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Business and Economy

MOO Milk CEO: 'I Feel Like I've Let Them Down'


MOO chief executive Bill Eldridge says the problem is not demand for the milk - which has quadruped in the last two years - but the poor state of a key piece of machinery.

A bold experiment launched by ten Maine organic dairy farmers has come to an end. The company known as Maine's Own Organic Milk, or MOO Milk, has announced it will end operations tomorrow.

  After being dropped by a national dairy, the farmers joined together five years ago to process and market their milk to consumers.

Their initiative garnered national attention, inspiring an award-winning documentary film, "Betting The Farm."

MOO CEO Bill Eldridge says the decision to fold has nothing to do with demand for the product, which has quadrupled in the last two years. Instead, he says an out-of-date piece of processing machinery is to blame.

"As our aging equipment has gotten more aged it's really started breaking down, and this past spring it just ran out of its useful life," Eldridge says.

He's talking about the H-90 carton filler at MOO's processing facility in Westbrook. Eldridge says Oakhurst donated it five years ago.

"But they had purchased it in the early '70s or late '60s, and they had retired it 8 or 9 years before they had given it to us," he says.

The equipment was making cartons that were increasingly leaky.

Bill Eldridge on MOO Milk.

When asked why MOO couldn't get the financing for needed equipment, Eldridge says, "We actually have the financing, we just haven't got a place to put it."

The problem, says Eldridge, is timing. The company recently completed a feasibility study into the possible establishment of a new processing plant.

"But it would take, basically, for approvals and building and everything else like that, about 18 months," he says. "And unfortunately, getting out of the marketplace for 18 months is just like you've stopped and started all over again."

"Obviously we're disappointed," says Aaron Bell, who runs Tide Mill Organic Farm. Set on 1,600 acres near Campobello Island in Washington County, it's one of 12 farms in the MOO co-operative.

Bell says it's frustrating that a technical problem cannot be resolved.

"The demand for the local, fresh, high-quality milk is still there, and the milk is still here," he says. "The ends of the chain haven't gone away, it's just the logistics in the middle is what has broken."

MOO Milk did manage to negotiate a deal with Stonyfield Farm offering a short-term lifeline to Aaron Bell and the other farmers.

The New Hampshire-based organic dairy has agreed to keep buying milk from the MOO farmers for 90 more days.

But the farmers need something more permanent, says Spencer Aitel.

He runs Two Loons Farm in South China, which joined MOO Milk last year.

Aitel says it's difficult for dairy farms to downscale once they're in full production.

"Dropping back to a tiny level and coming back up again is really hard in dairy," he says, "It's not like a used car dealer where you just shut the doors for a while and open back up. It's a hard process to start a farm and if you sell the cows or drop back it takes years to bring it back up to production capacity."

Julie-Marie Bickford is executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association.

She says Maine has about 60 organic dairy farms, which account for about 20 percent of the total dairy farms in the state.

"It seems to be that our ultimate challenge, if we're going to have some of these alternative scales like organic or something, is on the processing side - trying to find adequate processing facilities to turn that milk into a consumer-accessible product," Bickford says.

MOO Milk CEO Bill Eldridge still hopes he'll find a way to revive the MOO brand some day, but for now, he's disappointed that production challenges have dampened his, and others', dreams.

"So many people's lives are involved in this process," Eldridge says. "When you look at all the farmers and their families, and the people working with them, it's just an incredible supportive group, so I feel like I've let them down."