Four Franklin County organic dairy producers will lose their milk market next August. Mark Turner applies a milking machine to one of his cows Monday morning, Aug. 30. His farm in Jay is one of those farms in jeopardy. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

REGION — Four Franklin County organic dairy producers are among those who will lose their milk market next year.

Some 178 organic producers who sell their milk to Horizon/Danone recently received letters informing them that it was too expensive to pick up milk in the Northeast and would no longer have a market on Aug. 31, 2022.

14 Maine farms are directly affected by the decision but all Maine organic dairy farms could be impacted.

Farmington organic dairyman Henry Hardy ships his milk to Organic Valley, another organic milk company. Milk produced is stored in a refrigerated holding tank and picked up every other day.

“It’s the infrastructure surrounding it,” he said Saturday, Aug. 28. “On the off days, our milk truck-driver picks up for Horizon.”

In Jay, Mark Turner and his family have been shipping their milk to Horizon for about 13 years, he said Friday. Three generations work on the farm that milks an average of 40-50 cows.

Molly Turner of Jay applies a milking machine to a cow Monday morning, Aug. 30. She is part of three generations working the farm that has been notified it will lose its milk market next year. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

“Going conventional is the only option right now,” he said. “We do still belong to AgriMark (a conventional milk company). Only three farms are eligible in Maine.

“The conventional price is still quite a bit lower,” Turner continued. “I am fortunate that we do have a market. It would be at considerably less price.”

Turner said there are no plans to consider other means of selling milk at this time.

“Horizon just did a big audit of its dairy farms in this region,” he said Monday before starting to milk his cows. “The next week we got the letter. Some producers were only given 30 days.”

Cows stand quietly while being milked at the Turner organic dairy farm in Jay Monday morning, Aug. 30. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

New organic dairies near a Horizon processing facility are part of the issue, Turner said. Conventional processors haven’t taken on any new farmers for years, they’re on a quota, he added.

Leslie Smith in East Dixfield is another farmer affected by Horizon’s decision. Two generations currently work on the farm that typically milks around 30 cows and has a total of 50-60 head.

“I knew about this a bit earlier than others,” he said. Smith said a short time ago he had called the company about his son taking over and was told he should probably wait, that a letter was coming out.

“Ever since (Horizon) sold the company, it’s gone downhill,” he said. “It used to be a good company.”

Smith also has the option of going back to conventional production.

“The last I heard, you could switch back to AgriMark,” he said, adding the contract says ‘if you pay your dues, they will provide you with a market.’ Someone threatened to sue for that, he noted.

Smith said he has no problem going back to conventional.

“The grain is a lot cheaper,” he added.

Family members are working on other options but nothing has been decided yet, Smith said.

In Chesterville Sam Webber milks about 50 cows on the former David Archer farm. He has about 120-130 head total and is a first generation producer.

At this time, Webber has no other option for selling his milk. He is a National Farmers Organization member.

“I’m hoping to hear something from Stonyfield or Organic Valley,” he said. “We’ll see.”

The Davis family in New Sharon has been farming as Silver Valley Farm along Route 2 since 1947. Four generations currently work the farm. ‘Little Jim’ and ‘Little Rick’ recently assumed management from their fathers, brothers James and Richard Davis, respectively.

The farm milks an average of 60 cows and has 130 head. Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) is their carrier, Rick Davis said Monday.

Like Webber, the Davis cousins have no other option for selling their milk at the moment.

“I don’t see how they can take us on,” Davis said. “There’s already a surplus of milk.”

In June, Silver Valley Farm was commended for being in Horizon’s Top 10 in milk quality among farms in the northeast and received a bonus, Davis said.

“It was all us small farms up in the Northeast that got organic dairy farms going,” he said. “Once you get beyond Pennsylvania, Maryland, west it’s all 4,000 to 5,000 cow dairies. They never go off concrete.

“About a year from now Horizon won’t be organic, not up to the standard set here in the Northeast,” Rick Davis noted. “They don’t care about us, the trend is to drive the small guys out.”

If an animal pandemic goes through some of those large herds it could create a serious hiccup, he stated.

For decades, Silver Valley Farm has been known for its breeding stock. It has exhibited and sold their purebred Holsteins throughout the United States and internationally.

“We’re kind of stuck in wait and see,” Jim Davis said. “I’m hoping the quality of our milk will speak volumes to one of the other organic milk companies. Otherwise, the dairy farm may be no more.”

“Without a milk market, there’s no way we can keep the cows,” Rick Davis had said earlier. “We’ll probably have to sell, there’s no feasible way.”

Like many other farms, the Davis cousins sell excess hay to other farmers to make a little extra money.

“If we have no cows, we could supply a whole extra farm,” Rick Davis said. “There’s not that much demand.”

The potential loss of those dairy farms could impact grain, equipment and other companies that provide needed supplies for other farmers, businesses and home gardeners. With fewer sales, companies may have to raise prices, sell or go out of business.

“I’ve talked with the folks at United Ag and Turf in Fairfield (an equipment dealer), Davis said. “They said it’s going to hurt them.”

In a phone conversation Thursday, Maine Dairy Promotion Board and Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council Executive Director Sarah Littlefield said the news had just dropped.

“Hopefully these farmers will be able to find homes for their milk,” she said. “Luckily Horizon gave our producers a whole year.”

The number of dairy farms in Maine, and the nation, has been declining for years with each loss felt by the dairy farm community, Littlefield said in an email Friday.

“Now we’re faced with 14 dairy farms all losing their milk market at once, that really hurts,” her email continued. “However, it’s not just the Maine dairy farm families that are impacted. Maine dairy farms contribute hundreds of millions in state and federal tax dollars, provide thousands of jobs, and protects hundreds of thousands of acres of open farmland, pastures and small woodlands, thus losing farms affects the entire community. Hopefully a solution can be found so these farms can remain in business.”

Four organic dairy farmers in Franklin County have been informed they will lose their milk market next year. The future for these calves at the Turner farm in Jay is now unknown. Pam Harnden/Livermore Falls Advertiser

On Monday Turner shared a letter he had received from Annie Watson with Maine Organic Milk Producers. The 14 affected farms collectively maintain approximately 4,500 acres of cropland and pasture, it noted.

During a meeting with government agencies, industry representatives and others on Tuesday, Aug. 24, a three-tiered approach was developed.

In the next few months information will be exchanged with those directly impacted to get a sense of how the farmers are making decisions moving forward and what support the state can offer. The committee will try to determine the financial impact the loss of those dairy farms would mean for the state and the infrastructure supporting agriculture.

“As we all know the financial impact each of these farms have on their surrounding communities is great, and we are hoping to come up with a number to better support our future requests for federal funding, specifically some of the Build Back Better funding that is coming down the pike,” Watson’s letter noted.

Medium term actions in the next year will identify the needs of the 14 farms affected and explore needs such as financial, generational transfer, land conservation and/or alternative market opportunities. Financial resources would focus on technical assistance.

In the long term over the next five years or so, actions will include exploring expanding existing dairy processing to augment existing options and directing financial resources towards research and technical assistance to ensure projects are achievable.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has volunteered to spearhead future meetings and research. Anyone interested in helping should email Jacki Perkins, [email protected]

“We will keep on going until we can’t,” Jim Davis said.

A Facebook post on the issue suggested that since it is too expensive to pick up the milk it was too expensive to ship it back to the Northeast to sell. The post further suggested boycotting Horizon/Danone since the company won’t be supporting local dairy farmers.

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