FALMOUTH, Maine — Officials with Maine’s Own Organic (MOO) Milk announced May 16 that the company will no longer process organic milk at Smiling Hill Farm and distribute it to New England retailers. Instead, the company plans to temporarily direct all its raw organic milk — produced by 12 Maine organic farms including Chase’s Organic Dairy Farm in Mapleton — to Stonyfield’s Londonderry, N.H. yogurt facility while it assists its member farmers in arranging long-term contracts for their milk supply with Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Oakhurst or others. The announcement went into effect May 17.
MOO Milk was established in 2009 when a collection of Maine organic dairies lost their contract with Hood and, faced with loss of their livelihood, decided to form their own low-profit limited liability company. Since MOO Milk began production in 2010, Smiling Hill Farm has been the company’s exclusive processor; however, the companies have relied on an antiquated carton filler that was previously decommissioned by Oakhurst and donated to MOO. The equipment is technologically obsolete, suffered frequent breakdowns and is not capable of meeting the current and future requirements of MOO. Therefore the companies agreed to terminate their agreement. The decision in no way affects the production of Smiling Hill Milk, which is packaged in glass bottles using different and separate equipment.
“We have always insisted on having the freshest, highest quality milk on the market, and if we thought we could continue to deliver on that promise, we would,” said MOO CEO Bill Eldridge. “But, sadly, due to these processing issues, we are currently unable to meet those important standards.”
MOO had thoroughly explored the possibility of building a new facility in central Maine but determined that it could not complete such an undertaking in the short timeframe needed to keep the retail brand viable. The company is not filing for bankruptcy and has sufficient cash on hand to pay off all of its current obligations, which includes payment to all farmers, vendors and employees. MOO expects to continue operating with limited activity while it wraps up its retail commitments and transitions its bulk milk supply to a new vendor. The company employs five people in Maine, one salesperson in Massachusetts, and rents a small office in Falmouth.
“We have adequate cash on hand to honor all of our current financial commitments,” said Eldridge, “and while demand for our milk has been stronger than ever, we simply lost the ability to process our milk, which effectively puts an end to the MOO brand.”
However, MOO management remains 100 percent focused on the core mission of saving organic dairy farms.
“While we may not be capable of continuing the MOO Milk retail brand that is loved by many,” Eldridge said, “our promise to reverse the trend of small Maine dairy farms going out of business can still be kept.
“The interim Stonyfield arrangement provides a tangible way for our current organic farms to remain viable and even flourish,” he said. “We are encouraged by the immediate interest expressed by Stonyfield, Organic Valley and Oakhurst in adding MOO farms to their supply and sincerely hope that all of our MOO farms will find satisfactory long-term contracts with these other processors.”
Efforts to contact Vaughn Chase of Chase’s Organic Dairy Farm were unsuccessful.
In related news, the Maine Farm Bureau has authorized use of a special non-profit emergency fund to connect affected MOO Milk organic farmers with people who want to support the farmers’ efforts following the termination of the company’s processing operations.
The fund, called the Maine Farm Bureau Disaster Relief Fund, is a 501(c)(3) organization and was created in 1998.
“It is to administer fast-delivery emergency funds to farmers in the wake of natural disasters or other hardships,” said Maine Farm Bureau Executive Secretary Jon Olson, noting that the fund is financed by both individual donations and fundraisers.
Stonyfield is currently buying 100 percent of the farmers’ milk, however that wholesale agreement is expected to last only 60 to 90 days. Farmers need something more long-term after that, said David Bright, a Penobscot County farmer and member of both the Maine Farm Bureau and MOFGA.
For more information or to donate to the Maine Farm Bureau Disaster Relief Fund, call 1-800-639-2126.