As a fifth-generation dairy farmer in South Dakota, my passion for dairy farming grew out of a desire to not only care for my animals and the land, but to also create wholesome, healthy products that are household staples. When I started dairy farming full-time in 1982, that seemed to be enough. Consumers bought our products, and the milk checks came. Today, that isn’t the case, leaving many farmers asking, what’s changed?

While there isn’t a simple answer, one of the factors impacting farmers has been the significant shift in the way consumers shop, now continually seeking new products and brands that align with their values, especially in the food and beverage categories. Furthermore, people want to try what’s new. Younger generations such as millennials and Gen Z have grown up with endless information — sometimes misinformation — at their fingertips, often causing confusion when it comes to products such as dairy.

Because of all this and more, dairy has gotten lost in the shuffle. Our products have and will continue to be products that have virtually everything consumers are looking for. Clean labels. Sustainablity. Excellent nutrition and value. However, somewhere along the way, these attributes haven’t resonated with today’s consumers, leaving us to question how we — farmers, processors and retailers — come together as a unified community to drive dairy demand.

At Midwest Dairy, we are continually investing in opportunities to collaborate as an industry. Two years ago, we created the Dairy Experience Forum to foster relationships and have real, and at times challenging, conversations with each other. As chairman of the Midwest Dairy board, I was thrilled to have the chance to bring academia, retailers, processors and farmers together at the forum to talk about dairy not as a commodity, but as products that consumers want and need.

Different from other industry meetings, the event brings together so many different people with unique backgrounds, sparking exciting ideas and new ways of thinking instead of keeping us all in our own silos, talking only to one another. These raw, unfiltered, face-to-face discussions opened our eyes to why this collaboration and discussion are more important than ever. Here’s why:

1. We must learn from each other in order to be authentic and transparent. Consumers want to know the origin of their products and how they are made, but how can we tell these stories if we haven’t learned of them firsthand?

How can retailers, processors and brands tell authentic stories about their products, or be transparent in their processes, if they’ve never been to a local farm or talked to a farmer? And how can dairy farmers successfully share our story of sustainability or how we produce our nutritious products if we don’t understand the hurdles processors, retailors and brands face or what their customers are looking for?

We need to be open, honest and curious, and we need to connect with each other tell our stories and ultimately connect with consumers to increase dairy demand.

2. We must welcome disruptive innovation. The best ideas, the ones that hit the bullseye in the minds of consumers, can come from anywhere. We must talk about what’s working and what’s not so we can find solutions instead of dwelling on the problems. As a unified supply chain, we need to think with a consumer mindset to understand how we fit into their needs. It’s not about us, it’s about them.

This shift in mindset allows us to focus on opportunities and create disruptive innovation. In my mind, a great example of this is to look at lactose. Because of lactose intolerance, there is now a market for excess lactose. How do we turn a challenge into an opportunity for this byproduct? By talking with others throughout the supply chain, we can identify how this byproduct can fit a consumer need to create a new, innovative product.

3. We must be open to change. In my eyes, the third big takeaway from this year’s Dairy Experience Forum is that farmers need to stop thinking of themselves as a commodity, but instead as a brand. They need to listen to consumers and have authentic conversations with not only other farmers, but also processors, retailers and brands to understand what consumers want and ultimately for all of us to sell more dairy.

It is essential for everyone in the dairy supply chain to sit in the same room and hear everyone’s perspectives, challenges and opportunities. We can’t ignore the challenges, and we can’t ignore each other. Let us work together to find solutions and opportunities to overcome the challenges we’re currently facing and turn the industry around. Together, as one invested industry, we will drive dairy demand.