MADISON, Wis. – Karen Nielsen recently was named program coordinator for the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance. The alliance is a partnership between the Center for Dairy Research and the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. It’s a result of the 2018 farm bill, which created the Dairy Business Innovation Initiative to help dairy farmers and processors create new revenue streams through increased diversification and creation of greater-value dairy products. Nielsen has been busy coordinating the alliance’s grant program, which solicits, reviews and approves proposals from dairy farms and businesses.
The native of Glenwood City, Wisconsin, is no stranger to the dairy business. She began working in 1994 as the program manager for the Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development. She later became associate director and eventually director of the institute. But in 2014 federal funding for the institute was eliminated through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Special Grants program.
In her early days at the institute Nielsen edited a variety of dairy guides. Later she coordinated international training programs for dairy farmers, veterinarians and other agribusiness professionals. That included the International Dairy Short Course, which was held each fall in Madison. The three-day program was scheduled to coincide with World Dairy Expo so individuals could participate in both events.
In a span of more than 20 years the Babcock Institute trained more than 8,000 people from 83 countries, she said. It frequently worked with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection along with the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the dairy industry to host dairy seminars and workshops.
Nielsen traveled to other countries for her job. From 2005 to 2015 she traveled with groups of dairy-industry professionals throughout China to seminars conducted with China Agricultural University. The trips included visits to dairy trade shows. She also participated in Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection trade missions to China.
“Those missions really helped to open markets for Wisconsin businesses; we got a lot accomplished,” she said of the public-private-sector partnership.
One of the most memorable times of her career, she said, involved a visit to Wisconsin by members of the Kosovo Ministry of Agriculture. The country in 2008 declared its independence from Serbia. But the war leading to that independence devastated the agricultural sector; large numbers of livestock had been killed in the conflict. The members of the agricultural ministry came to Wisconsin seeking help regarding how to rebuild their country’s dairy industry.
“Wisconsin farmers, university professors and legislators came to help and share ideas about what direction Kosovo could take with its agriculture industry,” she said. “That showed me again how people in our industry have such big hearts and a willingness to help each other.”
Norm Monsen, dairy economic-development consultant for the Wisconsin ag department, said, “And Karen has a big heart.”
In his years of work with the agriculture department he has collaborated with Nielsen many times. Her international experience in the dairy industry is just one of the many strengths she brings to her new role with the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance, he said.
“Karen has traveled extensively and has seen how dairy operates in other countries,” he said. “She’s well-connected and has the respect of dairy farmers and processors. I’ve always admired her work. She’ll make things happen (for the alliance).”
John Lucey, director of the Center for Dairy Research and a professor of food science at UW-Madison, reiterated the importance of Nielsen’s industry connections to the new Dairy Business Innovation Alliance.
“Karen brings a deep knowledge of the dairy industry, and has connections across dairy and farm organizations,” he said.
In his work at the Center for Dairy Research, Lucey knows dairy processors. But Nielsen has worked with many farmers in her years of providing workshops and other educational programs. That will be especially important as the alliance awards grants and provides strategic-business training to farmers, he said.
The Dairy Business Innovation Center was created to build Wisconsin’s specialty-cheese industry to help farmers and processors develop non-commodity products that would garner better prices. The center helped to create – from 2004 to 2012 – more than 40 dairy-processing plants in the state.
“We provided funding for Wisconsin producers to learn cheese-making skills from European cheese makers,” Nielsen said. “Most cheesemakers from that program continue to make award-winning artisan cheese today.”
The center had been funded by federal earmarks secured by then-U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But in 2011 Congress placed a two-year ban on earmarks; the center was forced to operate on reduced funding. Other funding sources weren’t enough to support the program and it ceased operation in September 2012.
After the Babcock Institute closed in 2014, Nielsen helped coordinate training for a new dairy center established in China by the Nestle Corporation. The company chose the dairy-science department at UW-Madison to develop curriculum for the center and provide management training for farm workers, owners and managers.
Nielsen and Jill Stahl-Tyler in 2015 founded Global Dairy Outreach LLC. The two women had met years earlier when Stahl-Tyler would bring trainees and interns from the California Polytechnic State University dairy program to World Dairy Expo and the International Dairy Short Course.
“The short course was well-done and reasonably priced so we made it an option for the group,” Stahl-Tyler said.
That program exposed international dairy farmers and others to various sizes and types of dairy operations, she said.
When the Babcock Institute closed, Nielsen and Stahl-Tyler decided to form Global Cow. With their leadership and industry connections the International Dairy Short Course continued. Stahl-Tyler is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English. Prior to forming Global Cow she served as international marketing director for Holstein Association USA.
Feedback from short-course participants also prompted Nielsen and Stahl-Tyler to launch in 2019 “Making More from Milk.” The three-day course was designed to help dairy farmers explore diversification and their options for producing value-added products. A 2020 class had been planned for March 2020 but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nielsen’s experience with the Making More from Milk program is a great fit for the alliance, Lucey said.
The Dairy Business Innovation Alliance recently was awarded $440,000 for the first round of funding from the USDA. In early September the alliance will award $220,000 in reimbursement grants to dairy farmers and processors in Wisconsin as well as Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. Grant applications are due by Aug. 14.