Milkhouse Farm, Maine
Caitlin Frame and Andy Smith of the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth, Maine talk about having their contract terminated by Horizon, the largest supplier of organic milk in North America. The recent and wide-spread sweep of contract terminations against small, family farms by companies like Horizon and Stonyfield is a direct result of mega-scale confinement dairies (CAFOs) entering the organic market.
A Washington Post investigative report in 2017 asserted that Aurora, the large certified organic CAFO was not meeting the USDA Organic Pasture Rule requirements. In addition, Aurora milk tested nutritionally similar to conventional milk, lacking the omega-3's and conjugated linoleic acids found in milk from organic pastured cows. Unlike many small dairies across the country, Caitlin and Andy have found a way to differentiate their milk from USDA organic and thrive amidst the industrial take-over of organic dairy. Read the full transcript below.
Caitlin Frame and Andy Smith, the Milkhouse Farm Maine
Caitlin Frame: My name is Caitlin Frame. This is Andy Smith. We have the Milkhouse Dairy Farm and Creamery in Monmouth, Maine.
This is a pasture-based organic farm. We milk about 30 to 35 cows at a time and also raise laying hens, and we have pigs that we rotate through a woodlot.
We bottle raw milk, which we can sell directly into stores and to people off of our farm. And we also make a lot of yogurt.
Andy Smith: We rotationally graze our cows. They generally have fresh pasture every 12 to 36 hours. The USDA only mandates that we get 30% of daily dry matter intake from pasture. But our cows average closer to 80% to 90% of dry matter intake from pasture because that's the way we believe in raising cows because we think it's better for the cows and it produces a better product for the end consumer.
Caitlin: For the last four seasons we've had a contract with Horizon. And this past January, we were notified that the contract was being terminated. We had six months notice. This was in a wave of contract terminations.
Horizon and Stonyfield Terminate Small Dairy Farm Contracts, Buy More CAFO Milk
In Maine, there were six other farms who received that notification which was part of a greater wave of contract terminations that is happening in many states.
Andy: The excuse that was used by Horizon, the company that had been buying our milk, was that they were no longer going to allow farms to divert milk supply for any other purpose including on-farm processing.
Caitlin: Which is really just so sad to see, even in small ways, what that does to a community and what that does to a farmer's sense of ownership over their farm and what they're producing on their farm. Maybe they want to sell a little bit of milk to their neighbors or 50 or 100 gallons to a local cheesemaker or someone who does small-scale processing. There was a lot of that going on in Maine and people are now afraid to lose their contract.
Basic Math Makes Milk Fauxganic, not Organic
Andy: There's a huge shift underway towards large confinement, “organic” in-name-only operations in the Western United States that milk 5 to 10 to 15,000 cows and somehow supposedly meet the 30% dry matter intake from pasture rule, which they don't. And if they do, it's only because they do really creative math.
The organic market has provided a haven for a lot of family-scale farms, particularly in the Northeast in New England, but we just don't have the land base to be able to expand to that scale, even if we ever wanted to, which most of us don't.
So the organic market has allowed us to survive and even thrive for years. And now the same thing is happening in the organic market that happened in the conventional market, where all the family-scale farms are being forced out of business by these large corporate entities.
In a hot, dry summer like we've had the last three years in a row now we've had to walk the cows pretty far from the milking facility. It can take as long as a half hour just to get our little 30-35 herd of milkers to and from pasture twice a day.
So it's pretty laughable to hear that somebody could be milking 5,000 or 10,000 cows in the arid west and still be meeting the pasture rule of 30% dry matter intake.
When the state of Texas has six organic dairy farms and they produce more milk than all of the organic dairies in the state of Wisconsin combined, by 25% more, it's fraud.
There's no way you can do that organically. Not if you're meeting the pasture rule. I'm sure that you can keep them in a feedlot and feed them feed that's been produced without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But to us pasture is such a critical part of raising cattle and chickens and pigs that making organic just about what you're excluding from the production system instead of what you're including just doesn't really jive with us.
Small Dairy Farms Turn to On-Farm Processing and Shared Resources
That's why a lot of us are trying to differentiate our products from USDA organic and trying to figure out different ways of doing that.
We're really lucky that we have the on-farm processing because we're now in a position where we don't have enough milk. We've just expanded in several different directions and have taken control of our milk supply. There's a group of us through the Maine Organic Milk Producers and Maine Farmland Trust and MOFGA trying to come up with an in-state processor for organic milk because the writing is on the wall that Horizon, Stonyfield and potentially even Organic Valley don't have long-term interests in the state of Maine.
Our farms are generally so small and so dispersed that hauling milk in this state is very costly relative to other big farming states like New York, or Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin and certainly the big dairies out in the arid west.
Another thing that we're considering is trying to form our own cooperative. Our hope would be that that we would have more stringent standards when it comes to things like grazing to further differentiate our products in the marketplace.
Caitlin: It's just so unfortunate that when the industry saw organic farmers actually making money, then the big guys came in to get a piece of that pie, which is what has created this total glut of milk.
Andy: For years sales of organic dairy products just masked a lot of what was going on with the consolidation of these massive fraudulent organic dairies out west dumping milk into the organic market at prices we can't touch because they're just feedlots.
Caitlin: We really believe in organic food and that it is better for people and the land and communities.
It's like magic making you know, if I'm feeling lofty about it, it's pretty amazing that we are grass farming and these beautiful, lovely cows make milk out of that and we make this really nourishing food for people out of that milk.
It really feels like a privilege to provide people with food and nowadays, obviously we are still very small in the scheme of any kind of food processing company, but we reach thousands of people now.
And that's really satisfying and very moving to think that our grass is feeding that many people.
Andy: I also really like cows – they're nice.