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Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Are In Crisis. More People Buying Local Could Help

Northeast Organic Dairy Farmers Are In Crisis. More People Buying Local Could Help

By Elodie Reed and Mary Williams Engisch

Organic dairy farmers are in crisis. Costs are way up for fuel, feed and fertilizer. And without matching increases in the pay price for milk, advocates, officials and farmers themselves are worried they might leave the industry altogether.

A lot of those same people are trying to crack this problem, including one organization that wants to use consumer power to get more local organic dairy on supermarket shelves.

Mary Williams Engisch: So tell us a little more about what farmers are going through right now. 

Elodie Reed: So I spoke with several organic dairy farmers who all say things are pretty challenging right now. One farmer shared what a friend told him it felt like, that it was “quiet desperation.”

Georgia farmer Jay Boissonneault says it comes down to math, and that the equation for organic milk production just doesn’t work right now.

"I don't see grain prices and fuel prices coming down in the near future," he said. "And I'm a little bit nervous for the organic milk market in this country. If those things don't drop, or if the pay price don't go up, the organic dairy milk in the United States is gonna crash.”

“I think there's no way that you can kind of go forth with this kind of lifestyle and not be optimistic," he said. "So, you know, how we strategize and evolve our business … farming has gone up and down for centuries, markets change, all those things. But I think that this is just a, this is a good moment for us as a community, as a society, to sort of look at what we really want in our towns going forward.”

Thurber says at this moment, people can take for granted the small hill farms in Vermont, and the land access, carbon sequestration and local food they provide.

Thirty-nine years in the yogurt business have taught me one thing, and that is that we all work for the consumer," he said. "The food and beverage world spends literally trillions of dollars to understand consumer preferences... we need to reverse our thinking as consumers, we need to understand that if we ask for it, it will show up.”

So far, the partnership has identified 31 local organic dairy brands it can promote. It’s been working with food coops, grocery stores and hospitals, colleges and other institutions to buy more organic dairy from those producers.

CROP

How has the partnership done so far? And is it running into any roadblocks? 

According to the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership’s executive director Olga Moriarty, their biggest success has been getting more than 30 Northeast colleges to commit to sourcing more local organic dairy through Sodexo, a food service company.

"We are working with sustainability coordinators in the Sodexo — like under the Sodexo umbrella —we're helping them figure out ways to get to the right people... with the right producers, so that they can get access to this product," she said.

One example is Miller Farm in Vernon, whose bottled milk is now being served at the University of Vermont. Farmer Peter Miller told me about a poignant moment he had while handing out samples at the university. He actually ran into the nephew of Ross Thurber, the farmer we heard from earlier. And Thurber’s farm provides the maple syrup for Miller Farm’s bottled maple milk.

What do people think about this idea of consumer power? Is that going to work?

Yeah, I heard mixed opinions from farmers. Some don’t think this addresses the larger issue, which is that the organic dairy industry’s big brands and coops, like Stonyfield and Organic Valley, can't raise the pay price high enough.

And the partnership readily says that’s not something they can control.

But farmers like Peter Miller do agree that consumers have power that, if wielded, can have ripple effects on the local economy. Miller Farm, for example, currently sells most of its milk to Stonyfield, and then a small amount to the farm’s own bottling operation.

"The pay price that Miller Farm Bottling — the Miller milk LLC — pays to Miller Farm Inc. on this farm, is actually significantly higher than the pay price that we are getting from Stonyfield currently," he said.

Peter Miller says over the past year, they’ve been able to double the amount of milk they bottle. 

 

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