Organic Valley making first pick-up at former Horizon farm

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Organic Valley making first pick-up at former Horizon farm

Tue, 08/02/2022 - 5:58pm -- tim

Selina Rooney. Rooney Farm, Morristown, VT. Organic Valley photos.

by C.B. Hall, VermontBiz On Wednesday, August 3, an organic dairy farm in Morristown will become the first in the state to make the switch from Horizon Organic to Organic Valley as its milk marketer. Organic Valley expects to pick up the contents of the Rooney family farm's bulk tank at 9 am., according to an announcement from the Wisconsin-based cooperative.

Horizon Organic was acquired by Danone North America, a unit of French dairy products giant Groupe Danone, in 2017, and now is one of 16 U.S. brands owned by the conglomerate. In August 2021 Danone North America announced that, as of August 2022, it would cancel contracts for purchasing milk from its 89 organic dairy farm partners in New York and New England, including 28 in Vermont.

Danone North America cited the costs of trucking milk from Vermont to its processing plant near Buffalo, N.Y., as the reason for terminating the agreements. Paraphrasing Anson Tebbetts, secretary of Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets (VAAFM), the Burlington Free Press reported that the time hat "the company told Vermont officials that it did not want to transport milk from the region to its plant in New York and will focus their business on larger farms in [the] Midwest and West."

The plant in question has been receiving milk from as far away as Texas, according to an unconfirmed report received by VermontBiz.

Northeastern organic farming organizations presented a petition to Danone North America in November that asked the company either to remain in the Northeast and invest in a processing plant so as to reduce its trucking costs, or, if it was resolved to exit the region, to provide $15 million to help the affected farmers and $25 million towards building an organic processing plant in New England.

The Colorado-based company agreed to defer the termination of the contracts by six months - until February 28, 2023 - and to make "a nominal transition payment" totaling less than $1 million to the farms affected, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. It also offered "to explore co-investment solutions" for processing milk in the Northeast, and made free financial consultations available to the farmers, according to an Associated Press report.

According to VAAFM, in Vermont the upshot, as of August 2, finds 11 farms switching to Organic Valley as their product's purchaser, seven going to New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Organic, one switching to non-organic operations, one still looking for a new market, and eight opting to go out of business.

"Horizon's departure may have pushed them over . . . in the face of other economic factors," AAFM spokesman Scott Waterman said of the farmers who decided to quit.

The Osgood Farm, Corinth, VT. Left to Right: George & Mary Osgood, Tim Wright - Milk Truck Driver

Great news, sort of

"This is great news. We're thrilled that Organic Valley and Stonyfield have picked up these farms," Nicole Dehne, certification director at Vermont Organic Farmers, told VermontBiz.

"Unfortunately it's still a very difficult time for our farmers in the organic business," she continued, citing rising costs of production that all of Vermont's dairy farms confront.

Rooney Farm courtesy Senator Leahy.

"We don't want consumers to get the impression that this problem is solved."

"We are thankful that Organic Valley and Stonyfield worked with farmers to secure a market for their product," Tebbetts said in an email statement. "We have more work to do but we averted a disaster in the Northeast.”

In the wake of the Horizon's announcement, Tebbetts had convened a regional task force made up of various stakeholders, to consider ways forward for the affected farmers. AAFM's Laura Ginsburg and Stonyfield's Britt Lundgren chaired the effort.

In December "the task force presented a plan to USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and they responded by adding $19 million dollars to the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center," Tebbetts stated. "This was on top of the $6 million already committed to this center housed at [AAFM]."

"It is wonderful to see farmers like the Rooneys able to keep dairy farming thanks to Organic Valley," Senator Patrick Leahy said in an email statement. "The farms which have joined Organic Valley will remain open working lands in the hands of farmers who care about the well-being of their animals and the land itself, which is a benefit to their local communities and all of Vermont."

Organic Valley's press release noted that a small-scale commemorative program will be held in conjunction with the inaugural pickup at the Rooney farm, an 800-acre spread in the lap of the mountains a couple of miles west of Morrisville.

The Rooneys have been operating the farm since 1958, Charlene Rooney said in a telephone interview; it went organic in the late 1990s. The family's herd numbers between 90 and 100, she said, including the replacement stock that the family raises - making the operation a pipsqueak in the world of dairying.

"I think it's great that they're keeping all these small farms that would have gone out of business," she said, referring to Organic Valley. "We're in big trouble if they didn't take us. We don't have any other choice. That would be the end of an era."

Rooney Farm courtesy Secretary Tebbetts.

Organic family farms in Maine, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont become members

The U.S. has lost more than 100,000 family farms in the last decade, according to USDA data and based on recent trends it is likely that approximately 5,000 family farms will be forced to close in the next year alone. Dedicated to reversing the trend in food and farming consolidation through its mission of saving small, organic family farms, cooperative Organic Valley announced today the addition of 51 new members.

"Organic Valley was formed in 1988 to offer farmers an organic marketplace, and we are still doing that today," said Travis Forgues, Organic Valley executive vice president of membership "We care about small family farmers, rural communities, and fixing the broken food system. And that is what we bring to the marketplace: organic dairy people can feel good about."

Organic Valley picked up milk from more small organic farms in Vermont, Maine, New York, and New Hampshire for the first time this week. Without milk trucks picking up fluid dairy, family farms have few options to survive. When family farms close, they rarely open again, creating a compounding crisis that has resulted in over 4 million farms lost within the last century. 

"It is such a joy to see the milk truck driving down the road to our milkhouse. We work hard every day to care for this land and our animals, all organic, using no toxic pesticides or antibiotics," said Selina Rooney of Rooney Farm outside of Morristown, Vermont. "Shipping milk with Organic Valley allows our farm to stay viable, it allows us to be the caretakers of this place and produce good organic food for people."

The small family farms that had their milk picked up by Organic Valley for the first time were nearing a moment when no milk trucks would head down their gravel roads. Organic Valley also brought on 15 farms earlier this year that would have likely become victims of food and farming consolidation elsewhere in the industry.

Organic Valley, founded by family farmers in 1988 with a mission to create a stable economic model for organic farms, is sharing real-time updates through videos and farm photos in Vermont and Maine on its homepage at organicvalley.com. You will find milk from these small, organic family farms available throughout the Northeast under the brand name Organic Valley.

Organic Valley is the largest farmer-owned organic cooperative in the U.S. and one of the world's largest organic consumer brands. Founded in 1988 to sustain family farms through organic farming, the cooperative represents nearly 1,800 farmers in 34 U.S. states, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. For more information, visit ov.coop/impact

Additional information supplied by Organic Valley in a press release.