Can the Northeast’s organic dairy farms be saved?

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Selina Rooney found out by registered mail. It was delivered to her family’s farm last August, Rooney Farms, in Morrisville, Vermont. Her mother and sister didn’t expect the news inside to be so bad. They thought they might get a pay cut in their contract with Horizon Organic, owned by French company Danone. Instead, the Rooney family’s contract should be terminated entirely. “We were kind of shocked,” Rooney recalls.

Rooney Farms was one of them 135 organic dairy farms in the Northeast last year, who received the termination of their contract. The bulk of them were with Horizon Organic, which initially told farmers their contracts would end in August 2022, although that deadline was later extended to February 2023. Another 46 contracts with Maple Hill Creamery, based in Kinderhook, New York, were canceled a few weeks later. Half of these farmers were without buyers at the end of last year, and the rest will suffer the same fate in May.

[RELATED: Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers May Get Squeezed Out of Business]

Rooney got to his feet. She called every organic cheese and butter producer she could find in the area. She called plant-based food companies to see if they could start growing plants for her instead. She called conventional milk producers to see if they could relocate their organic herd — a move that would have cost them money since the cost of organic production is higher than conventional wage rates. Unlike the Maple Hill farmers, the Rooneys were relatively well positioned and had more than a year to plan their next moves. But that’s not a lot of time for a farmer.

“When you farm, you plan 10 years ahead, 20 years ahead,” says Rooney. With every chore, every chore the family did on the farm, a question lingered in their minds. Would you be there next year? “If we raise cows, we think maybe if we have to sell beef, we should raise more Angus so we can do that. But thinking about making farm improvements… it kind of got put on hold.”

How to solve the crisis?

Photo by Suslov Denis, Shutterstock.

A few weeks after the first contract terminations last year, a group called The Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership (NOFFP) to boost demand for local organic dairy products. Founded by Gary Hirshberg, co-founder and former CEO of organic yogurt maker and dairy company Stonyfield, NOFFP has been a vocal advocate, encouraging consumers to pledge their support for organic Northeast dairy products. Hirshberg, who considers a New Hampshire governorshiptold Modern farmer last week farmers were concerned, and perhaps even scared, but cautiously optimistic.

A copy on the NOFFP website says that unless these farms can find alternative outlets, they will face a bleak financial future, including closures for many, and urges consumers to “act quickly” to go organic -Saving dairy farms in the Northeast. “If only 10 percent of the consumers in this region would buy just half a liter of additional regionally produced organic dairy products per week, this would correspond to the entire production of these 135 farms. WE CAN SOLVE THIS CRISIS!”

The website includes a map of the 135 “at risk farms” that have lost or will lose their contracts in the near future, suggesting that a consumer’s pledge would go directly to supporting those farms. Recently, high-profile celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and Dan Barber have pledged to source half of their dairy orders through the organization’s 33 participating brands – various farms and retailers including Stonyfield Organic (which controls 13.3 percent of North’s organic yogurt market). America). However, none of the establishments listed on the website are the ones whose contract was terminated last year.

One of NOFFP’s fiscal sponsors, the Association of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners (MOFGA) says the market for local dairy is strong and groups like NOFFP will help sustain long-term demand for the product. “There’s no reason a gallon of milk on a Maine supermarket shelf should come from dairies located in other regions of the country. The NOFFP provides consumers with a clear way to understand where their milk is coming from,” MOFGA Managing Director Sarah Alexander said in a statement.

The mission to raise the profile of organic dairy in the region is admirable, but NOFFP’s announcements and communications imply a direct link to the exact farms affected by the contract terminations, which is misleading at best. It’s unclear how much dairy the organization has sold or will sell in the future.

Farmers find immediate solutions

At the moment the Rooneys are finalizing the deal with Horizon, but they will soon be moving to Organic Valley and becoming members of the co-op. The Wisconsin-based company recently signed 80 letters of intent, canceling out most of the 135 farms whose contracts were abruptly severed last year. Organic Valley is also listed as a NOFFP partner, so the farms that have since signed up could theoretically benefit if people commit to buying their dairy.

“We wanted to get out there and reassure these people that we’re making a difference,” said Travis Forgues, Executive Vice President of Membership at Organic Valley. The letters of intent state that Organic Valley farms will be picked up when their current contracts end — or, if the farmers or Horizon so wish, give 30 days’ notice. “It gives us some flexibility to make sure we take the milk at the right time. We could have waited until the summer and signed an accession treaty when we were ready. But I don’t think that helps the mental stability, the fear of these farmers.”

One of the reasons given by Danone for terminating the contracts last year was, in part, shipping costs. The company told Vermont officials it no longer wanted to do this transport milk from the Northeast to its plant in New York. “But they still send their products here to us. Even if they don’t take our milk,” says George Osgood, a dairy farmer in Corinth, Vermont. Osgood has previously sold milk to Horizon, but he and his wife have already switched the contract to Organic Valley. He says communication at the small co-operative has improved significantly, although he hopes his salary will increase somewhat as demand for organic dairy grows in the area.

Regulatory changes could help

Importing dairy from other regions is likely to become a reality for these markets very soon as Horizon moves on from the Northeast and seeks out larger organic farms in Ohio, Indiana and throughout the Midwest, where larger quantities of milk can often be produced at lower prices Prices. Many smallholders have long argued that this is due in part to a Gaps in the determination of the origin of the animals, and they’ve pushed for tougher regulations on organic dairy. This week the USDA announced its final decision for the legislationwhich will put an end to dairy cattle switching between organic and conventional feeding.

[RELATED: Small Organic Dairy Farmers Push to Close Certification Loophole]

It will be a year before the livestock rule of origin comes into effect, and until then, dairy farmers in the Northeast are still considering their next steps. Many have signed with other producers such as Organic Valley. Some go to the spot market, a way for companies to buy up additional inventory when needed, giving producers patchy revenues. Others are retiring or closing up shop. Osgood says groups like the ones recently formed Northeast Dairy Task Force also try to help, but only produce suggestions that “are not even realistic”. The farmer says he’s heard a $125,000 figure circulated as a retirement incentive, which he describes as “ridiculous.” Instead, Osgood will carry on, as will many of the farmers whose lives were turned upside down last year.

It is clear that short- and long-term solutions are needed to solve the ongoing problems dairy farms face. Organic Valley can bring these farmers into their herd today, and the NOFFP can seek to get celebrity chefs to commit to buying organic Northeast dairy. Government task forces can pressure the USDA to implement its recommendations. But will any of these moves help the larger industry in the long run? “This is not a crisis of the moment,” says Forgues. “We are facing a crisis of a generation.”

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