(AP) -- Nearly 90 organic dairy farms in the Northeast, including 28 in Vermont, will lose their contracts with an organic dairy company when it stops buying milk in the region by the end of August of next year, Vermont's agriculture secretary said Thursday.
Danone, parent company of Horizon Organic, notified farmers last week, including a total of 61 in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York, according to Vermont Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts.
"We greatly value our relationships with our farming partners and did not make this decision lightly," Danone North America said in an emailed statement late Thursday. "Growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry, particularly in the northeast, led to this difficult decision."
The company told Vermont officials that it did not want to transport milk from the region to its plant in New York and will focus their business on larger farms in Midwest and West, Tebbetts said by email. "They will buy milk from larger farms and drop farms in our region," he said. The company plans to stop buying milk in the Northeast by Aug. 31, 2022.
It's devastating to these farm families but also has implications for the state economically and the organic dairy industry in Vermont, said Maddie Kempner, policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.
It will be a challenge for the 28 Vermont organic farms to find another buyer because "the organic market currently is not in a position to take on more milk or farmers," Tebbetts said. Currently, there are three other buyers getting organic milk from Vermont farms.
"Not having a buyer for your milk is a really severe position to be in for these farmers," Kempner said. "So we're doing our best to make sure we're seeking solutions for alternative markets for their milk but also make sure the farmers feel as individually supported as possible."
NOFA-VT is part of a task force aimed at saving the farms that the Vermont Agriculture Agency has put together, in which farmers, organic buyers and the congressional delegation will take part, Tebbetts said.
Danone's decision to end its contracts in the region is another hit to the overall dairy industry in Vermont, which each year loses farms, as conventional operations struggle with low milk prices paid to them and farms gets bigger. Kempner said it points to a loophole in organic regulations that allow large-scale organic farms to produce milk more cheaply.
"Over the years some operations have used a lack of specificity in the rule to continually transition conventional animals in and out of organic production. This undercuts dairy farmers who operate with integrity," according to the National Organic Coalition.
Organic Valley, a cooperative of family farms around the country, does not yet know if there's any way it can help the farmers in the Northeast, said CEO Bob Kirchoff in a written statement.
"Organic farming is facing the same crisis we've seen in conventional agriculture – consolidation, industrialization, 'get big or get out,'" he said. "It will take a lot of people working together to solve it, but we all must be bold enough to believe we can."
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