The news out of the Maine dairy industry has not been great. Not recently. Not for a while.
The latest hit to the industry came last August when Danone North America, the food conglomerate that owns Horizon Organic, announced it would not extend its supply contracts with 89 organic milk producers, including 14 in Maine.But that doesn’t mean that the problems are incurable. They’re not – as long as we decide the industry is valuable enough to save.
The uproar over the announcement led Danone to give farms more time. But the end result is clear: More than a dozen Maine dairy farms won’t have a buyer, putting their futures at risk.
It’s an ominous development in an industry that has been a lifeline for many Maine dairy farmers. Reeling from the volatility in the traditional market, they switched over to organic farming – and the price stability and higher payments that came with it.
From 2002 to 2017, the number of organic dairy producers in Maine went from 20 to 79, while revenue grew by more than 10-fold.
But Danone and others now want to cut costs by sourcing their milk from much larger farms, some of which stretch the definition of “organic,” to take advantage of economies of scale.
It no longer makes financial sense for them to truck unprocessed milk from a bunch of small farms in Maine when they can get it all from one big farm closer to their processing facilities.
Now it’s up to people in the Northeast to decide whether losing dairy farms makes sense to them – financial or otherwise.
The same tough circumstances that led Maine farmers to go organic still exist in the traditional dairy industry, with low, unstable prices making it difficult for small and medium-sized producers to make a living. One state report said many such farms are holding together solely by the “will of the family.”
Maine had more than 4,500 dairy producers in 1954; by 2017, it was down to 286. With farmers aging and the next generation not always willing to take up the reins in such a tough industry, many of the remaining farms are in danger of going away.
Now, the once-flourishing organic sector is in much the same boat.
But there’s no reason the dairy industry can’t be saved; we’ve just got to decide it’s worth having.
The industry still produces more than $100 million worth of milk a year. But its value is so much higher. Dairy farms have for decades anchored rural Maine communities. They have created jobs; protected valuable land; supported local suppliers of feed, fuel and equipment, and provided nutrient-filled, locally produced food.
Allowing them to fail would have far-reaching effects on the communities they reside in, and the state as a whole. It would further hurt our ability to feed ourselves in the Northeast.
It doesn’t have to happen. Analyses of the industry before and after Danone’s announcement give us the blueprint for helping it: continued financial support for dairies as well as a large investment in local milk producers and processing ability, particularly of added-value products such as yogurt; ramping up institutional buying of Maine milk, such as through the University of Maine System, and perhaps a regional pricing formula to create more stable pricing.
On top of that, there has to be a market for Maine-made dairy. If Mainers don’t value what the industry produces enough to buy it, it won’t be around long.
No doubt, dairy farms here face steep challenges.
But Maine should also see this time as an opportunity: to unequivocally show that we value the rural parts of our state and the people who live there, and to build a healthy, robust food system that nourishes our regional economy as much as our bodies.