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Kaitlin Stone milks cows, six at a time, at the Corse Farm.

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Many minds at work to help organic milk producers

For one Whitingham farmer, converting from conventional to organic was an ‘awesome’ decision. But will other milk markets for the county’s organic milk supply remain stable and exempt from the market forces that Horizon says are driving its exit from the Northeast?

WHITINGHAM—Windham County’s organic dairy farmers are counting their blessings that they were not shipping milk to Horizon Organic, which announced that its producers in the state will lose their contracts by the end of August.

The Danone-owned company said it would end nearly 90 contracts in the Northeast. Of those farms, 28 are in Vermont, including those in nearby Bennington County.

The company cited “growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry, particularly in the Northeast.”

“We greatly value our relationships with our farming partners and did not make this decision lightly,” said a spokesperson for Danone North America when the contract termination was announced.

Now, Organic Valley and Stonyfield, two other organic milk distributors, are trying to help the displaced producers in Vermont.

Leon Corse, whose family has been raising dairy cows for 153 years at the Corse Farm in Whitingham, is an Organic Valley shipper.

“Organic Valley is researching whether it can assist those who were with Horizon,” says Corse. “They have a long history of saving family farms. Since Horizon farmers do have a market until August, Organic Valley is trying to come up with a plan by spring.”

Windham County organic milk producers Lilac Ridge Farm in West Brattleboro and the Miller Farm in Vernon have also been spared the ordeal Horizon shippers are facing.

But the United States, and especially the Northeast, has seen drastic reductions in the number of both dairy farms and acreage over the past decade. From 2012 to 2021, Vermont lost more than 390 dairy farms as food production moved to large, agri-business operations.

The upheaval from Horizon has been attributed to current federal agriculture policy around organic dairy farming and current economic conditions, all of which undoubtedly factor in to the business decisions of other organic milk distribution networks.

For Corse Farm, an ‘awesome’ decision

For at least one of the Windham County farms, even despite this upheaval nearby, the decision to convert the farm from conventional to organic was still the right one.

“It was an awesome decision,” Leon Corse says. “I’m convinced that, at this time and given the situation with the conventional milk market and our situation, we wouldn’t have survived even until now if we hadn’t transitioned.”

The Corse farm — with about 55 Holstein, Red & White, and Jersey cows providing milk and approximately 50 “youth and teenager” cows — was certified organic in 2008 after a three-year transition.

Corse says the conventional milk market pricing — and “the fact that that market is oversupplied so they keep reducing the price or putting assessments on farmers to help pay marketing costs or putting them on supply management systems” — helped make the decision to switch to organic.

While there are also assessments on organic milk, Corse says in his case, “because of how it’s structured, it’s not causing our farm any problem.”

That’s because “currently, the Organic Valley system allows you to ship what you’ve shipped in the past, and we’re not a farm that’s looking to grow our production,” he says.

Corse says that the family farm is considered a “hill farm,” one that is 2,000 feet above sea level, and its land base is suitable only for growing grass crops.

“We haven’t even plowed here for 35 years, and that works great for organic because there’s a pasture requirement [for organic certification], which we easily meet because our cows are extensively grazed,” Corse says, adding he typically receives two-thirds to three-quarters more than he would receive for conventional milk.

“While our costs are higher, they’re not that much higher,” he says. “We do have to buy organic grain, which is very, very expensive. And we can only use limited health care products, which are more pricey, so it’s kind of like we’re a captive market.”

“In spite of all that, the bottom line is significantly more manageable and conducive to staying in business than if we were getting a conventional milk price,” Corse says.

And the state is offering financial incentives for moving farmers from conventional to organic.

In August, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture announced that the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded $412,550 to Vermont as part of the Organic Certification Cost Share Program.

That program provides money that helps offset certification costs.

Through the program, certified organic operations may receive reimbursement of up to 50 percent of their direct certification costs paid from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 annually, not to exceed $500 per certification scope.

There are up to four eligible certification scopes (crops, livestock, wild crops, and handling), which must be individually inspected for organic certification to be eligible for reimbursement.

Two other dairies in Windham County have also gone the organic route. Like the Corse Farm, neither was affected by the Horizon announcement.

At the 199-cow Miller Farm in Vernon, which sells to Stonyfield as well as bottling and selling milk locally, five generations have been farming about 700 acres in the Connecticut River Valley. The farm, with 199 cows in one of the oldest registered Holstein herds in North America, became certified organic in 2009.

Five families — Paul and Mary Miller, Angela and Peter Miller, Judy and Arthur Miller, Tina and Keith Franklin, and Brandon and Abigail Bucossi — operate the enterprise.

Lilac Ridge Farm, in West Brattleboro, a third-generation working dairy owned by Amanda and Ross Thurber, sells to Organic Valley and has a thriving organic vegetable farm in addition to an Airbnb, where folks can stay in an 1830s farmhouse.

The Commons reached out to these two farms for comment but could not connect with either for this story.

Time for action

“The most we’ve done is track the number of farms lost,” charges Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina, of Washington, the chair of the Vermont Progressive Party.

Pollina knows something about the vicissitudes of the dairy business, having started the Vermont Milk Company in 2006. The effort to start a locally owned dairy processing operation that would pay Vermont farmers a premium for their milk proved unsuccessful. By 2010, the firm was auctioning its assets.

“The decision by Horizon Organic to abandon Vermont farmers is the latest proof that big dairy corporations don’t care about or even need Vermont farmers,” Pollina wrote in an op-ed that appeared in various Vermont newspapers after the Horizon announcement.

“Vermonters — citizens and policymakers — have watched consolidation in the dairy industry bring us to a point where our conventional farmers are at the mercy of two processors who control their markets and prices,” he added.

And now, he said that organic farmers “face the same fate” as the conventional dairies: no outlets for their milk; large farms, mostly in the west, using regulatory loopholes to lower costs “while undermining the very meaning of ‘organic’”; and Horizon claiming that trucking milk to Boston from big Midwest dairies is cheaper than buying the milk locally.

Pollina maintains that while a lot has been done to support conventional dairy, it has come to a point of “essentially subsidizing processors until they decide they no longer need Vermont milk.”

That system operates on a complicated framework that splits a gallon of milk into its ingredients and then looks at agricultural futures markets to assign a price to a commodity based on its potential future use in an industrial context.

Then, that price is calculated based on so many levels of unrealities, bearing no connection to the costs a dairy farmer incurs in producing that milk.

“Let’s not make the same mistake for organic as we’ve done with conventional dairy farmers,” he wrote.

Citing a recent report from Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, Pollina goes on to note that the milk pricing system “is not improving the situation of farmers or helping small farmers stay in business,” adding that many times farmers don’t even know what price they’ll get for their milk until it’s sold.

“It’s time to finally face reality,” says Pollina. “The system is the problem. We cannot fix it, but we can get out from under it. To do that we must invest in infrastructure.”

To do that, the senator is proposing something that sounds very much like the Vermont Milk Company.

Pollina said that “if there is one thing Vermonters are good at, it’s building a brand. We can create a Vermont brand of organic milk and dairy products — in a plant owned and controlled by Vermonters — serving markets from local schools to urban grocers in Boston and New York.”

He says there is “enormous” local support and strong regional demand for Vermont food products.

“Six million dollars could go a long way to building a facility to meet the needs of the Horizon farmers,” says the Senator.

“If we can invest in tech companies, if we are going to keep paying people to move to Vermont, if we care about our future, food security and environment, we can and should invest in our organic farmers,” Pollina says. “Time is running out.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #640 (Wednesday, November 24, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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