MONTPELIER – Last month, the Vermont Legislature’s Task Force to Revitalize the Dairy Industry had a curveball thrown its way when a major partner announced plans to cut ties with over two dozen Vermont farms.
Now, the task force is considering possible contingency plans for those organic farms before their contracts are up next August.
Horizon Organic and its parent company Danone said the decision was due in large part to challenges with transportation, and they’re choosing to work with farms in the Midwest and West instead.
Farmers already wary about the industry’s future are now feeling more anxiety. As first-generation farmer Jennifer Lambert told the task force, its hard to plan for the years ahead when the long-term viability of your livelihood is in question.
“The Horizon debacle has really scared me, just seeing how uncertain the future really is,” Lambert said. “We’re a young farm and we should be continuing to re-invest in infrastructure, but I’m really hesitant to.”
Abbie Corse, Co-owner of Corse Farm Dairy and a 6th generation dairy farmer, said the volatility of large corporations like Danone proves that Vermont farms may be best served by a local approach.
“In the face of a changing climate, our local food security and local chains where we can control production, better understand where it’s coming from and how it’s getting to Vermont citizens, the better off we’re going to be.”
The task force has been keeping an open dialogue with both companies, and early solutions include trying to set up those farmers with other processors like Stonyfield, one of the region’s leading buyers. Rep. John O’Brien wondered if there might be some way to stall Danone’s departure in order to give the state more time to craft a contingency plan with farmers.
“If there was federal and state subsidizing of this transportation so Horizon could get this milk to its plants for free essentially, would they potentially give us another year?” O’Brien said.
Danone North America, owner of Horizon Organic, released the following statement last month:
“We greatly value our relationships with our farming partners and did not make this decision lightly. Growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry, particularly in the northeast, led to this difficult decision.”
The company said 89 producers across the northeast received a non-renewal notice. The company is offering each producer to enter a new agreement for Horizon to purchase their milk for one more year.
“We will be supporting new partners that better align with our manufacturing footprint. We are committed to continuing to support organic dairy in the east, and in the last 12 months alone, we have onboarded more than 50 producers new to Horizon Organic that better fit our manufacturing footprint. This decision will help us continue providing our consumers with the products they love,” said Danone North America.