Horizon Organic Task Force Calls on USDA for National and Regional Policy Changes and Support

Cows return to the barn at Elysian Fields, an organic dairy farm in Shoreham owned by Joe and Kathleen Hescock, Wednesday, September 15, 2021. Theirs is one of the Vermont farms whose contracts with Horizon Organic were to be terminated. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A regional task force, convened to find solutions for farmers left behind by Horizon Organic’s exit from the Northeast, has sent a series of recommendations to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

In August, Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, a global food company, notified 89 organic dairy farmers, including 28 in Vermont, that it planned to terminate their contracts in August of this year. Recently, the company announced that it would be offering optional contract extensions until February 2023.

The announcement left organic farmers across the region in shock. Many told VTDigger that they weren’t sure if they could continue farming without their long-standing contracts with Horizon.

Recently, Maple Hill terminated 46 additional contracts with organic dairy farmers in New York.

To find solutions for farmers — many of whom own fewer than 100 cows — several statewide and regional task forces have come together to identify systemic issues in the Northeast dairy industry.

Members of the Northeast Dairy Task Force drafted the recommendations to the United States Department of Agriculture in December. The group recommended regional and national policy changes, categorized into subgroups, including institutional market development, processing expansion, distribution logistics, agribusiness viability, and the federal response.

One recommendation echoed a call repeatedly made by lawmakers and state organizations to “immediately finalize and implement the final livestock origin rule.”

Currently, a loophole in the national organic program, intended to allow conventional farmers to make a one-time transition to organic farming, allows non-organically raised animals to transition to organic farming later in their lives. life. The origin of the livestock rule would close this loophole, leveling the playing field between organic farmers.

The task force also recommends that the USDA provide multi-year grants and enter into cooperative agreements to encourage institutions such as public schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and food banks to purchase local organic dairy products.

Many institutions are already trying to buy more food locally, according to the task force’s recommendations.

“Organic dairy’s reliance on pasture and avoidance of synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels make it a good choice for institutions looking to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions from the food they serve. “, says the document.

To increase the amount of milk that can be processed in the Northeast, the task force recommends investing in proven processors and investing in new processing facilities. The aid would take the form of grants.

Horizon cited distribution logistics — namely, difficult truck routes and a shortage of drivers — as a key issue when it pulled out of the North East. To address this issue, the USDA could implement a pilot short-term allowance program, targeting the Northeast, that would “decrease the transportation costs incurred by farms when seeking to move raw agricultural products to the market”.

It could also offer additional insurance to agricultural transporters and establish a scholarship and recruitment program for the commercial driver’s license.

To improve farm viability, a series of recommendations aimed to provide farmers with increased technical assistance and to compensate farmers who lost their market due to the departures of Horizon Organic and Maple Hill.

“The aid would fill the financial gap between the organic price and the conventional price for these dairy farms which do not have a new secure market on September 1, 2022”, indicates the document.

The Northeast Dairy Task Force includes leaders from state departments of agriculture, university extension, organic processors, organic associations, agricultural technical assistance providers, and dairy experts. matter. Laura Ginsburg of the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center and Britt Lundgren of Stonyfield Organic led the effort.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets hosts the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, which helped develop the recommendations. Vermont agriculture secretary Anson Tebbetts sent a letter to USDA secretary Vilsack supporting the recommendations.

“For small dairies to meaningfully survive in the region, significant and forward-looking investments must be made,” Tebbetts wrote. “The recommendations provide options for moving forward and outline how they should work together to create a more powerful outcome. In many cases, the benefits extend well beyond the farm to consumers, institutional markets, distribution companies and cooperatives. »

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