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 co-op, 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 Maine organic dairy farmers who were notified that their contracts to supply milk to Horizon Organic would be terminated in 2022.
“It gave us hope that there was another contract to keep us in business,” Beal said Sunday, standing in his barn with his dairy cows at Rocky Ridge Organic Dairy Farm. “Previously, you had the choice between three or four markets. Now you have a 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 didn’t panic because he had to finish his hay season and the announcement didn’t change his daily duties. .
But that could change his longer-term planning. Like other dairy farmers, Beal has invested time and money in developing his herd, and decisions about the number of cows he owns will have a long-term impact on the operation.
“Every farmer always tells you, ‘Take care of your cows and they’ll take care of you,'” Beal said. “It’s always the mentality. These days, you have to really pay attention to business to stay in business.
For now, Beal is considering the Organic Valley offering. He has not yet signed the letter, he said, as he is still reviewing the documents he received.
Organic Valley spokesman Joshua Fairfield said farms contacted by the co-op had contracts that ended at different times.
“Not all are out of current contracts,” Fairfield said. “What we’re doing is giving them security, and they can come to Organic Valley.”
Fairfield said several farmers have already signed up and will become members of the cooperative, which plans to release initial numbers later this week.
While Organic Valley is headquartered in Wisconsin, its members are located in 34 states.
Dairy farmers in northern New England and New York were early adopters of organic practices, and companies like Horizon Organic interested in their milk were forced to come to the source and pay to transport the milk to their processing facilities.
However, as more farmers adopted organic practices closer to processing plants, milk from Maine and its neighbors became a less attractive option.
Governor Janet Mills’ administration had requested in September that Danone North America commit to paying bonuses to farmers in the final year of their contracts and for more recent contracts where bonuses may not have been paid. been paid; donate money to the Northeast Dairy Innovation Center to support business transition, planning and investment; and make a substantial contribution to the Maine company that will raise funds to establish organic dairy processing in the state.
In October, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and eight other organizations representing organic farmers and consumers in the Northeast applied for concessions on behalf of affected organic dairy farmers.
They asked for extensions to contract termination dates, severance pay or contract retirement bonuses to compensate farmers for the investments they made that helped build the Horizon Organic brand.
They also wanted Danone North America to recognize its obligations as a Certified B Company, 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 “bridging payment” to affected farmers for their milk during the last six months of their agreement; and access to agricultural financial advisors at no cost to farmers.
He also offered to work with stakeholders, including state and federal government agencies, to explore investment solutions such as a cooperative to address transportation and transportation challenges or low-interest loans. or zero.
The Organic Valley contract offer, however, is not the end of the conversation for Maine’s organic dairy farms. Following Horizon Organic’s announcement, a task force of industry stakeholders was formed to consider short- and long-term strategies to help preserve the state’s dairy farms. Among them, the search for investments in regional processing capacities and the development of market opportunities.
Jim Britt, communications director for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the task force has not met since Organic Valley’s announcement.
“I can echo Governor and Commissioner Beal’s statement that while this is good news, we look forward to working with our task force partners at the state and federal levels to meet the needs of our dairy farmers. “Britt said.
Katy Green, director of communications and outreach for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said discussions will continue.
“We will continue to push for infrastructure that will enable processing in our region, reducing the miles fluid milk has to travel,” Green said.
At the same time, it is also important to stimulate consumer demand. She said the Northeast Organic Family Farm Project was recently created for this purpose.
“We will continue to push for strong consumer support across the region and at all levels,” Green said.
As this work continues, Beal said he is focusing on preparing for the hay season, which is the basis of the operation.
“It gives you a boost,” he said. “The better feed you produce, the more milk the cows will produce and the healthier they will be. Now that we have a contract, we can focus on that.
Beyond day-to-day chores and seasonal shifts in work, Beal is also focused on the long term, which may include a shift to include more beef production, as well as milk.
“I gave up my regular job to be here, so I made my investment,” he said. “I am here one way or another. I will do it.”
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