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Stonyfield agrees to buy milk from some organic farmers dropped by Danone

  • A Brown Swiss dairy cow gets inspected during the FFA competition at the Deerfield Fair on Friday, October 1, 2021. The fair runs through Sunday. GEOFF FORESTER

Published: 10/15/2021 6:00:05 AM
Modified: 10/15/2021 6:00:14 AM

Stonyfield Organic has agreed to buy milk from some of the organic dairy producers who were dropped when Danone, owner of Horizon Organic, recently announced its departure from much of the Northeast.

Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, said the company does not yet know how many farmers it can accept — it could be in the high single digits, or it could be 10 or more.

The company has not announced which Vermont farms might be included.

“We don’t want to say a number right now, because we don’t want to disappoint anybody,” he said. “But let me say, also, that this is only the start.”

Danone sent letters in August to 89 organic farmers, including 28 based in Vermont, announcing that its contracts with the farmers would end Aug. 31, 2022.

Since then, many of those farmers have said they don’t know what they’ll do when that contract runs out. Processors like Stonyfield and Organic Valley had indicated that they don’t have the capacity to take on additional producers — until now.

“This is a lot of milk, right?” Hirshberg said. “Eighty-nine farms is a very substantial amount. Obviously, we’re committed to making sure not a single one of these farmers goes under, so we want to maximize, but we also have to be responsible to our existing farms and not get out over our skis.”

Stonyfield has created an internal task force in an attempt to find other solutions for the remaining farms. A regional task force — which Stonyfield is also participating in — and a Vermont-based task force are also working to keep the Danone farmers in business after their contracts end.

Hirshberg said the company is working with other processors and is about to begin conversations with retailers. Officials are also “deep in the weeds” with representatives from the Northeast Dairy Innovation Center, which will likely receive federal funding to support the cause, he said.

Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, called the Stonyfield announcement “encouraging news.”

“We’re lucky that Stonyfield has stepped up and is trying to find a solution,” Tebbetts said. “We look forward to working with them as their plan goes forward.”

Hirshberg said he wanted to make the announcement to inject some good news into what has otherwise been “a terrifying time for these farms — we’re talking about a death notice, really, unless something can be done.”

Stonyfield accepts milk through Organic Valley and from farmers as part of its Direct Supply Program. The farmers dropped by Danone will be part of Stonyfield’s Direct Supply Program, and new farmers’ contracts will look the same as the company’s contracts with current farmers.

Danone previously owned 80% of Stonyfield, and Hirshberg worked as the company’s head of organics, he said. Danone later sold Stonyfield, and it’s now owned by Lactalis, a large, family-owned company based in France that competes with Danone.

“Lactalis has made a lot more organic investments and expansions around the country and around the world, so they’ve been a really good partner,” Hirshberg said.

In the past decade, Vermont has lost more than 390 dairy farms as “food production has largely been ceded away from small families, and into large, agri-business operations,” Stonyfield officials said in a statement issued Wednesday.

National dynamics are also at play. A gap in the National Organic Program, which exists to allow farmers to make a one-time transition to organic farming, permits animals raised conventionally to be transitioned to organic later on in their lives. Some larger farms across the country have been continually transitioning their livestock to organic, which is cheaper than raising them organically from birth.

Also, some large farms across the country have not been adhering to the “pasture rule” which defines the amount of time animals need to spend in the pasture each day to be considered organic.

Both of these gaps in the national program have created a disadvantage for small farmers in the Northeast. Recently, lawmakers from across the region signed a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting that he close the loophole and more strictly enforce the pasture rule.

Tebbetts said the loopholes have been a major point of conversation among those working within the Vermont-based task force.

“I know a lot of people are working on it,” he said. “I think it’s in the mix — where it ends up, I don’t know, but I know USDA is taking a serious look at it.”

Despite the oversupply of organic milk and milk in general, organic demand has been growing, Hirshberg said. Since the start of the pandemic, demand for organic products has increased by 26%, and demand for organic dairy has grown as well.

He believes younger generations are purchasing more organic products, partially because organic practices promote environmental responsibility.

“We can’t just look at the snapshot of this moment,” Hirshberg said. “We have to plan now and build supply lines and build long-term solutions that ensure these farmers, but also their kids, can stay in the business. Because anytime we lose one of them, we don’t get them back.”

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