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Farmers search for ways to combat cross-border dairy shopping

Provincial and national dairy organizations are rolling out 
programs to convince consumers that Canadian milk and 
cheese is the better choice

Cross-border shopping is taking a bite out of Canadian dairy sales.

“They go for gasoline and then end up picking other supplies up, too,” said Henry Holtmann, vice-chairman of Dairy Farmers of Manitoba.

British Columbia is the epicentre for cross-border dairy sales, he said, adding it has seen approximately 10 million litres lost to American retailers.

“But this affects the whole pool,” said Holtmann. “In Manitoba, we’re responsible for about 17 per cent of that. We share losses and growth.”

Canadian custom regulations limit the amount of dairy products an individual can bring into Canada to $20 worth. However, it doesn’t appear that regulation is being enforced, Holtmann said.

“I guess Canada Customs is not looking at that, they’ve got too many other things on the go,” he said.

So while customs agents focus on drugs and national security, cheese often gets a free pass.

All this coincides with a strong Canadian dollar and increased tax exemptions for those shopping south of the border, added Holtmann.

“What’s the solution to this? We’re exploring that right now,” he said.

One of the avenues his organization and the Dairy Farmers of Canada are looking at is emphasizing the quality of Canadian dairy products.

“We really want to establish that there is a difference between the dairy products you buy in Canada versus those bought in other regions,” said Holtmann.

Buying Canadian dairy products means you’re buying local and can be assured of quality control, said Holtmann, adding the classic “Blue Cow” label is being updated to reflect current social values and consumer concerns.

The long-standing label will soon be backed by an integrated program of on-farm best practices, bringing traceability, sustainability, animal welfare, quality and biosecurity under one program.

Consumers are already demanding more information about how their food is produced and retailers are responding in kind, said Holtmann.

“So how do we measure this and put it under the Blue Cow label? That’s what we’re working on,” he said.

However, some producers are concerned the program will add unnecessary complexities to their routines.

“Why can’t we tell our story without adding to our workload?” asked Jill Verwey, echoing a common sentiment at a recent producer meeting in Portage la Prairie.

Holtmann responded by saying that although the stories behind producers are very important, they must be backed up with facts and numbers.

And although some consumers will always be motivated by price, he said the idea of value needs to be emphasized to keep consumers shopping north of the border.

To assist in getting that message out the Strategic Milk Alliance has been formed. The alliance is an evolution of the Prairie Milk Marketing Partnership, which later became Milk West with the addition of B.C. Now that the Dairy Farmers of Canada has joined in, the initiative will cover all provinces except Quebec.

“This is about maximizing the value of our advertising dollars,” said Dairy Farmers of Manitoba board member Scott Gilson.

The effort includes more market research into which demographics should be targeted for optimal response.

“One thing we’ve found through this is that teenage girls aren’t drinking as much milk as they used to,” said Holtmann. “So we want to target the right groups in the right markets.”

The central plank in all marketing will be a focus on the quality of Canadian dairy products, he said.

“Basically, at the end of the day, Canadian product differentiation is key,” Holtmann said.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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