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Stonyfield co-founder launches partnership to help organic dairy farms

Jan. 16—When Gary Hirshberg heard two major food corporations would pull their contracts with 135 small organic dairy farms in the Northeast, he knew something needed to be done.

As co-founder of Stonyfield Organics, he always came to rely on small, family-run organic dairy farms. He knew the move would put many farms at risk of closing if they couldn't find alternative markets.

He knows many of the farmers personally.

"I can tell you, they sat there at their kitchen table that night with their heads in their hands saying, 'Well, it's over,'" he said. "And some did throw in the towel. My reaction was, 'We can't let this happen.'"

In August, Horizon Organic, a brand owned by Danone North America, announced they would pull contracts with 89 organic family farms across Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and eastern New York. Maple Hill Creamery later announced it would do the same for 46 farms.

The Horizon contracts will come to an end in February 2023 after the company agreed to a six-month extension. The company will get more milk from the Midwest and the West Coast because of "infrastructure, hauling and processing issues in the Northeast," the company wrote in a letter to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Last week, Hirshberg, who served as Stonyfield's CEO until 2012, launched Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership to help increase market demand for organic milk. The partnership is asking consumers to purchase one-fourth of their dairy purchase from a list of 35 brands, including Callie's Creamery in Peterborough and Stonewall Farm in Keene.

"That's based on a calculation that if a quarter of New England and New York consumers increase their consumption by one organic product a week this crisis would be averted," he said.

The brands have made a commitment to increase purchases from organic dairy farms in the Northeast in hopes of providing a long-term stable demand.

The partnership, which is a collaboration of farmers, processors, activists and government agencies, invites grocers, restaurants, cafeterias and anyplace that sells dairy products to also become licensed as partners. Partners will be able to display the partnership's logo at their front counters.

Hirshberg hopes regional supermarkets will commit to buying more local product. Some products are shipped in from other parts of the country, including generic store brands.

"If they make a switch or if they add supply, that changes the whole game," Hirshberg said.

The region could lose upward of $68 million in the local economy if the farms go under, he said.

"This isn't just about saving the 135 at-risk farms," he said. "It is really about preventing this type of crisis from happening ever again."

Danone, a French company, also owned Stonyfield before selling to another French company, Lactalis, in 2017.

Dairy decline

Overall, the dairy industry in New Hampshire has declined over the past 60 years.

In 1970, there were 829 commercial dairy farms in New Hampshire. In 2020, the number was approximately 81 farms that ship commercially and 14 that don't ship commercially but process themselves, according to New Hampshire Dairy Promotion.

The organic dairy market is much smaller, with about 11 certified producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many chose to become certified organic as the conventional milk market became unsustainable for small producers.

"It is a lifeline of survival," Hirshberg said.

The decline in farms has also caused a lack of investment in infrastructure.

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, a grassroots organization of organic dairy producers, urged Danone to stay and invest in a new processing plant that would help reduce truck miles.

Danone, however, maintains it will leave the region.

The group hopes Danone will help farmers invest in new infrastructure even as it leaves.

"Horizon Organic has been in the Northeast region for over two decades and has a long-term relationship with all the organic farm organizations and our farmer-members. If they are determined to leave, we are glad that they are working towards meeting some of our requests to leave the region in a stronger position," said Grace Oedel, executive director of Northeast Organic Farming Association in Vermont, in a statement.

New buyers needed

Hirshberg said those farms with Horizon contracts have 13 months to find new buyers.

"They are all scrambling to find someone to buy their milk," he said.

Stonyfield hopes to pick up some of the farms, but the exact number is unknown. The company works with about 1,600 farms with an average herd size of 66 cows. Wisconsin-based Organic Valley also said it could pick up some of the farms.

"They need increased demand," Hirshberg said.

About half of them — about 70 — will likely land deals with new suppliers.

Some dairy farmers in Maine have created a new cooperative, Hirshberg said.

Hirshberg says the partnership can "help to ensure that these farms will remain healthy, vibrant, financially viable, and environmentally and climate-positive parts of the Northeast region for generations to come."

Such farms help rural economies and promote a healthy environment.

Hirshberg was not looking to take on a full-time job in his retirement.

"My heart was broken, but I knew I couldn't just sit around," he said.