Partnership makes headway with expanding local organic milk market

Jersey cows feed at Butterworks Farm in Westfield in 2020. Butterworks Farm is part of a growing partnership between organic dairy farmers, processors and retailers. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Butterworks Farm, a family-owned small dairy farm and creamery in Westfield, expects to increase its weekly sales to area colleges and universities roughly ten-fold this fall, thanks to a growing regional partnership between organic dairy farmers, processors and retailers.

Sodexo — a global food management company that serves institutions across the country  — announced this month it will double and, for some accounts, triple its purchases of organic dairy brands that support New England’s family-owned organic farms. 

The move came out of an alliance with the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership, a New England-wide campaign affiliated with the nonprofit Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. The partnership, spearheaded by Stonyfield Organic co-founder Gary Hirshberg, formed in January 2022 after two major purchasers, Horizon Organic and Maple Hill, announced they would be leaving the region.

Butterworks Farm anticipates Sodexo will purchase dozens of cases of yogurt each week through the farm’s distributor Black River Produce, said Erica Wilson, Butterworks’ operation’s general manager. 

“Week to week, it maybe doesn’t seem so huge,” she said. “But when you talk about that being 32 weeks out of the year, it’s significant for us.”

Sodexo provides dining services to 37 colleges and universities in the region, including the University of Vermont, Castleton University, Champlain College, Northern Vermont University at Lyndon, St. Michael’s College, Vermont Technical College and Norwich University. 

“We are beginning to roll out our (local organic dairy) commitment to our college and university accounts and, so far, the response has been incredibly positive,” Senior Vice President Mike Ward said in a statement from Sodexo. “We began our efforts before the end of the spring semester and we are now planning ahead for the next academic year.”

Horizon Organic’s planned exit from the region left 89 organic dairy farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine facing the loss of their contracts with the dairy giant. Maple Hill, an organic yogurt company, terminated contracts with 46 more farmers in eastern New York. 

In creating the partnership, Hirshberg said he felt organic farms “deserved a special shake,” partly because of the departure of Horizon and Maple Hill, and partly because of the benefits to the environment and community that organic farms provide. 

Reasoning that local consumers could buy from local farmers, he set out to strengthen the connection between the two. “To put it very simply, organic milk costs more,” Hirshberg said. Many consumers “don’t know why that is, and therefore, don’t necessarily understand the virtue of supporting those farmers and the ultimate benefit to us all,” he said.

The Family Farm Partnership works to encourage local retailers to sell more organic milk from local farms. The organization also encourages consumers to purchase one-quarter of their weekly dairy consumption from local organic brands and offers information about which brands to look for, Executive Director Olga Moriarty said. It employs several staff members and receives funding from Stonyfield, Organic Valley and the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center and other private foundations, she said. 

Retailers across the region, ranging from grocery co-ops to farm stores to hospitality groups, have signed on to become partners. While the Family Farm Partnership has given flexibility with requirements, retailers generally pledge to increase the amount of local, organic dairy they buy, Moriarty said. 

The partnership has also been part of discussions that have led some Hannaford supermarkets to purchase and offer more products from Organic Valley, the company that took on many of the farmers dropped by Horizon and Maple Hill, Moriarty said. 

No easy solution

Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership staff say they know that addressing demand alone won’t fix ongoing structural issues in the industry. “We need other processors to be able to come in … and we need to be able to improve our infrastructure here to be able to do that,” Moriarty said. 

Separate from company exits, organic dairy prices have been slipping in the Northeast, while production costs have been soaring, and farms are going under. 

While the dairy industry, including conventional dairy, has struggled in the region for years, declines among organic farmers are more recent, said Nicole Dehne, the certification director of Vermont Organic Farmers, a program owned by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. Vermont has lost organic farmers at an alarming and steady pace since 2016, she said. 

NOFA-VT conducted some “informal data collecting” that compared preliminary data from 2021 and 2022. “We are seeing that grain costs are up 28% (avg.of $25,000) total feed cost is up 25% (avg. $27,000), fuel is up 76% (avg $4,000), and repairs are up 64% (avg, $8,000). Where income has largely remained the same,” Dehne wrote in an email. 

From 2016 to 2021, she said, the organic dairy industry has seen a 22% decrease in farms. “At the end of 2021, we had 158 dairies,” she added. “We anticipate to be under 150 dairies by the end of 2022.”

Some in the organic dairy industry have turned to addressing big policy questions, looking to untangle the more systemic burdens. Meanwhile, farmers are asking the partnership’s Moriarty whether the group can focus on increasing the bulk purchase price, or help get more investment into the region.  

“I don’t have tools to fix that,” she said. “And it’s going to take a long time. But increasing demand is not going to hurt. It’s only going to help.”

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