U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer asked Danone to explain why it has cut ties with some of its upstate New York small and mid-sided organic dairy farms, a move that industry advocates and experts have noted could mark a turning point for the vitality of a once-growing business.
Schumer expects to send a letter to Danone, which owns Horizon Organic, on Thursday. The letter follows a Times Union story on the 89 non-renewal notices sent, 46 of which went to upstate New York dairy farms, including 17 in Washington County — nearly one-fifth of its total dairy farms.
Federal lawmakers, including Schumer, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture last month for help in saving small-scale, organic dairy farms, which they note are relatively good for the climate, addressing a question within USDA’s organic rules that could have been a contributing factor.
“In New York our organic dairy farms are sewn into the very fabric of upstate New York,” Schumer wrote in the letter, which was shared with the Times Union. “It is critical that these organic dairy farms receive the support they need to remain in operation and the information necessary to map out their futures.”
In the letter, Schumer poses questions to the corporation that some dairy farmers and advocates have been trying to get answered.
Danone, which has an office in Westchester County, previously told the Times Union it informed 46 distributors it was ending its contracts with them, but would allow each of them to stay on until August 2022, to “help facilitate a smooth transition.” The company declined to provide information on the counties where the farms are located, information that the state Department of Agriculture also did not provide.
State lawmakers and dairy farmers have so far received limited information from the company. Dairy farmers have feared speaking publicly for fear of losing the one-year contract extension. The market for their organic milk, experts noted, is very limited based on current market dynamics, which are, in part, influenced by how much and which organic milk supermarkets decide to buy.
Danone had said they would stop picking up milk from any farms more than 300 miles outside of an Elmira plant, which was now going to be its eastern-most plant. Some Washington County farms are about 315 miles from the western New York plant.
After learning of the issue from the newspaper, state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, said she had reached out to Danone and learned, “Horizon is leaving New York state predominantly because of shipping costs.”
“It’s less expensive and easier for them to focus on the Midwest region where they can pick up the necessary organic milk from a few large farms as opposed to going to 90 different farms,” Jordan said in a statement last month. The company told her that the timeline they were giving beyond its contractually obligated 30-day notice of termination.
Schumer wants to know “detailed information regarding Danone’s recent decision to terminate the contracts, how this decision was reached, the projected timeline, and what communication and resources have been and will be provided to the impacted farms across the state.”
“What aid, if any, will Danone be giving to the impacted farms to gain employment or contracts elsewhere?” Schumer asked in the letter.
He is also looking to find out how many farms the company will continue doing business with and whether a certain law under the USDA, the organic livestock transition rule, influenced its decision. Danone, in 2019, wrote to the USDA that “potentially inconsistent interpretation and enforcement of the origin of livestock regulation can create significant economic disparities across the organic dairy industry.” The rule remains with an open comment period.