A new market provides hope for Maine's organic dairy farmers – Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel

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Organic Valley farmers cooperative offers more than a dozen Maine organic dairy farmers a new market for their milk after their current contracts with Horizon Organic end.
LITCHFIELD — For Adam Beal, knowing he has access to a market for his organic milk beyond this time next year offers relief.
Last week, Organic Valley, the Wisconsin-based farmer-owned cooperative, offered Beal and nearly 80 other farmers in northern New England and New York a market for their milk through a letter of intent.
Just seven months ago, Beal was among 14 organic dairy farmers in Maine who were notified their contracts to supply milk to Horizon Organic would be terminated in 2022.
Farmhand John St. Hilaire cleans the stalls after milking at Rocky Ridge Organic Dairy Farm in Litchfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal
“It’s given us hope that there’s another contract to keep us in business,” Beal said Sunday, standing inside his barn with his dairy cows at Rocky Ridge Organic Dairy Farm. “It used to be you’d have three or four markets to choose from. Now, you have one market.”
Beal is a second-generation dairy farmer and brother of Amanda Beal, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and he wants to continue in the family business.
When the announcement came from Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of Danone North America, Beal said he did not panic because he had to finish his haying season and the announcement did not change any of his daily chores.
But it could change his longer-term planning. Like other dairy farmers, Beal has invested time and money into developing his herd, and decisions about the number of cows he has will have a long-term impact on the operation.
“Every farmer always tells you, ‘Take care of your cows and they will take care of you,’” Beal said. “That’s always the mentality. In this day and age, you really have to pay attention to business to stay in the business.”
For now, Beal is considering the Organic Valley offer. He has not signed the letter yet, he said, because he is still reviewing the materials he has received.
Joshua Fairfield, spokesman for Organic Valley, said the farms the coop has contacted have contracts that end at different times.
“Not all of them are out of the current contracts,” Fairfield said. “What we’re doing is giving them security, and they can come on to Organic Valley.”
Fairfield said several farmers have already signed and will become members of the coop, which expects to release initial numbers later this week.
While Organic Valley has its headquarters in Wisconsin, its members are located in 34 states.
Dairy farmers across northern New England and update New York were early adopters of organic practices, and companies like Horizon Organic interested in their milk were obligated to come to the source and pay to transport the milk to their processing facilities.
As more farmers adopted organic practices closer to processing plants, however, milk from Maine and its neighbors became a less attractive option.
Jamie and Adam Beal after milking Sunday at Rocky Ridge Organic Dairy Farm in Litchfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal
The administration of Gov. Janet Mills had asked in September that Danone North America commit to premium payments to farmers in the final year of their contracts and for the most recent contracts where premiums may not have been paid; donate money to the Northeast Dairy Innovation Center to support transition and business planning and investment, and make a substantial contribution to the company in Maine that will raise money to set up in-state organic dairy processing.
In October, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and eight other organizations representing organic farmers and consumers across the Northeast sought concessions on behalf of the affected organic dairy farmers.
They asked for extensions on contract termination dates, severance packages, or contract retirement package bonuses to compensate farmers for the investments they made that helped to build the Horizon Organic brand.
They also wanted Danone North America to acknowledge its obligations as a certified B corporation, a designation that requires companies to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards.
In December, Horizon Organic offered concessions including an option to extend their current contract by six months, concluding at the end of February 2023; a “transition payment” to affected farmers for their milk during the last six months of their agreement; and access to farm financial consultants at no cost to the farmers.
It also offered to work with stakeholders, including state and federal government agencies, to explore investment solutions such as a co-op to address the hauling and transportation challenges or low- to zero-interest loans.
Adam Beal washes the interior of the milk tank Sunday at Rocky Ridge Organic Dairy Farm in Litchfield. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal
The offer of Organic Valley contracts, though, is not the end of the conversation for Maine’s organic dairy farms. Following Horizon Organic’s announcement, a working group of industry stakeholders was formed to consider short- and long-term strategies to help preserve the state’s dairy farms. Among them is seeking investment in regional processing capabilities and developing market opportunities.
Jim Britt, director of communication for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the working group has not met since Organic Valley’s announcement.
“I can echo the governor’s and Commissioner Beal’s statement that while this is welcome news, we look forward to collaborating with our work group partners at the state and federal levels to address our dairy farmers’ needs,” Britt said.
Katy Green, communications and outreach director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said discussions will continue.
“We will continue to push for infrastructure that will allow for processing in our region, reducing the miles that fluid milk must travel,” Green said.
At the same time, boosting consumer demand is also important. She said the Northeast Organic Family Farm Project was recently created for that purpose.
“We’ll continue to push for strong consumer support across the region and at all levels,” Green said.
As that work continues, Beal said he is focusing on preparing for haying season, which is the foundation for the operation.
“It gives you a jumpstart,” he said. “The better feed you make, the more milk the cows make and the healthier the cows will be. Now that we have a contract, we can focus on that.”
Beyond the daily chores and the seasonal shifts in work, Beal is also focused on the long term, which may include shifting to include more beef production, along with milk.
“I gave up my regular job to be here, so I’ve made my investment,” he said. “I’m here one way or another. I’ll make it.”
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