FARMINGTON — People are driving from as far away as Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and Monmouth and emptying the coolers at Sandy River Farms.
Sales at its farm store have quadrupled since the York and Johnson families went public three weeks ago with their plight: The dairy’s commercial milk buyer of 18 years abruptly ended its contract and they had until Aug. 31 to drastically increase local sales or sell their 200 cows.
Now, the struggle is keeping up with all that goodwill. They can’t say thank you enough.
“It’s really quite amazing,” Bussie York, 80, said this week.
The farm’s fate isn’t quite sealed, but the future is looking brighter than three weeks ago. Trudy Johnson, York’s daughter, showed the cows recently to a broker from Pennsylvania, just in case.
“I just have this feeling in me that he’s not going to take them, but I don’t know,” she said. “I normally would be bawling my eyes out, because they’re my family, the cows are, that’s all I’ve ever known. There’s a strength in me right now, and I think the community has given me that.”
York grew up farming on the other side of town and his father bought what’s now Sandy River Farms in 1952. Bussie and his wife, Brenda, bought up surrounding farms as they went out of business over the years and Sandy River Farms is now 1,400 acres on both sides of Route 2.
Seven years ago, they added a farm store across the street from the dairy barns that offers milk, old-fashioned frozen custard and other dairy products. That turned into an outlet for selling about 1 percent of the farm’s milk each week.
When Sandy River’s commercial buyer sent a letter in February announcing it would end the contract, York said it announced a new rule: no selling your milk to anyone but us. According to the Maine Milk Commission, that same buyer cut ties to six or seven other farms in Maine at the same time.
In going public, they hoped the community might rally.
They’ve rallied, and then some.
The number of local stores stocking Sandy River Farms’ products has grown from two to 11. More have reached out.
“I sold to a new store in Farmington on Monday and she was back here Tuesday morning — she sold out of everything,” Johnson said.
The farm’s talking to Hannaford and that looks promising, said Erik Johnson, Trudy’s husband and the farm’s longtime general manager.
A Belgrade-area man wanted to donate several thousand dollars toward saving the farm. They asked him instead to make the donation to a local food pantry, so it could use the money to buy Sandy River’s milk. He did.
“He’s also now a customer in the store,” Erik Johnson said.
A local bank also reached out: It’s trying to pull together a sizable food pantry grant so it, too, can buy the farm’s milk, yogurt and other products.
“Bruce Poliquin called me personally to see what he could do,” York said.
York relayed the same thing to the U.S. congressman: Boost spending to food banks. They’ll buy local.
While he was looking over Sandy River’s herd, the Pennsylvania buyer mentioned being part of a 50,000-cow farm operation being set up in South Africa.
“If we don’t protect our local farms, somewhere down the road, we’ll be buying products from we-don’t-even-know-where, it could be from South Africa,” York said.
It’s all been great news, they said, but the outpouring hasn’t come without growing pains as the farm works to process more milk for its store and new customers while fulfilling its commercial contract, which expires at the end of August.
“We’re not complaining,” Erik Johnson said. “The biggest fear is, how many times are you going to come to the store if we don’t have any product? You’re going to go one or two times and then it’s over. That’s not a good thing.”
While they work to keep shelves full and hope to see the high sales volume sustained, he’s hoping customers have patience.
They aren’t yet sure what will happen next month: whether the cows will all stay, whether it makes sense to sell a few or whether, even with all the support, the math doesn’t work and the cows will have to go.
“The biggest goal is to get beyond Aug. 31 without having to make drastic choices,” Erik Johnson said. “I think I have a good feeling about it. It’s not so much that it can’t happen. It’s whether or not we can make it happen.”
Trudy and Erik Johnson, left, Renee the cow and Bussie York stand in one of the barns at the family farm, Sandy River Farms in Farmington, on Thursday. Trudy is York’s daughter and her husband, Erik, is the farm’s general manager. After going public with the farm’s struggles early this month, when it suddenly lost its longtime milk buyer, they said the community’s response has been amazing. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)
In this Sun Journal file photo, a farmhand leads cows into the milking barn at Sandy River Farms in Farmington earlier this month. (Sun Journal file photo)
After hearing something that didn’t sound right, Mariah Johnson, Bussie York’s granddaughter, looks for the source during an afternoon milking session earlier this month at Sandy River Farms. It turned out that one of the teat cups was not making a good connection. (Sun Journal file photo)
A farmhand feeds cows in the barn at Sandy River Farms earlier this month. (Sun Journal file photo)
In this file photo, Bussie York talks about farming during a recent interview at his farm, Sandy River Farms, in Farmington. (Sun Journal file photo)