Vermont Organic Dairy Farms Fight To Survive As Industry Consolidates
In a dirt driveway in the center of the town of Washington, Jill and Jason Deberville hop into a fixed-up, four-decade-old truck, affectionately named “orange blossom.”
The Debervilles go a little ways down memory lane…
“I drove cross country when I was younger,” Jason says, adding as his wife laughs, “smoking pot in all 50 states.”
… and to the pasture where their 50 or so organic dairy cows used to graze.
The couple stopped shipping milk to Organic Valley in 2017 because their barn, equipment and cows were all aging. And after some bad breeding luck, plus a nasty round of — it would have put them in too much debt to try and go on.
“I wish it could have been different, that we'd still be milking and still have our girls, 'cause I really miss them,” Jill said.
“I miss farming and being here every day,” Jason said. “But I don't miss all the heartaches and being broke all the time and being pissed all the time ... It’s just not worth it.”
The Debervilles are among the several dozen organic dairy farms to go out of business since 2012, when more than 200 were operating in Vermont. Since that high point, nearly 20% of the state’s organic dairy farms have stopped shipping milk.
And that was before last month's announcement from Horizon Organic — that it will be ending its contracts with 28 more farms next year.
Two decades ago, organic dairy seemed like a way for Vermont’s family farms to stay small and still make enough money to survive. But the industry is changing, favoring larger operations out West.
Now, those Vermont farms are running out of ways to survive.
Back in the early 2000s, organic dairy offered a solution to the problem of consolidation in conventional dairy farming. Organic companies paid higher milk prices and provided stable contracts.
Travis Forgues was one of the early adopters of organic dairy practices at his family’s farm in Alburgh in the late 90s.
Forgues says organic dairy farmers couldn’t produce enough milk to meet demand, and in the early days it was small family farms like his — milking about 80 cows — that drove the growth.
Organic dairy sales grew steadily through 2014. And this caught the attention of some big players.
“And it was really the beginning of the Costco, Walmart, big chains deciding not only were they going to give lip service to organics, but they were actually going to get organics on the shelf,” Forgues said. “And that really created a rush. And it definitely brought awareness to a big group of larger dairies.”
Today Forgues lives in Wisconsin, and he’s an executive with Organic Valley, one of the companies that still picks up milk from almost 100 organic farms in Vermont.
He says big companies like Danone, which bought Horizon Organic in 2017, came on the scene to help meet the consumer demand. Huge farms popped up in places like Colorado and Texas and started churning out milk.
Supply soon outpaced demand. As organic milk prices began to drop, Vermont’s small- and medium-sized farms, whose numbers stayed pretty steady for the previous decade, started to decline.
Some Vermont farms, however, got bigger.
East Montpelier organic farmer Seth Gardner, for example, milks around 350 cows these days. He started with 20.
Gardner used to ship to Horizon Organic until a contract dispute ended their relationship in 2019.
But even before that, he says the purchase of Horizon by Danone, a French multinational company, brought on a big shift — his farm felt like a number.
“And Horizon, for all their bullsh--, they — you know, all their fluffy little image of the cow jumping over the bottle or whatever the hell it is on their carton — in all the fluffy newsletters they put out, it's all bullsh--,” Gardner said. “It's all bottom line. And it's owned by a company that's out of the country now. We have no control over it.”
Economies of scale are one problem. National organic standards, which regulate small and big farms across the country, are another. They currently give industrial-type operations an edge.
That’s according to Nicole Dehne, who’s with the group Vermont Organic Farmers, the state’s organic certification body.
Dehne says in Vermont, farmers can transition cows from conventional grain and conventional medicine to organic products once in a farm’s lifetime. From then on, they're only supposed to work with organic-raised cows.
This gives consumers confidence that the milk or yogurt they're buying is really organic, but it costs more.
She says due to a loophole in the rule, other states allow farms to continuously make the switchover.
“The problem is that, it is obviously less expensive to manage an animal conventionally,” Dehne said. “So anyone who's doing that, has an unfair advantage.”
Dehne says the U.S. Department of Agriculture can also improve its enforcement.
She says it’s hard to believe mega-dairies in hot, dry parts of the country even have enough grass to have their cows get 30% of their diet from pasture, like the national standards mandate.
It’s been about a month since Horizon announced it would cut ties with farms in Vermont as well as Maine, New Hampshire and New York.
In an email to VPR, the company says it remains “committed to small family farms, especially in the east,” and that it is not leaving Northeast organic farms for larger ones out West.
In the meantime, federal and state agencies are now looking for solutions.
But the reality is, that for now, Vermont organic farms will have to find a way to compete with the larger dairies in other parts of the country, just like traditional dairy operations have been struggling to do for decades.
"There will probably always be a place for a national, big company,” says Pete Miller, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Vernon. “I suppose that it's a maturing of this industry, just like any others.”
Miller moved his herd to organic practices in 2009, and about a year ago, he started bottling some of his own milk. He ships it to small stores and co-ops under his own label.
Miller makes more money this way, and it allows him to directly interact with his customers. He bottles a small portion of his milk, about 5%, and the rest goes to Stonyfield Organic, because Miller says farmers like him will always need to get their milk to larger markets in places like Boston and New York.
"Sure, there's going to be cheaper conventional milk available at Walmart,” he said. “But I do believe that for our partnership here at the farm, we will continue to exist. We'll have to modify. We'll have to continue to gain efficiency. We'll have to continue to respond to what the consumer wants, but I believe that there is opportunity.”
Miller says he thinks there is a future for organic dairy farming in the Northeast, just as long as Vermont family farms have a story to tell.