Stonyfield agrees to buy milk from organic farmers let go by Danone

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Robb family, maple
Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger

Stonyfield Organic agreed to buy milk from some of the organic dairy farmers that were abandoned when Danone, the owner of Horizon Organic, recently announced it was leaving much of the North East.

Gary Hirshberg, co-founder of Stonyfield, said the company doesn’t yet know how many farmers it can take – it could be in the high numbers, or it could be 10 or more.

The company has not announced which farms in Vermont could be included.

“We don’t want to say a number right now because we don’t want to disappoint anyone,” he said. “But let me say, too, that this is just the beginning.”

Danone sent letters in August to 89 organic farmers, including 28 based in Vermont, telling them that its contracts with the farmers would expire on August 31, 2022.

Since then, many of these farmers have said they don’t know what they will do when the contract expires. Processors like Stonyfield and Organic Valley had said they lacked the capacity to hire other producers – until now.

“That’s a lot of milk, isn’t it?” Hirshberg said. “Eighty-nine farms is a very significant amount. Obviously, we are committed to ensuring that none of these farmers go bankrupt, so we want to maximize, but we also have to be responsible to our existing farms and not fall on our skis.

Stonyfield has created an internal working group to try to find other solutions for the remaining farms. A regional working group – in which Stonyfield also participates – and a Vermont-based working group are also working to keep Danone farmers in business after their contracts end.

Hirshberg said the company is working with other processors and is on the verge of starting conversations with retailers. Officials are also “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 Stonyfield’s announcement “encouraging news.”

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

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

Stonyfield accepts milk through Organic Valley and farmers as part of its direct supply program. Farmers abandoned by Danone will be part of Stonyfield’s direct sourcing program, and new farmer contracts will look like the company’s contracts with current farmers.

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

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

Over the past decade, Vermont has lost more than 390 dairy farms as “food production has largely been ceded to small families and large agribusinesses,” Stonyfield officials said in a statement on 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, allows conventionally raised animals to switch to organic farming later in the day. their life. Some large farms across the country have continually switched their livestock to organic farming, which is cheaper than raising them organically from birth.

Additionally, some large farms across the country have not adhered to the “grazing rule” which defines the amount of time animals must spend on pasture each day to be considered organic.

These two gaps in the national program created a disadvantage for small farmers in the North East. Recently, lawmakers across the region signed a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking him to close the loophole and enforce the grazing rule more strictly.

Tebbetts said the gaps have been a major topic of conversation among those working on the Vermont-based task force.

“I know a lot of people are working there,” he said. “I think it’s in the mix – where it ends, I don’t know, but I know the USDA is seriously looking into it.”

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

He believes younger generations are buying more organic produce, in part because organic practices promote environmental responsibility.

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

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