KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For the last two years, Extension specialists with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture have led the USDA’s Southeast Dairy Business Innovation Initiatives (SDBII) program across Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. A new round of funding is expanding the program’s reach to all 12 southeastern states, including Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina as well as Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
Managed by Liz Eckelkamp, UT Extension Dairy Specialist in the Department of Animal Science, the third round of SDBII funding from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) — $6.13 million — will provide half of its funds directly to dairy businesses through a competitive grant program for planning new ventures and implementing new processes to produce higher value dairy products. The two previous rounds of funding offered a host of technical support services and workshops to dairy businesses with existing or intended value-added enterprises, including about $3.3 million awarded across 34 unique projects that have the potential to substantially improve the viability of dairy businesses in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
“This is a needed continuation of programs for our value-added dairy businesses,” says Eckelkamp. “We are grateful for the opportunity to continue partnering with our collaborators at the UT Center for Profitable Agriculture, NC State, University of Kentucky, KCARD, and KDDC. From the request numbers we have received, we can definitively say there is a need for this next round of funding, and we are looking forward to expanding our grant program across the Southeast.” Previously the program received 68 applications from dairy businesses for a total of $8,053,000 in requests across Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.
In the coming years, the SDBII will implement several new initiatives that will complement its existing programming. One of the unique projects that has been implemented through previous stages of SDBII is the Dairy Gauge Program. Dairy Gauge helps dairy producers understand their production costs and make informed investment decisions for the farm. With the new USDA funds allotted, SDBII will build upon the Dairy Gauge by helping dairy processors to better understand the costs of producing finished dairy products. The new Value-Added Business Gauge will help processors establish costs of production and compare year-to-year costs and revenues.
Another of the SDBII team’s new objectives will be to conduct surveys to establish what products and experiences consumers are looking for from value-added dairy businesses. One of the particularly innovative tools that will be used to better understand consumer desires is eye-tracking technology. SDBII personnel will use this technology at retail stores of cooperating farmstead creameries to see what their customers prefer and help tailor their marketing practices accordingly. SDBII will also create more educational materials focused on marketing, reaching target demographics, and better understanding potential consumers.
To foster a new generation of professionals with value-added dairy experience, the SDBII will begin offering an internship program. Through this program, individuals will receive on-the-job training while helping to offset the labor needs of value-added dairy businesses. Interns will be matched with businesses during high production demand times to provide relief when it is needed most. SDBII will also provide leadership trainings for dairy business owners through a program entitled “Mastering Individual Leadership Knowledge” or MILK for short.
SDBII will further expand the stakeholders it serves by identifying underserved groups within the dairy community. Region-wide surveys will be conducted to determine how many minority-owned dairy businesses currently exist and to identify unique challenges these groups face. This initiative will help SDBII continue to ensure all dairy businesses have access to the opportunities and resources provided through the program.
Value-added dairy producers that milk small ruminants such as sheep and goats are a small but growing portion of the dairy community. A portion of the new funding will provide more support for this community of producers. Compared to cow dairies, limited technical support and learning materials are available to small ruminant dairy businesses. SDBII will produce publications and resources targeted at addressing the lack of information available to these business owners.
The newly awarded SDBII funds were announced in November 2021 and will allow the program to continue to build on the work it has already done to serve dairy producers and processors. This work will now be expanded to serve the entire Southeast.
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