speaker Corey Geiger shared opportunities for dairy farmers and processors over the next 10 years.  An international economist with CoBank, Geiger brought regional, national, and international insights to how the Northeast can fill growing demand for high-quality dairy.  Among those opportunities are the continued growth of butter and cheese. “The flavor is in the fat,” he said, and with butter sales growing by 8%, consumers are noticing and returning to the flavor found there. The combination of the region’s small-scale dairies known for excellent products and our proximity to major populations gives Northeast dairy a strong foundation for both exporting products and drawing in customers.  “The Northeast’s superpower is consumers,” said Geiger, encouraging farmers, cheesemakers, and mongers to connect as a team to continue building relationships that can tell consumers the story of dairy. 

Corey Geiger speaking on stage
Corey Geiger delivering his Keynote Address: Dairy’s Future Looks Bright

NYS Commissioner Richard Ball opened the second day of the summit with a similar message. As a region that includes one of the most diverse cities in the world, Commissioner Ball spoke to how our constraints can also be our strengths, saying, “We’re not going to have 100,000 cow dairies – that’s not the Northeast. Instead, the Northeast can be the most sustainable dairy.” Building on the theme of workforce development, he highlighted how 40% of jobs are part of the overarching food system, and encouraged the audience to think about how we can draw more young people to the agricultural sector.  

NYS Commissioner Richard Ball speaking on stage at the NE Dairy Innovation Summit
NYS Commissioner Richard Ball

That’s where cohesive storytelling and leadership comes in.  In their plenary session, agricultural communication experts Alison K. Conant, Maureen Ballatori, and Laura Hardie, brought all levels of the dairy sector together to show what the Northeast delivers: taste, value, climate-friendly farming practices, animal welfare, and authentic connection between farms and consumers.  With key lessons on marketing and branding, they showed how we can all be part of sharing the story of dairy, including how dairy supports food resiliency, economics, and community.   

Alison K. Conant speaking on stage with Laura Hardie and Maureen Ballatori
Alison K. Conant speaking with Laura Hardie and Maureen Ballatori

“Farms are so important in communities because they bring communities together,” said Conant.  “Rural communities need hope opportunities, and jobs, and agriculture provides that.”  The idea that we can all be part of leading dairy forward is a foundational takeaway of the summit.  As Hardie said, storytelling and marketing are about human connection.  If we are to build a vibrant workforce based on climate resiliency and business viability, it will take people from across the entire spectrum of the dairy sector building relationships and working together.  And the range of attendees and speakers at the summit proves that we’re already heading in that direction.

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