Friday, October 24th, 2014
Mostly True
Walker
"We’re importing about 10 percent of our milk supply. We’re America’s Dairyland, but yet we don’t have enough milk in this state to meet the demand for our cheesemakers."

Scott Walker on Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 in an interview

Wisconsin needs to import 10% of its milk? So says Gov. Scott Walker

Lucky, a dairy cow on a farm in Chilton, Wis., gazes at an Associated Press photographer.

For two decades, America’s Dairyland has suffered the indignity of being outmilked by, sheesh, California.

Now comes word that our cows don’t even produce enough milk for Wisconsin -- more needs to be brought in from other states.

The Badger State, since being eclipsed by California in milk production in 1993, has had time to cope with being No. 2. But Bucky apparently still wants to fight.

On July 10, 2013, Gov. Scott Walker spoke to reporters in Dallas, Wis. (pop. 409), at Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, which is billed as one of the largest agricultural shows in the nation. He said it is important that Wisconsin dairy farmers increase milk production to meet the demands of the state’s dairy plants.

"A lot of people don’t realize that we’re importing about 10 percent of our milk supply," Walker said, according to The Country Today, a newspaper that covers rural life in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

"We’re America’s Dairyland, but yet we don’t have enough milk in this state to meet the demand for our cheesemakers."

Do we really have to import about 10 percent of our milk?

Walker’s evidence

At the ag show, Walker talked up the state agriculture department's 30X20 program, which gives grants of up to $5,000 to dairy producers toward a goal of generating 30 billion pounds of milk per year statewide by 2020.

Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor based his claim on hard numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as two assumptions.

As we'll see, the government does not track milk "imports," or rather the shipment of milk across state lines. So, the two assumptions Walker makes are critical in evaluating his statement.

Figures from the USDA show Wisconsin produced 27.2 billion pounds of milk in 2012.

(That was up 4 percent from 2011 and is a record for Wisconsin, according to the USDA.)

From there, Walker does some calculations. He assumes, as it is widely held in dairy circles, that 90 percent of milk produced in Wisconsin is used to make cheese, as opposed to being bottled or used to make foods such as ice cream and yogurt.

That would mean 24.5 billion pounds of Wisconsin milk was available for cheese making.

Walker's other assumption is a rule of thumb -- cited by Wisconsin cheese industry folks and others, such as Harvard University -- that it takes about 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese.

So, dividing the 24.5 billion pounds of milk by 10 would mean there was enough Wisconsin milk to make 2.45 billion pounds of cheese in 2012.

But federal figures show Wisconsin actually produced more than that -- 2.79 billion pounds of cheese (tops in the United States).

That's a difference of 340 million pounds of cheese.

Put another way, it would mean Wisconsin cheese makers needed to import 3.4 billion pounds of milk to produce all of the cheese they made in 2012.

And 3.4 billion pounds of milk amounts to 12.5 percent of the 27.2 billion total pounds of milk produced in Wisconsin in 2012.

So, by Walker's figuring, his 10 percent claim is actually conservative.

That's a start. Let’s hear from some experts.

Other evidence

John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association in Madison, cited slightly older federal figures, from 2011, which he said comprise the latest complete data-set available. He also used the two assumptions Walker did.

Wisconsin produced 26.1 billion pounds of milk in 2011 -- which, using the 10-pound rule of thumb, was enough for about 2.61 billion pounds of cheese.

But Wisconsin cheese makers actually made 2.64 billion pounds of cheese in 2011.

So, using round numbers, if 90 percent of Wisconsin milk gets used for cheese, but cheese making accounts for all of the Wisconsin milk produced (and a little more), that means there's at least a 10 percent milk shortfall.

That additional milk had to come from some other state, if it didn’t come from Wisconsin.

James Robson, chief executive officer of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which works to increase the sale and consumption of Wisconsin milk and dairy products, told us Wisconsin has had a milk production shortfall for all 12 years that he has headed the Madison-based board.

He said the efficiency of Wisconsin milk production has increased the past several years, but that consumers' demand for cheese has increased even more, creating the need for milk from out of state.

(Wisconsin’s more than 1.2 million dairy cows produced 21,436 pounds of milk per cow in 2012, up 4 percent from 2011.)

"Some of our cheese makers bring in milk from as far away as Texas," Robson said.

He is also relying, however, on the two key assumptions Walker made.

What about those?

Ed Jesse, an emeritus agricultural and applied economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the first thing to know about milk shortfalls or imports is that the government does not track the shipment of milk between states.  

So, any statement about the amount of milk brought into Wisconsin is an estimate.

As for the two assumptions, Jesse said they have long been widely quoted and he doesn't necessarily argue with them, but that they aren't rock-solid, either. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of some cheeses, but less milk for others. And while it's often said 90 percent of Wisconsin milk is used for cheese making, that could be a "rural myth" but "it’s probably not far off," Jesse said.

Indeed, even the Milk Marketing Board hedges a bit, saying "as much as" 90 percent of Wisconsin milk is made into cheese.

Our rating

Walker said: "We’re importing about 10 percent of our milk supply. We’re America’s Dairyland, but yet we don’t have enough milk in this state to meet the demand for our cheesemakers."

Walker's statement is on target, based on the best available estimates, but there aren't actual statistics on how much milk is shipped to Wisconsin from out of state.

With that clarification, we rate his statement Mostly True.