ORLANDO, FLA. — Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s message to the International Dairy Foods Association’s Dairy Forum was clear — Expect lots of change from the administration of President Donald J. Trump. The I.D.F.A.’s annual meeting served as a platform to introduce Mr. Vilsack as the new president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (U.S.D.E.C.), Arlington, Va.

“The rhetoric is going to have to meet the reality in regards to regulations,” Mr. Vilsack told the 1,100 attendees of the Dairy Forum, citing Mr. Trump’s executive order signed the previous day — Mr. Vilsack’s first as the leader of the U.S.D.E.C. — requiring that for every new federal regulation implemented, two must be rescinded.

The U.S.D.E.C. is a non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, processors, cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.

Tom Vilsack
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack joined the U.S. Dairy Export Council on Feb. 1 as president and c.e.o.

On the subject of global trade, changes in trade policy, in particular with Mexico, may have an impact on U.S. dairy farmers and processors. Mr. Vilsack strongly urged exporters to reassure their customers in Mexico by reaching out to them. 

“We all have an opportunity and a responsibility to maintain and strengthen relationships with those that we work with in Mexico to reassure them that we’re going to continue to be open for business and that we’re going to continue to look for ways to work with them,” he said. “I think the relationships at the ground level, at the grassroots level, can often times overcome any stormy seas that might be created by comments coming from Washington, D.C.”

The U.S.D.E.C. joined 130 other farm and food organizations in reaching out to Trump to preserve hard-fought agriculture market access in Mexico, which is the No. 1 market for U.S. dairy exports, totaling $1.2 billion in 2016.

Dairy products
Mexico is the largest importer of U.S. dairy products. The Trump administration may not recognize this relationship and the jobs it secures with farmers and processors.

Mr. Vilsack encouraged industry executives to “collaborate, cooperate and communicate” because he believes speaking with a unified industry voice will have a significant impact on policymakers and bring positive outcomes for dairy.

“As I begin my new role, my focus will be on promoting exports, securing additional access, increasing demand and facilitating sales,” Mr. Vilsack told U.S.D.E.C. members in a memo the previous week. “I also want us to strengthen our relationships, within the broader dairy industry, in Washington and with our customers around the world.

“That’s why this job is exciting. There’s room for us to grow and expand. Growing the global market for U.S. dairy products is essential to the future of the dairy industry and America’s dairy farmers.”

Mr. Vilsack added that he sees more opportunities for U.S. dairy exports, in particular with Africa and Cuba.

“Cuba is just 90 miles away,” Mr. Vilsack said. “There’s tremendous demand there. We need to lift the embargo.”

Michael Dykes
Michael Dykes, president and c.e.o., International Dairy Foods Association, told Dairy Forum attendees that the dairy industry will be stronger when farmers and processors work together.

The previous day, Michael Dykes, I.D.F.A.’s president and c.e.o., delivered a similar message regarding industry collaboration.

“We’ll be stronger working together,” he said.

He identified key areas where the dairy industry should come together in their efforts. These include building relationships with the new administration and new Congress, and pursuing common goals on the farm bill, the school lunch program, trade policy, the Nutrition Facts Panel and G.M.O. disclosure standards.

Mr. Dykes joined I.D.F.A. on Oct. 1. He told attendees the dairy industry cannot turn back the clock and do things the old way.

“We are in a new food culture,” he said.

That new food culture is not just the information-craving, food-skeptical consumer. It is also Mr. Vilsack’s replacement at U.S.D.A.

Mr. Vilsack explained to Dairy Forum attendees that it’s tradition to leave a letter for the incoming secretary, a position appointed — still to be confirmed — to former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

“I did not write a letter,” Mr. Vilsack said. “It was a 24-page memo. I wanted to make sure he understood that U.S.D.A. is a department that is significantly less partisan. And that agriculture is a surplus economy that supports jobs.”

The two also had a half-hour phone conversation.

“We talked trade,” he said. “I emphasized the importance and significance of trade to agriculture.”

Mr. Vilsack said that it is important for farmers and food companies to talk about the positive impact of trade, including job retention and growth across the country.

“Despite the big challenges, I think our best days are ahead,” he said.