Northeast organic milk producers under pressure as processors look west

SEARSMONT, Maine – Glendon Mehuren II’s Faithful Venture Farm, 35 miles east of the state capital of Augusta, looks as peaceful as the farms pictured on organic milk cartons. Cows roam among the weathered barns perched on a hill surrounded by small pastures and woodlands.

But things have been bad on the farm since August. It was then that Mr. Mehuren received a certified letter from Horizon Organic, which had been purchasing its milk for 16 years. He said he was terminating his contract in a year. Horizon delivered the same letter to 88 other organic dairy farms from Maine to New York City.

In December, Horizon granted a reprieve to all affected farmers, extending their contracts until February 2023 and paying a little more for the milk. But the future of small dairy farmers in the Northeast still appears difficult.

For the past 20 years, organic milk has offered a lifeline to small farms in the Northeast, allowing them to stay afloat while milking 100 cows or less. Now these farms are facing problems as there is a shortage of milk processors in the region and an overabundance of milk from huge organic dairies in the western states.

On a cool December morning, Mr. Mehuren and one of his daughters were milking their Holsteins in the small parlor, in six teams of eight cows. Her father was outside in a tractor, carrying hay. Mr Mehuren was quick to name the names of the many neighboring dairy farms that had failed over the past decades. The farms that have survived have grown, hoping the volume would compensate for low milk prices, he said.

“Milk prices were very low in the early 2000s,” he said, and many small farmers felt the only options were to grow up or die. “Then the organic accord arrived. “

This gave small farmers a third option. Mr. Mehuren obtained organic certification for his farm and dairy herd and started selling milk to Horizon in 2005.

Since then, organic milk has grown to represent more than 5 percent of the country’s dairy market, and it is dominated by large corporations. Horizon Organic is owned by the French company Danone. Stonyfield Organic, the New Hampshire yogurt maker that buys organic milk from New England farmers, is owned by Lactalis. And the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Farmers Co-op now has more than $ 1 billion in annual revenue.

During this time, bottling consolidated in the largest milk factories outside of New England. Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, said almost all packaged organic milk is now ultra-pasteurized, giving it months of shelf life.

“Previously, you had your supply locally in your market,” Mr. Maltby said. “Now that paradigm has been overturned. The whole concept of regionality has disappeared.

Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, agreed.

“If you go to a grocery store in Maine, there’s Horizon milk on the shelves, and, yes, Horizon comes from 14 producers in Maine,” she said. “But the milk that’s on the shelves can come from Colorado, it can come from Ohio, it can come from Virginia.”

Chris Adamo, vice president of government affairs, policy and partnerships at Danone North America, said several factors contributed to Horizon’s withdrawal from New England.

“The Northeast region presents a number of ongoing challenges in picking up and transporting the milk to the processing facility we use in western New York,” Adamo said in an emailed statement. .

“Although the reduced mileage is important, it is only one factor,” he added. Mr Adamo cited the shortage of truck drivers as another.

As Horizon pulls out, another challenge for organic dairy producers in the Northeast is competition from large farms.

“There has been a huge growth in organic dairy farms west of Mississippi – Texas, Colorado,” said Richard Kersbergen, a professor in the University of Maine Co-operative Extension Program who has worked with Maine dairy farmers ever since. 37 years. “This has created a situation where these mega-organic dairy farms are able to produce organic milk at a much cheaper cost than these farms in the Northeast. “

One company, Aurora Organic, owns 27,000 dairy cows on four farms in Colorado and Texas, according to its website, the equivalent of about 500 small farms in New England. Ms. Alexander called these operations “factory farms”.

Amanda Beal, the commissioner for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said she was concerned that large organic farms in the West might not be held to the same standards as those in the Northeast. Two organic certification rules set by the US Department of Agriculture have long been the subject of contention: those requiring organic livestock to have access to pasture, and the “origin of cattle” rule limiting the conversion of conventional cows to organic cows. .

Ms Beal said she would like to see the pasture rule applied more consistently by organic certifiers nationwide. She said she also hoped the USDA would soon clarify the rule of origin for breeding to eliminate loopholes used by larger dairies.

“It creates a level playing field for our farmers,” said Ms. Beal. “I think if the playing field were level, our farmers could certainly hold on. “

Ms Beal asked Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, about it when she and her counterparts from other northeastern states met with him twice, via video, to discuss the cancellation of contracts by Horizon.

Ms. Beal understands organic dairy farms because she grew up there. This farm, now managed by his brother, is one of those abandoned by Horizon.

“I really want to stress that this is not a farm or my family’s farm,” she said. “It’s about 14 family farms in Maine and 89 family farms in the Northeast, and they are all, each of them, important.”

At Faithful Venture Farm, as he cleaned the milking parlor between milkings, Mr. Mehuren said he understood the trends in the dairy industry but didn’t think it was a improvement.

“Having 10 farms milking 50 cows is tremendously better for local economies than a farm with 500 cows,” he said. “Consolidation seems to be the name of the game. The local hardware store is closing and you have a Super Walmart.

Mr Mehuren and other farmers in Maine are hoping they can sell their milk to Organic Valley or Stonyfield Organic, the only other commercial buyers of organic milk in the state.

The extension of Horizon’s contracts until 2023 was only a small consolation for Judy Smith of the More Acres farm in East Dixfield. Ms Smith, 68, and her husband, Leslie, 77, milked 30 cows and sold to Horizon. They hoped to hand over the farm to their 40-year-old son. But Horizon’s August letter put an end to that dream. The uncertainty seemed too great and they sold the dairy herd.

“We were between a rock and a hard place,” Ms. Smith said. “We were heartbroken when those cows had to leave, I’ll tell you what. They were more than just cash cows to us.

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