Local milk venture backers confident

Posted April 04, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.

EDMUNDS, Maine — Every morning and every night, Aaron Bell milks his cows at his ninth-generation family farm on the shore of Dennys Bay. The milk is organically produced and sold to local stores through farmers markets and grass-roots buying clubs.

But without MOOMilk, a Maine-based, farmer-owned marketing venture, Bell wouldn’t have a market large enough to sustain his dairy herd.

Clinton dairy farmer Richard Lary, whose 300-cow herd also supplies milk for MOOMilk, said creation of the company was instrumental in his farm’s sustainability.

“Without it, we would probably be out of business,” Lary said.

In the past 10 years, Maine has lost more than 200 dairy farms. Just 300 functioning dairy farms remain.

MOOMilk, which stands for Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., was founded last year by 10 Maine farmers after a major processor dropped their contracts. The affected farmers offered their milk to national organic milk companies but were rebuffed.

This gave the farmers a choice: Go out of business or switch to conventional and toss away the three years they spent earning organic certification and the bonus prices organic milk had offered.

Instead, organic-agriculture leaders in the state came up with MOOMilk, a social mission aimed at saving family farms. MOOMilk cartons hit the supermarket shelves in late January, bottled at Smiling Hill Dairy in Westbrook and distributed by Oakhurst Dairy of Portland.

The company’s primary goal is to keep the Maine farmers in business, said David Bright, MOOMilk secretary. Farmers own 50 percent of the company — an L3C, which is a low-profit, limited-liability corporation that makes it easier for companies with a social mission to receive investments, including loans and grants from charitable foundations. The farmers receive 90 percent of the profits.

Two months into production, Bright said, the company is holding its own.

“We’re up and running. We’re paying our farmers. We’re still looking for investors,” Bright said. “I’m happy with where we are. We are on target. In the next six months, I’d like to get some more money for farmers.”

Bright said a setback was a problem MOOMilk had with leaking cartons.

“It was a serious concern,” he said. But the company is working with its distributor to find cases that fit the cartons correctly to minimize damage, and it’s also conducting experiments on stress testing.

The company is selling half-and-half, cream and milk in bulk, mostly to restaurants, and some to large-scale candy-makers.

“We are also in Hannaford stores from Maine to New Hampshire and northern Massachusetts,” he said.

MOOMilk is now sold in 76 Hannaford stores, 16 Wal-Mart Supercenters and many small, independent groceries and stores. The milk sells for $3.99 to $4.29 per carton, about double the price of conventional milk.

Nine farmers are still the suppliers; one small producer in Aroostook County dropped out to focus on making cheese.

Not only has MOOMilk caught the imagination — and the pocketbooks — of Maine consumers committed to supporting local farmers, the project has caught the attention of milk producers nationwide.

“We get calls and e-mails all the time from across the country. We could very well be a leader in this type of initiative,” Bright said.

For the Bells at Tide Mill Farm, linking up with MOOMilk has been a saving grace.

“Without MOOMilk, we would have faced massive restructuring,” Bell said. “We have the grass-roots behind us now.”

More information on MOOMilk may be found at www.moomilkco.com.

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