Fourteen organic dairy farms in the state of Maine, including three in Waldo County, have lost their buyer and have just a handful of months before they must decide their next steps.

Horizon Organic has given Maine farmers who sold it milk a year to decide what they want to do after their contracts end. The grace period ends Aug. 31, 2022. A total of 89 farms in New England and parts of New York are affected. If farmers do not find a new buyer, they could lose their livelihoods – this could mean being forced into retirement, switching from organic to nonorganic practices, or even selling their cattle.

Glendon Mehuren, owner of Faithful Venture Farm in Searsmont, discussed the contract terminations in a Sept. 13 interview with The Republican Journal. “I understand the logistics of everything,” he said. “You can’t make the milk valuable enough to justify trucking.

“Horizon tried to do us right and gave us a year’s notice,” he said, “but any amount of time doesn’t seem like enough.” He doesn’t yet know what his next steps will be, saying “Every day is as busy as before we got the letter. It’s busy enough that I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Mehuren started selling to Horizon 15 years ago, when his farm switched to organic practices to meet the company’s needs. The dairy business  runs in his family. Two of his daughters were Maine Dairy Princesses, his son helps regularly with the farm, and his other daughter is a 4-H professional. His partner, Jodie Martin, and his elderly father also help with the farm. “My grandparents sold to (farms in) Hancock County,” Mehuren said, acknowledging how much the local dairy business has changed.

Light streams in the window of the barn on one of Faithful Venture Farm’s cows. Courtesy of Jodie Martin

“We had the opportunity to ship to Organic Valley, Stonyfield and Moo Milk,” Mehuren said; the farm also could have sold cattle to Stonyfield. “I’ve never been one for jumping ship. I want to build loyalty.” But with “big corporate entities,” that trust is hard to build, he added.

The Littlefield Farm in Winterport did not respond to a request for comment, but is also affected. Haskell’s Farm in Palermo is doubly affected because it also trucks organic milk, but owner Jesse Haskell didn’t want to comment on the situation in a Sept. 15 interview, citing concerns about his contract with Horizon.

“It’s tough for those farms,” said Rick Kersbergen Sept. 22. Kersbergen is the professor for sustainable dairy and forage systems who works for the UMaine Cooperative Extension in Waldo County. Some are retiring, he said, but if farmers are members of major chain co-ops, they could sell organic milk there — one solution he has heard of. Fortunately, there is also a large group trying to find solutions.

Both Kersbergen and Belfast resident Emily Horton, also interviewed Sep. 22, are part of that group. As the current director of policy and community engagement for Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Horton cares about supporting the farmers, she said. Her department, along with Gov. Janet Mills, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners and others, is presenting what Horton called a “strong, unified voice” and sending letters to the USDA to advocate for “what farmers are thinking, and what they need. It’s all hands on deck,” Horton said.

MOFGA Executive Director Sarah Alexander discussed her involvement Oct. 21. “We’re here to help all the farmers,” she said, referring to the coalition created to aid the Maine farmers losing contracts with Horizon. The coalition partners include the Organic Farmers Association, the Northeastern Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, the National Organic Coalition and The Cornucopia Institute.

MOFGA and its partners collected signatures for a sign-on letter with roughly 20,000 signatures, which was delivered to Horizon’s parent company, Danone. “We hope that Danone will listen,” Alexander said, speaking of the need for “milk from Maine on Maine tables.”

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