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15 Minutes With... Krysta Harden, U.S. Dairy Export Council

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (November 2, 2021)

Krysta Harden has long been a trailblazer for women in ag, having spent decades advocating for women’s place in the sector, all the while working her way up and across the industry herself. Harden is currently CEO and president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a position she was named to in February 2021 (though she started with USDEC in May 2020 as COO). She represents dairy farmers, processors, cooperatives, ingredient suppliers, and export traders in the mission to enhance U.S. competitiveness in global dairy markets. She is only the third person to have held this role since 1995, and is USDEC’s first female chief executive.

Harden is vocal about her vision to lead USDEC into a new era of growth, noting in a USDEC press release from earlier this year: "I will continue his [former USDEC CEO and president Tom Vilsack] aggressive approach to engaging USDEC member companies, exporters, and dairy producers in export market development efforts. I'll also work with DMI leadership on issues critical to the dairy industry while leveraging USDEC's unique leadership role in promoting the United States' preeminent position as sustainably producing the highest quality dairy products and ingredients anywhere in the world."

This passion to serve in agriculture was borne from Harden’s humble beginnings working on her family’s peanut farm in Georgia, which drew her to public service and fighting for what mattered to her family back on the farm. With that, she built a storied career that included three years as deputy secretary of agriculture for the USDA, culminating her work that began in 2009 at the organization. Before leading USDEC, she had been executive VP of global environmental strategy for Dairy Management Inc., and before that, served in public policy and sustainability roles for Dupont and Corteva.

Krysta Harden (right), visits Marilyn Hershey of Ar-Joy Farms in Cochranville, Pa.

Through the years, Harden has been a strong supporter of the Women in Agribusiness Summit, having twice been a speaker, once delivering the keynote address, and this year, through USDEC, becoming a student scholarship sponsor.

WIA Today caught up with Harden at her USDEC office in Arlington, Virginia.

1). You’re barely a year into your new position, a year where a global pandemic has shaken all businesses, particularly agriculture, and forced recalibrations. What have been the greatest challenges this year for USDEC, and what is the plan to move beyond them?

I'll start by talking about opportunity, because I do believe that our producers are the best in the world. We produce great products, and the world needs dairy. We're excited to be a part of that exchange, but we are facing some headwinds right now, and it's not due to lack of demand. It’s really a couple of issues. The main one is shipping, or really the cost of getting goods to customers around the world, specifically in Southeast Asia. I think the average cost of transporting a container of dairy products has gone up about 200 percent since last year, and that is a really high hurdle for any of our processors, companies, and cooperatives who are shipping goods. It really has taken a toll. We thought this problem was going to be managed in a couple of months, but now we're looking at an extended period of time.

There are a number of efforts underway in regard to this. We are working very closely with our sister organization, the National Milk Producers Federation, which is a policy arm of our industry. We're supporting legislation HR 4996 that's on the Hill. We're working with the White House, the Department of Transportation, The Federal Maritime Commission, and USDA. It is a constant effort to make sure that those who have the power to assist us do everything they can.

Labor is a part of it, but just a tiny part of it. Frankly, it really is the purchasing that many of us did during the pandemic. We're buying more, so we're importing more, which is causing the congestion in the incoming ports, and then this ripples throughout the U.S. supply chain. It is a compounded issue, especially when you add in the weather and storm issues, and there's no one place to go to just fix this. As much as we can, we are working with the maritime industry, port authorities, and others within the supply chain to rectify this.

2). Some reports indicate a decline in demand for dairy, though there is evidence of its staying power, such as the fact that U.S. dairy export value grew by 9 percent to $6.6 billion in 2020, and U.S. milk production has grown by 15 percent, or 1.4 percent per year on average since 2000. What do you see for the future of dairy?

The outlook for dairy exports, in spite of some of the headwinds I just mentioned, is still good. We're still breaking numbers with our exports. We had a good year in 2020 – there is a lot of demand for U.S. dairy around the world. Last year, we increased production, and 75 percent of that increase in U.S. dairy products was exported. We continue to break records almost every month with demand overseas where we are building a reputation, establishing an image of really high-quality, high-value products coming from U.S. dairy.

Additionally, we’ve started to diversify our markets. We’ve always had a strong relationship with Mexico – and it remains a very key market, our biggest market. But we have started to grow international demand for U.S. dairy, particularly in Southeast Asia. Last year, we opened, in the middle of the pandemic, a brick-and-mortar office, the U.S. Center for Dairy Excellence, in Singapore. We put our stake in the ground to say we're going to be a competitor in these key markets, and we’ve started to see real progress in places like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In the Americas, we've been able to do more even with and beyond just Mexico and South and Central America. Diversification of our markets has been a big part of the success for U.S. dairy exports.

3). What impact have tariffs and trade wars had on the U.S. dairy export market?

A very good question, Michelle. Certainly the retaliatory tariffs with China took a real toll on the U.S., but we're gradually coming back. We're exporting a lot of whey and lactose to China, and we'd like to expand that portfolio under new circumstances, and grow that market. China, for example, is a market where the government is saying to its people: "increase your daily consumption of dairy and dairy products". We see great opportunity in that vast market, and want to make sure we take advantage of it.

The other thing is we haven't had any new trade agreements in a long time in the U.S., certainly not in the last four years. So we are talking to the current administration quite a bit about this as we need to make sure we have a level playing field, such as our competitors do in key markets. That's a big part of our potential growth as well.

4). It would be remiss to speak about dairy without addressing the proliferation of “dairy alternatives.” Is this a big hit to dairy exports or a small blip on the radar?

