MORRISVILLE — In the rolling hills of central Vermont on Wednesday, a tanker truck rolled backward into the driveway of the Rooney family’s organic dairy farm. Standing nearby, a group of farmers, state officials and staffers for Vermont’s federal delegates applauded.
Last summer, Horizon notified its 28 organic dairy farmers in Vermont and 89 in the Northeast that it would pull out of the region. With a glut of milk on the national market and loopholes in the organic program that have put small family farms at a disadvantage, the situation looked bleak for many of the Vermont farmers affected by the company’s decision.
“A year ago, we found out we didn’t have a place to ship our milk,” Selina Rooney, who runs the farm with her parents, told the crowd. “We were really worried about it. Things looked pretty dire.”
On Wednesday, after the driver sucked milk from the Rooneys’ barn into the truck through a large hose, the product was sent off to Organic Valley’s processing facility, rather than that of Horizon, which is now owned by the global food corporation Danone.
In March, Organic Valley announced it would take on many of the farmers dropped by Horizon and Maple Hill, which cut off another 46 farmers in New York, and on Wednesday, the group celebrated the beginning of those contracts.
“Today is a big day,” said Travis Forgues, executive vice president of membership for Organic Valley, who said the company has taken on 51 additional farms amid the exits of the two other distributors.
Eight of the farmers affected by Horizon’s departure in Vermont have left the business, according to Laura Ginsburg, who attended the event on Wednesday. One farmer is still shipping to Horizon and considering next steps, and the others are shipping to new producers, including Organic Valley and Stonyfield.
The Rooneys had been sending their milk to Horizon as long as they’d been farming — even when the company was called the Organic Cow, before it was purchased by larger and larger corporations.
David Rooney said Horizon’s departure wasn’t a shock to him. He had spoken with a representative at Horizon who advised him against building a bigger barn, and he saw the writing on the wall.
“I knew something big was up,” he said.
Anson Tebbetts, the secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, thanked Organic Valley on Wednesday, and also said the state has a long way to go to ensure Vermont’s farms can be confident that their businesses will remain viable.
“Farming is always gritty, it’s always challenging, and it will continue to be challenging,” Tebbetts said. “But this is a day that we just need to embrace and celebrate and congratulate all of those along the way who have helped.
A number of leaders in the region’s agricultural sector, along with politicians, including U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have questioned whether Horizon left the region in favor of large farms in other parts of the country that don’t adhere to the spirit of the National Organic Program.
Representatives from Horizon deny that claim, saying instead that they picked up small farmers closer to their processing facility in New York. They have cited challenges specific to New England, such as finding milk haulers to make the overnight drive from the small farms located on mountainous back roads in New England. The Rooney farm, for example, is located in a hilly area on a road called “Mud City Loop.”
Greg Bisson, the driver who picked up milk from the Rooney farm on Wednesday, said he’s driving seven days a week, picking up milk from 76 farms located in a large region that stretches from the Connecticut River Valley to the Canadian border. He runs nine trucks and has 12 employees at his business, called GK Bisson Trucking, but he needs at least three more drivers, he said.
Forgues said Organic Valley, which is a farmer-owned cooperative, made a decision that may not be best for the company’s bottom line, given the glut of organic milk on the market — but it aligns with the company’s mission.
For now, the company is hoping to strengthen partnerships with networks that are working to show consumers why they should pay a premium for organic milk produced by small, local farmers.
“Long term, I have no doubt we’ll continue to do this,” he said, but there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.
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