Carter Bragg 16, carries a bale of hay through the barn Aug. 8 at Bragg Homestead, a family-run organic dairy farm in Sidney. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald file

UNITY — The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is asking an international food conglomerate to reverse its decision to sever ties with 89 organic dairy farms in the Northeast, including 14 in Maine.

MOFGA, along with eight other organizations representing organic farmers and consumers across the northeast, said in a statement Wednesday it had submitted two petitions asking Horizon Organic and parent company Danone North America to reverse their decision to leave organic farmers across the region without a market when their current contracts expire in about 10 months.

They are also asking to extend the contract termination to 18 months to give the farmers time to find other markets, seek debt relief and plan transitions that work for them.

The organizations are also seeking severance packages or contract retirement package bonuses for the dairies in recognition of their decades-long relationship with Horizon Organic and the investments they made that helped to build the Horizon Organic brand.

Danone North America did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

“It’s a pretty big deal for a processor to withdraw from an entire region,” Sarah Alexander, MOFGA’s executive director, said Wednesday. “Eighty-nine farms from a whole region being dropped is kind of unheard of, at least in the recent history of organic dairies.”

But just as much as the organizations want to win concessions for their dairy farmers, they also want Danone to acknowledge its obligations as a certified B corporation, a designation that requires companies carrying it to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards.

“Horizon is a B corporation, which means they’re supposed to be working toward the public good,” Alexander said. “And they have a stated commitment to support the next generation of farmers. These actions that they’re taking in the Northeast really go against their entire ethos of being a B corp.”

The relatively short notice has left dairy farmers with little time to make other plans.

Joseph Roseberry, a Richmond dairy farmer, said in an interview with the Kennebec Journal in August that in one year is not long enough.

Joseph Roseberry, seen in August at his organic dairy farm in Richmond, is wondering what his options are when his contract with Horizon Organic ends next year. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal file

“Everything you do in farming, you’re looking long-term. It’s not a quick-shot deal,” Roseberry said.

That’s because the planning horizon for herd management decisions on dairy farms is typically far longer than just a year, Alexander said.

The other organizations behind the petition include the Cornucopia Institute, the Real Organic Project, the Northeast Organic Farming associations of Vermont and New York, Vermont Certified Organic and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Alexander said some of the affected dairy farmers have a history with the company that goes back two decades.

Northern New England farmers were among the first to adopt organic practices and made selling organic milk and dairy products possible. Most of the organic dairy farms with Horizon Organic contracts are in central Maine; Kennebec County is home to the state’s largest number of commercial cow dairy farms, at 38.

Conventional milk is shipped at the farmers’ expense to processors in Maine. Because the state has no organic processing, organic milk is shipped elsewhere at the buyers’ expense. In the case of the Horizon Organic contracts, milk has been shipped to a plant in Buffalo, New York, and more recently to a plant in Virginia.

As organic practices have become more mainstream and more farmers adopt them, processors like Horizon Organic have more cost-effective options closer to their plants as farmers in Pennsylvania and Ohio make the switch.

At the time Horizon Organic’s decision became public in August, Gov. Janet Mills and Amanda Beal, commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, pledged their support for the dairy farms in a joint statement, and for plans to form a working group if industry stakeholders and representatives were announced.

In September, Maine’s congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in support of Mills’ request to the department to provide federal support to the 14 farms. That request included a three-month grace period on all USDA loans for the affected producers and directing available COVID-19 relief and other federal resources to financial support and related infrastructure needs, among other things.

At the same time, the state working groups have been conducting assessments of the needs of the 14 dairy farms and identifying their best courses of action and the members of regional working groups have been meeting with their counterparts in other states to consider their options and develop plans to strengthen their farming sector.

“We’re looking at ways to enhance long-term sustainability,” said Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.

That means tackling a range of interconnected issues, like transportation, supply chain and labor, and finding solutions that will work for all dairy farms, not just for organic dairy farms.

“We don’t want to see any farms go out if we can help it,” she said.

In Maine, organic milk makes up about 7% of all milk produced, but organic dairy farms represent nearly a third of all dairy farms in the state.

Dairy farms are considered crucial to the state’s rural economy. Each farm supports a range of other businesses, from livestock veterinarian practices to tractor sales and maintenance facilities, and from feed stores to trucking businesses.

They also preserve open space across Maine, Alexander said.

“When people drive around Maine, they don’t realize those beautiful, iconic kinds of open rolling spaces surrounded by trees are really all because of our dairy farms,” she said.

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