AUGUSTA, Maine — Several farm organizations are working feverishly to find options for 30 Maine organic dairy farmers who either lost their H.P. Hood milk contracts or were asked last month to cut back production.
Hood has dropped eight of Maine’s farms in Aroostook and Washington counties and asked hundreds of farmers — from New York to Bangor — to cut production by up to 15 percent.
The Maine Department of Agriculture, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association have joined together to find another processor and Maine markets to avert an organic dairy crisis.
Despite U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that show a healthy growth rate of 24 percent in fluid organic milk sales last year, Hood spokeswoman Lynne Bohan said the cutback is due to the economic recession that has consumers spending less on organic milk.
“There was growth in 2008 and now we are seeing a softening in demand,” Bohan said. “We are not experiencing the double-digit growth we had seen in previous years.”
Bohan confirmed that transportation costs to pick up the milk in northern and eastern Maine affected Hood’s decision to drop those producers. When asked whether other farmers’ contracts will be dropped if they do not voluntarily cut their production, Bohan said, “I do not wish to speculate at this time.”
Organic milk, which must be produced according to strict federal and state standards of care, can cost up to twice what conventional milk does.
Meanwhile, MOFGA, the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Farm Bureau have been pursuing options for the eight farmers in Washington and Aroostook counties and the 7,000 gallons of milk they produce each week.
David Bright of the MFB Marketing Committee said Houlton Farms Dairy, which markets locally under its own label, has been approached about ramping up production to include the organic processors.
“There would be a Maine-labeled product,” Bright said. MFB would contact retail outlets such as Hannaford, Shaw’s, Whole Foods and others to establish a committed market.
Bright said the Lincoln family that owns Houlton Farms Dairy is assessing its production facility to see whether expansion is possible. Even though the facility now handles conventional milk, processing both could be accomplished easily by running the organic milk through first and then the conventional.
Bright said Houlton Farms Dairy now processes milk from three farms and provides about 30 percent of the milk consumed in Aroostook County.
“Our goal is to get a truck and hire a driver to deliver [the organic milk] to Houlton. We would also find the markets. Houlton Farms Dairy would run the business,” Bright said. “We would try to get the farmers the same price they are currently paid, but we are not sure if that is possible.”
He also said Houlton Farms might be able to qualify for agricultural infrastructure grants through MOFGA or the Maine Department of Agriculture to expand its business once markets are locked in.
“We certainly think there is a market here in Maine,” Bright said. The Maine Technology Institute at the University of Maine has assembled a planning group to study how much organic milk is being sold and produced in Maine.
Also, for the past year, MOFGA has been developing a Maine label that could be used on products ranging from firewood to food. Each label would contain the name of the farm, where it is located and contact information.
Bright said that none of the statewide agencies involved is “looking to get into the milk business. We just want to service our members.”
To encourage organic milk consumption, Bright said a new Web site has been created — www.milk.maine.com — which should be up and running by midweek. “We want to see if we can get Maine people to pledge to buy pure Maine milk with a Maine label sold in the stores.”