OPINION I’ve had the honor of working with dairy farmers for years, and a lot of what you think about them is true. They’re modest. They’re connected to the earth. And they work incredibly hard. Every day they’re up before dawn, working 12- and 14-hour days, whether it’s 90 degrees out or 50 degrees below zero.

They choose this hard work because they believe in the importance of providing nutritious, great-tasting food — like the milk in your child’s glass or the slice of cheese on her favorite sandwich.

What you might not know is dairy farmers are working just as hard to ensure our children inherit a healthy planet. They know it’s the right thing to do. And when 95 percent of dairy farms are family-owned, they do it to ensure the land is there for their children.

But the issues facing our planet require more than just individual action, which is why the U.S. dairy community has made sustainability an industry-wide priority. Years worth of investments, research — and, yes, hard work — have allowed us to address critical environmental issues like climate change and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Ten years ago the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy — created by dairy farmers to identify best practices and unite around common goals — established a voluntary yet aggressive goal for the industry. The U.S. dairy community would reduce greenhouse-gas-emission intensity by 25 percent by 2020.

Today we are on track to meet that goal. In making the investments necessary to meet the goal set, U.S. dairy farmers have become global leaders in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. According to a report earlier this year from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “Climate Change and the Global Dairy Cattle Sector,” North American dairy farmers are the only producers who have reduced both total greenhouse-gas emissions and intensity during the past decade.

It’s not just greenhouse-gas emissions. U.S. dairy farmers work more closely with animals than just about anyone. They know that while they’re taking care of the cows, the cows are taking care of them. That’s why they created the National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management program, the first internationally-certified animal welfare program in the world.

The U.S. dairy community’s commitment to sustainability isn’t new. It’s been going on for generations. Indeed, producing milk now uses fewer natural resources than it ever has before. During the course of the lifetime of today’s average dairy farmer, producing a gallon of milk now requires 65 percent less water, 90 percent less land and 63 percent less carbon emissions.

While progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done. That’s why the U.S. dairy community and dairy farmers are committed to identifying new solutions, technologies and partnerships to continue to advance our commitment to sustainability.

So why do America’s dairy farmers work so hard to farm more sustainably? Why spend countless hours looking for innovative ways to be more efficient when they’ve already put in a 14-hour day?

It’s not because anyone told them to, or because regulation forced them to. It’s because so many of them are farming land their families have been farming for generations. They know they’re just the latest people entrusted as stewards of the earth. Farmers came before them, and farmers will come after them. Sure they have more information than any of their predecessors did. They are now tackling challenges — from climate change to global trade — their forefathers could scarcely dream of. But the responsibility of today’s dairy farmer — leaving the planet better than they found it — is no different.

This Earth Day and every day, America’s dairy farmers are living up to that responsibility. May they never tire.

Editor’s note: While this opinion piece is somewhat “preaching to the choir” for Agri-View’s readers, it was also sent to — and published by — USA Today. We like seeing that wide publication.

Tom Vilsack is the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture; he’s the current president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. Visit www.usdairy.com and www.usdec.org for more information.