Organic dairies in the Northeast may have found home for milk

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Cows in a field.
The owners of Misty Valley Farm, in Carrollton, Ohio, milk 43 cows and sell the milk to Horizon Organic. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

Organic dairy farms dropped by Horizon Organic and Maple Hill last year could soon have a new home for their milk. Organic Valley — the nation’s largest organic cooperative — offered 80 farms in the Northeast a market for their milk through a letter of intent. The news was announced March 8.

The farms are in New York, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. These 80 farms would join 10 other Northeast farms that have already accepted membership offers. It’s part of an effort by Organic Valley to save Northeast family farms, the co-op announced earlier this year.

“Our mission is to sustain our farms, not to be profitable as a business,” said Bob Kirchoff, Organic Valley chief executive officer, in an interview with Farm and Dairy.

Horizon Organic announced last August it would end its contract with 89 dairy farms throughout New England and New York. New York-based Maple Hill Creamery also announced last year it was ending contacts with 46 dairy farms. 

After facing criticism for the move, Horizon announced it was giving the option to extend contracts an additional six months past the initial cutoff date of August and offering transition payments to affected farmers.

Horizon, owned by Danone North America, cited “growing transportation and operation challenges” — basically, the logistics of transporting milk from many small farms to the one Horizon processing plant in western New York — as reasons for the decision not to renew the contracts, the company said in a statement. 

While it is moving away from farms in the Northeast, Horizon added 50 new farms in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Of those, 12 are in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“As this suggests, our eastern dairy shed remains a critical area for the Horizon brand and we look forward to continuing to partner with farms in the region,” Chris Adamo, vice president of government affairs, policy and partnerships for Danone North America, told Farm and Dairy in an email. “We thank our producers in Ohio and Pennsylvania for their commitment to helping bring health through food to as many people as possible.”

Organic Valley was able to add farms because of its unique business model as a cooperative, Kirchoff told Farm and Dairy. 

“It’s about the whole,” he said. “That is our cooperative mindset. We don’t have shareholders to answer to. We have to make money, too, and we do, but it’s driven first and foremost by sustaining our farmers. It’s sort of backwards from a corporate model.”

Demand for Organic Valley’s dairy products is growing, Kirchoff said, so the company had room to take on more farms. It didn’t matter as much where the milk came from, he said.

“We start with the milk … and work it into our supply chain,” Kirchoff said. “We do have processing in the northeast and east, and we move milk when we need to.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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