Wisconsin is mooing more about the virtues of its milk

Olympic gold medal winner Beth Heiden smiles warmly into the television camera while pedaling her bicycle down a suburban street. After a few seconds, she hops off the 10-speed, sits at a table, and guzzles down a glass of frothy white milk.

''Athletics and milk are two things I enjoy,'' the petite young woman tells the audience. ''Milk is an easy choice!''

More commercials like this will soon hit Wisconsin and Chicago-area television screens if Wisconsin dairy industry leaders have their way. State agricultural organizations and cooperatives are keeping their fingers crossed, hoping their members approve a proposal to create an $11 million marketing program for Wisconsin dairy products.

The program, which would be funded by a 5-cent deduction on each hundred pounds of milk sold by farmers, is being debated at regional hearings throughout the state.

''There are two key issues here - survival and the future,'' said farmer Roy Goetsch at a recent hearing in the city of Appleton. ''If we want to retain any portion of the US market, we have to advertise.''

Pointing to the successful generic advertising of agricultural products such as orange juice and cranberries, agricultural leaders in the nation's dairy state claim that ''Wisconsin has a lot of catching up to do.''

The state has been hit hard by the national dairy surplus. It is the country's top milk and butter producer, cranking out 22.5 billion gallons of milk last year. Its nearest rival is California, which trails with 14 billion gallons.

Unlike the populous Pacific Coast state, Wisconsin has only 4.5 million residents. Eighty-five percent of its milk must be sold out of state. Yet Wisconsin has traditionally done little to market its products.

''When somebody at a convention hears that I'm from Wisconsin, they say, 'Oh, that's the state that makes all the milk and doesn't do anything about it,' '' quipped Charles Farr, director of the dairy division of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives.

To make matters worse, in the past 20 years fewer dealers have been buying Wisconsin milk, noted Gregory Blaska, corporate director of the Associated Milk Producers dairy cooperative. Pet and Fairmont have pulled out, and Borden has substantially reduced its operations, he said.

At the same time, the state is facing stiffer competition from the South and Southwest, and from the flourishing imitation dairy product industry, he added.

''For 1981, dairy promotion amounted to $87 million, but during the same period, General Foods spent $91 million to promote three products - Cool Whip, Kool-Aid, and coffee whiteners - all in competition with dairy products,'' Mr. Farr explained.

The imitation dairy product boom has hurt farmers in other ways. Private companies that used to invest in dairy product research and development now devote their energies to its competition, claimed Pete Hardin, publisher of a farmers' marketing report, The Milkweed.

''Selling more dairy products to consumers is the ultimate solution to the dairy situation,'' the publisher claimed.

Mr. Hardin recommends that the dairy industry investigate the marketing of such products as new luxury ice creams, low-sodium cheese, string cheese, and ethnic specialties.

The current milk marketing referendum, which would earmark funds for research and development, will probably be approved by Wisconsin dairy farmers, observers say. It could pass as early as next February.

At the first public hearing earlier this month, farmers bickered over the plan's provisions. However, the majority agreed that if Wisconsin's dairy industry is to survive, it must advertise.

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