MOO Milk to disband, farmers to pursue other options

Posted July 07, 2014, at 2:22 p.m.
Last modified July 07, 2014, at 4:47 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Two months after processing of organic milk provided by a Maine dairy collaborative ended, the MOO Milk brand is gone — probably for good.

Leaders of Maine’s Own Organic Milk announced Monday that a two-month effort to bring most of the company’s 12 member farms into an agreement with a new processor failed, as geographic challenges and varying priorities led farmers to go their own ways.

“Each farmer has their own geographic challenges, set of priorities, and values,” said MOO CEO Bill Eldridge in a prepared statement. “It simply made sense for each farm to form their own relationships going forward.”

Over the weekend, farmers were considering an offer from Oakhurst to buy the brand and contracts amounting to at least 90 percent of production under the MOO Milk contracts.

The farmers were notified that too few farmers supported the deal in an email Monday morning from Bob Sessums, MOO Milk’s chief operating officer. He wrote he did not expect Oakhurst to come back with another offer.

“As of this morning all MOO farms are released from the obligations of their milk supply contracts and are free to contact, negotiate with and sign contracts with any other marketer that you wish,” Sessums said.

Farmers last week told the Bangor Daily News that other processors, including Organic Valley, Stonyfield and Horizon Organic, have expressed interest in buying their milk. Oakhurst was the only company making an offer for the MOO Milk brand while others had expressed interest in organic milk contracts with specific farms.

“MOO Milk appreciates each organization that stepped up to present potential opportunities that might have supported these Maine farmers,” Eldridge said. “It may be that all of these entities sign deals with individual farms.”

For the time being, Eldridge said in a phone interview, the brand remains an asset owned by MOO Milk, for which there is no immediate plan. The company’s offices in Falmouth will remain open to complete administrative tasks Eldridge said will be done in the next few weeks.

Eldridge said he expects the member-and investor-owned company organized as an L3C, a low-profit designation that meant it could also solicit donations, will be able to pay off all its debts with money from previous sales.

In a separate statement, Oakhurst Co-president Tom Brigham said Monday that he was disappointed his company was not able to reach an agreement with the farmers.

“While we are disappointed that an agreement could not be reached with all the MOO milk farmers, and keep the MOO brand on the shelf, we remain committed to supporting local Maine dairy farms and hope Maine consumers will as well,” Brigham said.

The farmers are now on a tight timeline to find other processors, as a temporary agreement to sell to Stonyfield is set to end either July 19 or 20.

Tom Drew, owner of H.B. Farms in Woodland, said the news Monday was difficult and confusing, as he had called the other farmers in advance of a Sunday vote to take his own poll. He said company officials reported to him a vote of 6-6 on the Oakhurst deal; in his tally he said 10 farmers supported sticking together and going with Oakhurst.

“That couldn’t be true unless four farmers lied to me,” he said.

Drew said last week that he has another deal on the table from Organic Valley, which he’s still considering, but he said he wants to sort out the Oakhurst vote before signing a contract.

Eldridge declined to provide the final vote tally but said it was insufficient for Oakhurst’s requirements.

Eldridge said that the farmers had few options when they they banded together to form MOO Milk, which came after losing contracts with H.P. Hood in 2009.

“Five years later, this is not the case,” Eldridge said.

The company announced in May that it would stop production after equipment problems and a decision that building a new processing facility in central Maine would expose the member-owned company to too much financial risk.

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