FREEPORT — The Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment opened its new, $1 million organic dairy barn on Thursday, a milestone that Executive Director David Herring said the center has been “working toward for decades.”

The barn will house the farm’s 45 to 50 dairy cows and adds roughly 30 acres of grazing space to the current 40. Milking operations also will be on site in the farm’s new milking parlor, a step up from the temporary addition to the current barn, formerly used for raising beef cattle. The new milking space features large windows to allow people on tours to see the work in action.

The new space will not be used to increase the number of cows or dramatically increase production with their new space – each cow currently produces a respectable 52 pounds of milk per day – but rather to help teach the next generation of Maine dairy farmers.

Five years ago, Stonyfield Organic Yogurt, a New Hampshire-based dairy company best known for its yogurt, began looking at the future of sustainable agriculture in New England and the role organic dairy farming would play in that future, said Britt Lundgren, director of sustainable agriculture at Stonyfield.

The company partnered with Wolfe’s Neck and the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship to launch the Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program, a two-year residential apprenticeship for new and transitioning organic dairy farmers.

“We believe that organic dairy is an important part of the future of this region,” Lundgren said at Thursday’s grand opening. Through the training program, Stonyfield hopes to attract more young people into the industry at a time when there was a shortage of organic milk.

There are still not enough young people working in the industry, with the average age of Maine’s dairy farmers at 57. In 2000, there were close to 500 dairy farms in Maine. By 2018, that number was cut in half to fewer than 250.

The trend is mirrored across the region. According to Lundgren, 20 percent of Vermont dairy farms have ceased operating in the last two years.

Mass-producing farms, largely in the Midwest, are pumping out milk at rates that create a national surplus. In 2017, Maine exported $17 million worth of dairy products, making dairy the second most prominent agricultural product in the state behind potatoes.

As more milk is being produced, the demand is starting to go down as milk substitutes derived from almonds, coconuts and rice have increased in popularity, said Matt DeGrandpre, farm operations manager.

Sen. Angus King co-sponsored a bill this year called the “Defending Against Imitations and Replacements in Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday,” or the “Dairy Pride” Act to require non-dairy products, or “nut-juices” to stop using terms like “milk,” ”yogurt” and “cheese” on their labels.

“We’re building a community of people who want to see success in the field,” DeGrandpre said this winter. “We are trying to keep small, organic farms viable.”

This goal is still possible with work like that of Wolfe’s Neck and the new facility, Lundgren said.

“The apprentices graduating now are entering a market that is much more challenging” than when the program first started, she said, “but the demand for organic dairy remains strong.”

Amanda Beal, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said that despite some of the challenges this industry is facing, “this program and the hope that it gives me is really exciting.”

Herring, the facility’s director, promised that the barn and the training program will help build a “brighter and more sustainable future in Maine,” but that in order to do that, “We’ve got farming to do.”

Hannah LaClaire can be contacted at:

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