Maine Farmers Benefiting from Organic Milk Demand, But Can the Planet?

Oct 26, 2015

MAPLETON, Maine — For decades, states like California have been synonymous with "agriculture," but as western graze lands dry up, producers and distributors are looking for fertile new places to grow crops and produce food.

Maine is just such a place, where the focus has recently turned to organic milk.

But how to balance supply and demand with the competing needs of the planet? Producers say their way of farming makes sense both environmentally and financially, but conservationists are a bit more circumspect.

It's a bright October morning in Northern Maine. The air is a bit nippy, but the red and white pied cattle dotting this meadow in Mapleton don't seem to mind; there's plenty of tender grass to go around.

"Lush, green pasture — you know, in early fall, which is a dairy farmer's dream to have still cows on pasture making milk," says Organic Valley's Steve Getz.

It's a scene that he says makes him very happy, the kind of scene largely absent this summer from California's Central Valley, where thirsty native elk were observed actively competing with cattle over the state's parched grasslands — many of which were once wild grasslands converted to pasture.

The Wisconsin-based dairy cooperative is expanding in Maine for a reason.

"We're right in the middle of hundreds of acres of beautiful pasture," Getz says.

He handpicked this family farm, along with 11 others over the last year, mostly farms that were left without a distributor when Maine's MOO Milk Cooperative went out of business.

The process is the same for organic milk statewide. In a tank, the precious white stuff is rapidly chilled. Soon, a truck will come to collect it and take it to a processing pool. From there, to stores — and ultimately to a frosty glass near you.

"I love organic for a small farm," says Vaughn Chase. "I think if you're a small farm and you're not organic, you're crazy."

Chase and his wife were founding members of MOO Milk. He says the fledgling cooperative struggled for a number of reasons before finally closing in 2014. But he says it didn't fail because of lack of interest.

The market for organic milk is strong, which is why brands like Organic Valley, Horizon, and Stonyfield continue to court farmers in new regions. With these opportunities, Chase says dairy farming is less of a struggle now than it was when he was a conventional farmer.

"It just is a steady market," he says. "I mean you can almost plan what you're going to get paid next week, and a lot easier to budget and maintain a steady income."

But organic production practices can be more labor intensive and costly than conventional. And while several studies have shown organically produced milk to be more nutritious, the grassfed cows tend to produce less volume than their grainfed counterparts.

Steve Getz (left), Vaughn Chase (right) and red holstein Katie (middle) all have a role to play in Aroostook County's recent organic milk boom.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

However, market prices are usually better for organic and typically more stable. That hasn't been the case lately. Organic prices are lower than they've been, making the switch from conventional to organic farming less enticing and more risky.

Still, demand for organic milk remains high, so high that some stores have run short. Getz says current health trends and a growing concern over the environment are fueling the interest.

"What we see is the opportunity for more farms up here, which will create a market for feed, which will create a market for grain," he says.

That could mean revived farming opportunities all around for Aroostook County. Organic Valley now buys milk from 40 Maine farms, and Getz says there's room for more. But what does all this expanded farming mean for Maine and the planet?

"Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer to your question," says Sandra Vijn, a sustainable food specialist with World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C.

Animal farming is an offender when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Food And Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, global demand for milk products is expected to rise by nearly 60 percent by 2050. For a planet that's already burning up resources at an unsustainable pace, she says this rate of farm development could lead to bigger problems ahead.

"Overproduction of manure, in combination with improper handling, can lead to a higher release of greenhouse gas emissions, and even through pollution of waterways and soils, so that is of concern to us," Vijn says.

These problems, she says, are exacerbated by deforestation and the destruction of grassland habitat to make way for large soy and corn lots for cattle feed.

So is organic, grassfed dairy the way to go? Vijn says she's not comfortable making that assessment just yet. She cites a recent study of U.S. dairy farms by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy in Chicago.

"And what they learned is that the emissions level per farm are affected by how the farm is operated, and not necessarily if it's small or big or conventional or organic," she says. "So you really need to look at the farm's dairy operations as a whole system, including the management of the cows, the manure, the feed, and how the management fits best in the environment in which the farm is located."

Getz says he believes that Maine's organic industry is taking all those things into account. His cooperative has recently partnered with Stonyfield Farms to fund a dairy training program to entice new farmers into the fold, with a focus on sustainability, not just profitability.

He says when he sees a farmer like Vaughn Chase paying attention to conservation practices, such as rotational grazing, soil nutrient retention and better animal health, it gives him hope.

"And hope comes from being able to farm in a way that works for the land, that works for the livestock, works for the family, and works of the consumer on the end who's enjoying that product and that is from my perspective a very rewarding, win-win-win situation," Getz says.

But globally, Vijn says questions remain over how to realistically lighten up on resources while meeting the food demands of a hungry planet. That, she says, is going to take multiple solutions.