Farmers across New England signed with Organic Valley as Horizon Organics shifts its business to the Midwest.
Faithful Venture Farm sits atop a high hill in Searsmont, with pastoral views stretching out into the distance. On a recent windy day, a calf had been born in the early hours, and by midmorning, the several dozen cows in the herd were taking turns in the milking room and munching bales in a muddy pasture. Glendon Mehuren, the fourth-generation owner, tended to chores with the help of his father, fiancée, and children (although the two youngest mostly played underfoot). The only thing out of the ordinary was a new contract for Faithful Venture’s milk, sitting on a table in the house, awaiting Mehuren’s signature. Up until that day, the farm’s future had been in limbo.
Last summer, Horizon Organic, an American subsidiary of the French corporation Danone, sent a letter to Faithful Venture notifying that, after 13 years of buying the farm’s milk, it would end their contract in a year’s time. The move was part of the company’s broader retreat from the region as it shifted its business to the Midwest. In total, Horizon Organic cut ties with 14 organic dairies in Maine and 89 across the Northeast, citing “growing transportation and operational challenges.” Notably, Horizon’s nearest milk-processing facility is in upstate New York.
Glendon Mehuren’s grown daughter, Sadee, who works for a 4-H program and still helps out on the farm whenever she can, said the family wasn’t surprised to get the letter. Small New England dairy farms are constantly up against both much larger farms elsewhere and low market prices, even for value-added organics. Although dairy is Maine’s second most valuable agricultural product, after potatoes, it has experienced decades of decline. Today, there are 196 dairy farms in the state, down from more than 4,500 in the 1950s.
Maine Farmland Trust, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and similar groups throughout the Northeast publicly pressured Horizon to reconsider its pullout. In response, the company extended contracts another six months and offered nominal transition payments to farms. A working group consisting of Maine state officials, nonprofits, and farmers began studying needs for the sector’s short- and long-term viability, and the nonprofit Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership formed and started a campaign encouraging consumers, retailers, and restaurants to commit to buying at least a quarter of their weekly dairy from brands using the region’s organic milk.
Then, in March, the Wisconsin-based, farmer-owned Organic Valley cooperative, which had a number of existing contracts with Maine farms, decided to add most of the farms dropped by Horizon to its roster, including 10 from Maine. New Sharon’s Silver Valley Farm was one. It had been selling milk to Horizon since 2007 and was recognized by the company as one of its top 10 providers in the Northeast for milk quality only two months before receiving a termination letter. Cousins and fourth-generation farmers Jim and Rick Davis, who are in the process of taking over Silver Valley from their parents, described the arrival of Organic Valley as an immense relief.
Despite the good news, structural issues — processing facilities, prices, competition — still worry farmers. “While we’re encouraged by the recent developments,” Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association executive director Sarah Alexander says, “there’s still much work to be done to ensure a bright future.” In Searsmont, Glendon Mehuren knew, as he contemplated the Organic Valley contract, that any stability could be short-lived, but he was glad to be able to forge ahead for now with the cows his whole family knows by name. “Is it the right fit?” he asked. “Probably. If it’s the only fit.”
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