Maine’s organic dairy farmers have a market again – for now

By Catie Joyce Bulay
Photographs courtesy of Faithful Venture Farm
Excerpt from our May 2022 issue

Faithful Venture Farm sits atop a high hill in Searsmont, with pastoral views stretching into the distance. On a recent windy day, a calf was born in the early hours of the morning, and by mid-morning the several dozen cows in the herd were taking turns in the milking parlor and munching on bales in a muddy pasture. Glendon Mehuren, the fourth-generation owner, took care of the chores with the help of his father, fiancée and children (although the two youngest mostly played underfoot). The only thing out of the ordinary was a new contract for milk from Faithful Venture, sitting on a table in the house, waiting for Mehuren to sign. Until now, the future of the farm was in limbo.

Last summer, Organic Horizon, an American subsidiary of the French company Danone, sent a letter to Faithful Venture informing it that after 13 years of buying milk from the farm, it would end their contract in one year. The move was part of the company’s broader withdrawal from the region as it shifted operations to the Midwest. In total, Horizon Organic cuts ties with 14 organic dairies in Maine and 89 in the northeast, citing “increasing transportation and operational challenges”. Notably, Horizon’s closest milk processing plant is in upstate New York.

Glendon Mehuren’s adult daughter, Sadee, who works for a 4-H program and still helps on the farm whenever she can, said the family was not surprised to receive the letter. Small dairy farms in New England constantly face both much larger farms elsewhere and low market prices, even for value-added organic products. Although dairy is Maine’s second most valuable agricultural product, after potatoes, it has seen decades of decline. Today, there are 196 dairy farms in the state, up from more than 4,500 in the 1950s.

Scenes from Faithful Venture Farm, Searsmont.

Maine Farmland Trustthe Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and similar groups throughout the Northeast have publicly pressured Horizon to reconsider its withdrawal. In response, the company extended contracts for an additional six months and offered nominal transition payments to farms. A task force comprised of representatives from the State of Maine, nonprofit organizations, and farmers began to study the needs for the short- and long-term viability of the sector, and the nonprofit organization lucrative Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership formed and launched a campaign encouraging consumers, retailers and restaurants to commit to buying at least a quarter of their weekly dairy products from brands that use the region’s organic milk.

Then, in March, the Wisconsin-based, farmer-owned company Organic Valley cooperative, which had a number of existing contracts with farms in Maine, decided to add most of the farms abandoned by Horizon to its list, including 10 from Maine. New Sharon’s Silver Valley Farm was one. She had been selling milk to Horizon since 2007 and was recognized by the company as one of its top 10 suppliers in the North East for milk quality just two months before she received a termination letter. Fourth-generation cousins ​​and farmers Jim and Rick Davis, who are taking Silver Valley back from their parents, described the arrival of Organic Valley as a huge relief.

Despite the good news, structural issues – processing facilities, prices, competition – still worry farmers. “While we are encouraged by recent developments,” says Sarah Alexander, executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, “there is still much work to be done to ensure a bright future.” At Searsmont, Glendon Mehuren knew as he considered the Organic Valley contract that any stability might be short-lived, but he was happy to be able to move forward for now with the cows his whole family knows from her name. “Is this the right size? ” He asked. “Probably. If that’s the only solution.