Well, if you look at it globally, we always say that consumers want choices, they deserve choices. But we actually export a lot more ingredients – the components of dairy, like whey and milk powder, which then goes into smoothies, sports bars, infant formula, and more. Many of the alternatives have a hard time matching that protein and the other nutrients that are offered in dairy and those ingredients, so you don't see the same head-to-head competition as you might when you look at the domestic fluid market for other beverages.

We're not complacent though, we're very actively talking with our customers, talking with consumers about the benefits of dairy, and making sure that folks understand the powerful pack that dairy has – the punch it has with protein and other naturally occurring ingredients. It's a little bit different conversation than it is domestically, when you really are talking more of a fluid, or chilled milk, as some folks call it around the world.

5). What do you see as a game-changer for the ag sector in the next five years?

We have very productive, efficient farmers in the U.S. and I'm very proud of that. Exports have been a big part of our growth in the U.S., whether it's in dairy or other parts of the ag sector, and I don't see that slowing down.

I see us being very competitive around the world. If you think about population, we are 4 or 5 percent of the world's population in the U.S., with 95 percent living beyond our boarders. That’s a lot of people outside of the U.S. who are looking for healthy, nutritious, sustainably produced food, and we can be a part of that. The U.S. can't do it all, but we can certainly be a big part of helping others feed themselves, and augmenting and stretching and complementing what they produce at home. It’s about a combination of local and global to make sure there is a balanced diet that it is produced sustainably and available for everyone.

I am excited about what I see in regions like Southeast Asia, where the population is more than double that of the U.S., and they look to the U.S. to help be a part of their healthy diets. We obviously need some trade agreements and some non-tariff barriers, and a more aggressive and proactive approach to trade. With that, I am confident that we can certainly be competitive in dairy, as well as other parts of agriculture.

6). You’ve built your career through movement to various ag positions – both in the public and private sectors. Why seek these transitions?

I wanted to keep growing. I've always wanted to stretch myself and my skills. I was encouraged by parents who said I could do anything I set my mind to, as long as I worked hard and was honest about it. I believed that. They also taught me that you have to learn, you have to stretch, you have to feel uncomfortable, you have to even be scared sometimes to be able to keep growing. And that's why I have been very deliberate and careful about making sure that I was challenged, that I didn't always take the easy path, especially for a female. I had to push the envelope, I had to elbow my way in sometimes, to be perfectly honest, at that seat at the table. I was often one of the very few female voices, or the only one, but I knew that I needed to be there, I wanted to be there, and I should be there.

I just look for those kinds of opportunities and their benefits. Sometimes I felt right at home, and sometimes I felt a little out of place. But I knew I was learning, I knew I was growing, and I knew I could make a difference. That’s really what my career has been about. I'm still that daughter of farmers who grew up on a dirt road in southwest Georgia. The picture of that road is behind me always. It sits over my shoulder and reminds me not only of who I am and where I came from, but what I can do.

7). You’ve always been an advocate for those starting out in the sector – particularly in guiding young women - what advice would you give to women starting out today in ag?

There have been times in my world when you were supposed to be seen but not heard. It was difficult when you had an opinion or an idea, and you didn't always feel welcome to share it. Quite frankly, I didn't have a lot of role models. And so I looked for people, men and women, who I thought conducted themselves professionally and were effective and fair, and I clung to them for advice and counsel. Most of my bosses have been men, yet they empowered me and they guided me and coached me, and they gave me a lot of room to grow.

The first piece of advice I would give to young women is knowing you belong there. Don't let anybody make you feel like you don’t because you do, and then use that seat at the table as wisely as you can because there are a lot of people looking at you, and counting on you to make a difference, even if it's just in small ways. I always tell young women to be the kind of role model that they would look up to, and to allow yourself to learn and know what you know, and also what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help to figure it out.

So be yourself. Know your limitations. Know your strengths. And then just feel confident that you belong there and that you can grow and make a difference, and strive to be happy and satisfied in your work. I tell everybody to love what they do, and do what they love.

I will add, though, that we make sure we also have women in leadership roles. We need women leaders, not just involved in agriculture, but leading agriculture. My passion right now is making sure these young women who are getting involved in agriculture see themselves as CEOs, as members of a cabinet, as leaders, a governor or chair of an ag committee, at the state level, even in their own community – a chair of a conservation district, whatever it might be, that they're not just there, but they're also leading.

It's so imperative that we have diversity of voices, more women's faces, more people of color, people from different walks of life, to help our industry continue to be relatable, and continue to grow. I believe that the next round of leadership is going to come more and more from women. I think as women in agriculture, we're just getting started, and I'm very excited about what's ahead.

About Krysta Harden

Krysta Harden is president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a position she has held since February 2021. She is the first woman to lead USDEC, and the third president and CEO since its founding by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) in 1995.

Prior to taking the top spot at USDEC, Harden served dual roles as USDEC’s chief operating officer and DMI’s executive vice-president of global environmental strategy. Before this, she served as chief sustainability officer with Corteva and DuPont. Harden also spent seven years working at USDA, nearly three of those years as deputy secretary, where she helped shape agriculture policy and led the implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill.

Before her work at USDA, Harden was CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, and also worked with the American Soybean Association as senior vice president of Gordley Associates. She spent 12 years on Capitol Hill as staff director for the House subcommittee on peanuts and tobacco, and as chief of staff and press secretary for former Congressman Charles Hatcher.

Harden is a strong advocate for expanding opportunity for women, young people, immigrants, socially disadvantaged producers, and returning veterans and retirees, among others. She lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband, Charles Hatcher.


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