PORTLAND, Maine — Mapleton-based farmer Vaughn Chase and five others who supplied the now-defunct Maine’s Own Organic Milk brand have signed with Wisconsin-based cooperative Organic Valley, which has broader plans to develop organic agriculture in Aroostook County.
Company officials said during a press event Tuesday morning that Organic Valley has added a third tanker to its Maine milk route that includes 33 dairy farms and is in talks with other potential operators in the state, including Amish and Mennonite farmers. Nationally, farmers of those Christian denominations make up about 35 percent of Organic Valley’s 1,500 member farms. That tanker made its first trip July 21.
“In Maine, we see good land, good farmers and lots of potential for new farms,” Steve Getz, east region manager for Organic Valley, said.
It brought on MOO Milk’s other former Aroostook County producer HB Farms in Woodland also.
Closer to its base of dairy farmers in central Maine, the company also brought in Clovercrest Farm in Charleston, Webb Family Farm in Pittston, Two Loons Farm in South China and Eagle View Farms in Dixfield from MOO Milk.
The decision by those farms came as many faced multiple options and after Oakhurst Dairy’s failed bid to acquire the MOO Milk brand. Leaders decided to shut down the Maine-born cooperative because of problems with its packaging machine and because of the risky nature of capital investment in a new processing facility in central Maine.
Laura Chase said those options were a marked difference from the situation MOO Milk farmers faced in 2009, when H.P. Hood dropped its contracts with organic dairy farmers in Maine.
“It wasn’t just MOO Milk or get done anymore,” Chase said. “And that’s different than 2009.”
Getz, who after the dissolution of MOO Milk drove the nearly 1,200 miles to complete the former producer’s route, said that his company did not offer contracts to all of the former MOO Milk farmers. Some also were considering deals with Horizon Organic and New Hampshire-based Stonyfield, which is one of Organic Valley’s main customers for milk from Maine.
That means much of the milk formerly sold under the MOO Milk brand will be sold wholesale to Stonyfield or will head to a processing facility in Guida, Connecticut, where it may also be used to package New England Pastures milk.
Getz said other production options — making butter and powder milk — are also key to the cooperative not having milk go to waste while keeping fixed monthly milk contracts with its members.
To add the Maine farms to its existing route, 10-year Organic Valley farmer Jeff Bragg of Sidney said the regional members of the cooperative approved a plan to reduce the price they receive per hundredweight of milk by 25 cents, in order to support the hauling costs added by the new route. Liz Horton, spokeswoman for Organic Valley, said the decision won’t affect the retail price of the milk brands it supplies.
Getz said the cooperative will revisit that amount in a year, but it was part of a long-term commitment to expanding in Maine.
“Our farmers are going into their own pocket to help open the market in Aroostook County,” Getz said.
He said the short-term goal to is to sign deals with enough Aroostook farms to supply one tanker — about 5,000 gallons — making a round every other day.
Getz said that to attract new farms into the fold, the company allows adding $2 per hundredweight into contracts to help a farmer finance a new organic dairy operation or to convert a traditional farm to organic production.
To join the new cooperative, Chase said he has chosen a plan to buy in over two years and the company offered other options, including an up-front payment.
Getz said the expansion to Aroostook County — its “Aroostook Initiative” — was long a hope for the cooperative, in part spurred into action by the dissolution of MOO Milk, which left its 12 member farms without a market beyond a final delivery July 19.
Vaughn Chase and his wife, Laura, said since joining the national cooperative they have started holding meetings with other potential farmers in the area to try to build a base they said could also help potato farmers by developing a local market for organic grain that can be grown in rotation with the tubers.
Getz said Organic Valley also has invested in cooperative Maine Organic Milling in Auburn, which provides feed for organic dairy farmers and could source more grain from Aroostook County. He said the company also hopes to develop national distribution channels for organic potatoes and sugar beets grown there.
Over the long term, farmer Bragg said he hopes Organic Valley’s milk production in Maine will support its own brand and in-state production, as the company does with its farmers in New York state under the New York Fresh brand launched in 2011.
But before they can get there, Getz said, “we have to have enough milk to keep [the processor] busy.”