Mark Turner of MT Farm in Jay is one of two local organic milk producers who will soon be selling to Organic Valley. His is one of four Franklin County farms that were told Horizon/Danone would end their contracts in August. File photo/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Three organic milk producers in western Maine are among more than a dozen in the state that have access to a market for their milk.

Last week, Organic Valley, the Wisconsin-based farmer-owned cooperative, offered nearly 80 farmers in northern New England and New York a market for their milk through a letter of intent.

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

More Acres Farm in East Dixfield, MT Farms in Jay, Silver Valley Farm in New Sharon and Webber Farm in Chesterville all shipped to Horizon/Danone.

In December, Danone/Horizon provided an option to extend its milk contracts through the end of February 2023 as part of a transitional plan that also offered additional financial support for affected farmers. The offer came too late for More Acres Farm as their cows had already been sold.

Mark Turner in Jay said March 14 that he signed the letter of intent with Organic Valley.

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“Organic Valley is in the process of figuring it all out, finding out how many plan to do it,” he said. The shift could be anytime between June and February when his contract with Horizon expires, Turner said.

There have been no changes in herd size at MT Farms, although some crossbreeding was done just in case, he noted. “We bred all the heifers to a beef bull, that’s the only thing different,” Turner added. The resulting offspring would be better suited for beef.

Sam Webber is not planning to switch to Organic Valley.

“With the price of milk I’ve been losing money the past two years,” he said Monday. “I might go to May, then going to change occupations. I have sacrificed enough, I’m done.”

Webber does plan to harvest his fields this summer for feed.

“There’s no firm date yet, June or whenever the contracts run out,” Jim Davis, an owner of Silver Valley Farm, said Tuesday. “Some people signed the six-month extension with Horizon, we didn’t.”

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The New Sharon farm has made no changes to its herd size.

“We’ve got to work with Organic Valley, hammer out the details of the contract,” Davis said. “The amount of milk we can produce is based on last year’s numbers.”

With the farm’s contract with Horizon running out in August, Davis hopes to be able to ship to Organic Valley by August at the latest.

Joshua Fairfield, spokesman for Organic Valley, said the farms the coop has contacted have contracts that end at different times.

“Not all of them are out of the current contracts,” Fairfield said. “What we’re doing is giving them security, and they can come on to Organic Valley.”

Fairfield said several farmers have already signed and will become members of the coop, which expects to release initial numbers later this week.

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While Organic Valley has its headquarters in Wisconsin, its members are in 34 states.

Dairy farmers across northern New England and upstate New York were early adopters of organic practices, and companies like Horizon Organic interested in their milk were obligated to come to the source and pay to transport the milk to their processing facilities.

As more farmers adopted organic practices closer to processing plants, however, milk from Maine and its neighbors became a less-attractive option.

The administration of Gov. Janet Mills had asked in September that Danone North America commit to premium payments to farmers in the final year of their contracts and for the most recent contracts where premiums may not have been paid; donate money to the Northeast Dairy Innovation Center to support transition and business planning and investment; and make a substantial contribution to the company in Maine that will raise money to set up in-state organic dairy processing.

In October, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and eight other organizations representing organic farmers and consumers across the Northeast sought concessions on behalf of the affected organic dairy farmers.

They asked for extensions on contract termination dates, severance packages or contract retirement package bonuses to compensate farmers for the investments they made that helped build the Horizon Organic brand.

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They also wanted Danone North America to acknowledge its obligations as a certified B corporation, a designation that requires companies to meet social sustainability and environmental performance standards.

In December, Horizon Organic offered concessions, including the option to extend current contracts by six months, concluding at the end of February 2023; a “transition payment” to affected farmers for their milk during the past six months of their agreement; and access to farm financial consultants at no cost to the farmers.

It also offered to work with stakeholders, including state and federal government agencies, to explore investment solutions such as a co-op to address hauling and transportation challenges or low- to no-interest loans.

The offer of Organic Valley contracts, though, is not the end of the conversation for Maine’s organic dairy farms. Following Horizon Organic’s announcement, a working group of industry stakeholders was formed to consider short- and long-term strategies to help preserve the state’s dairy farms. Among them is seeking investment in regional processing capabilities and developing market opportunities.

Jim Britt, director of communication for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the working group has not met since Organic Valley’s announcement.

“I can echo the governor’s and Commissioner Beal’s statement that while this is welcome news, we look forward to collaborating with our work group partners at the state and federal levels to address our dairy farmers’ needs,” Britt said.

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Katy Green, communications and outreach director for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, said discussions will continue.

“We will continue to push for infrastructure that will allow for processing in our region, reducing the miles that fluid milk must travel,” Green said.

At the same time, boosting consumer demand is also important. She said the Northeast Organic Family Farm Project was recently created for that purpose.

“We’ll continue to push for strong consumer support across the region and at all levels,” Green said.

“This is better financially for us,” Davis said. “We’re pretty excited.”

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