Cheryl Smith, Dairy Farmers of Ontario

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures; grocery retailers and food manufacturers have implemented such measures to ensure that Canadians continue to have access to safe food. Grocers have modified their in-store practices and suppliers have changed manufacturing processes and their supply chains to address unprecedented demand. “In Their Own Words” brings the behind-the-scenes stories to Grocery Business' readers.

Cheryl Smith, CEO, Dairy Farmers of Ontario

Crisis leadership initiatives

We’ve focused much of our efforts in two key areas: safety and wellbeing, and communication.

The safety of our employees and dairy producers, and the integrity of the food supply chain have always been top priorities for Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO). We took swift action early-on to transition as many of our employees as we could, to work-from-home arrangements and provided them, and our dairy producers, with guidance on how to remain safe while controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus. We updated on-farm protocols that included strict measures for milk pick-ups, disinfection of milk houses, and recommendations for on-farm visitors – all with a view to demonstrating and emphasizing our commitment to the protection of producers, and workers, within the food supply chain.

It’s been humbling, throughout the crisis, to see our dairy farmers standing strong, doing the work they’ve always done to provide high quality milk to nourish Canadians. COVID-19 didn’t interrupt this work, it just made us think about doing the work differently.

We also increased communication with our producers and employees and dialed-up the frequency of touchpoints with our processor partners and government. Sharing organizational and industry developments, dispelling rumours, and making sure the right information is getting to the people who matter has never been more important. We’re using new communications and marketing vehicles to make sure we’re getting our message out, working closely with agricultural groups in Ontario and across Canada, and closely monitoring demand to make sure milk and dairy products are available for consumers.

Impact on the supply chain

The COVID-19 outbreak remains a deeply concerning health emergency and economic disruption both here at home and around the world. It created a very unstable demand for dairy in the first weeks of the crisis. Early consumer behaviour - panic buying, stockpiling - and the near shut-down of the foodservice and hospitality industry caused a great deal of fluctuation in demand. What’s interesting though, is that as the weeks go on, we are seeing Canadians turning to dairy more often to nourish themselves and their families. As a result, where milk sales have been stagnant or in decline for decades, we are now seeing growth. And even though the food supply chain is still managing shockwaves from early in the crisis, we are seeing real shifts in consumer behaviour toward increased dairy consumption. We are carefully monitoring demand to make sure supply is aligned with these new consumer patterns, and while we aim to be agile in responding to the current market conditions, we are focused on the medium and long term where we expect consumption to normalize.

In the midst of all of this, we have been mindful of the economic impact across the province. People finding themselves without work, or without enough work; children no longer benefiting from school milk and breakfast programs. DFO and its partners are among the largest donors to food banks in Ontario. In March our board approved a special cash donation and incremental milk for Feed Ontario to support those in need. Not only did our producers feel strongly that we do more to help those impacted by the crisis, they stood-up to help deliver on this donation in their own regions. 

Your business takeaways from this experience

Over the last few years, the dairy industry in Canada has seen some significant changes. Long before the pandemic struck, we were looking at new ways to make decisions faster, be more agile and responsive, and pay closer attention to what was happening around us, globally. One of the ways we’re going to help navigate this new environment, and the uncertainty that’s now come along with the COVID-19 crisis, is to focus on becoming a culture of continuous improvement at DFO. Not only does this kind of mindset help us to continue providing services to our producers during the pandemic, it helps us achieve our strategic goals over the long term. No one could have imagined the impact COVID-19 would have on our daily lives, but there is a lot to be learned from this experience about prioritizing, supporting each other, showing gratitude and continuing to look ahead. 

As we carefully find our way to the ‘new normal’, we’ll continue to look to our 3,400+ dairy producers and their families, our employees, transporters and processor partners to make sure our approach is what’s best for everyone. It’s more important than ever that we stay focused on the work we have to do to support the food supply chain – it’s what dairy farmers do.

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