Delegation urges USDA to support organic dairy farmers affected by Danone pullout

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

More than 80 organic dairy farms were recently notified their contracts will not be renewed by Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of Danone. Pic: Getty Images/stu99
More than 80 organic dairy farms were recently notified their contracts will not be renewed by Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of Danone. Pic: Getty Images/stu99

Related tags Usda Dairy Milk Organic

US Senators from Maine Susan Collins and Angus King and Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden have sent a letter to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the department to provide federal support to the 14 Maine organic dairy farms recently notified their contracts will not be renewed by Horizon Organic, a subsidiary of the multinational corporation Danone.

Their letter reiterates the recommendations put forth by Governor Mills and the Maine Department of Agriculture.

Horizon Organic's decision affects more than 80 farmers in the Northeast.

“This decision will harm not only the hardworking families that operate these farms, but also Maine’s agricultural economy. We fully support Governor Mills’ request for federal assistance and action to ensure that the 14 Maine dairy farms affected by this decision will have the support and resources they need to survive,”​ the delegation wrote.

“In addition, we strongly agree with Gov. Mills request for the issuance of a final rule on the Origin of Livestock – for which we have been advocating for years. We ask that you move swiftly to finalize this rule in order to prevent further harm to the organic dairy farmers who have been put at a serious and unfair disadvantage while waiting for this process to conclude.”

The Maine Delegation’s recommendations included providing a three-month grace period on all USDA loans for impacted producers; directing available Covid-19 relief and other federal resources towards financial support and related infrastructure needs; supporting regional and state-specific responses; addressing the labor shortage in milk hauling; and issuing a final rule on the Origin of Livestock. The delegation also signed onto a similar region-wide letter with members from across the Northeast, which included Senators Patrick Leahy, Bernard Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Margaret Wood Hassan and Charles E. Schumer, as well as Representatives Peter Welch, Elise M. Stefanik, Ann McLane Kuster and Chris Pappas.

This letter noted, “Danone appears to be consolidating their supply to prioritize more concentrated producers for transportation economies and abandoning smaller and more dispersed family farms. We believe this matter further underscores the long overdue need to close existing loopholes in the rules governing how livestock are transitioned to organic and strengthen enforcement of the pasture rule, particularly for large-scale complex dairies. We ask that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) use whatever funding sources and programs necessary to support organic farmers in our region during this period of market upheaval.”

It also said that for years organic dairy farmers in the region have been put at a significant competitive disadvantage that is now threatening their livelihood and shaking consumer confidence in the organic label.

“The Origin of Livestock Rule, which you first initiated in 2015, would close a loophole that has allowed largescale producers in some states to expand herd sizes quickly through continual transition of conventional animals in and out of organic management,”​ the regional politicians stated.

“After years of inaction by USDA, the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2020, which was signed into law on December 20, 2019, included an explicit congressional directive for USDA to finalize the Origin of Livestock Rule by July 17, 2020, a directive still unmet. On July 12, 2021, for the third time in over six years, a comment period on the proposed rule closed, and we strongly urge you to now issue a final rule that reflects the thousands of comments received since 2015, meets the intent of the Organic Foods Production Act, and fulfills consumer expectations, as soon as possible. This action, combined with increased and consistent enforcement of existing organic regulations like the pasture rule, will help restore the level playing field that farmers in our region require.

“In addition to restoring and preserving the integrity of the organic seal, we respectfully request that you use any tools at your disposal and work quickly to support the farmers affected by Danone’s decision and work with stakeholders to expand market channels for their products. This includes targeted and increased support through USDA’s Pandemic Assistance for Producers program, targeted investments in processing capacity and transportation efficiencies for businesses that can contract with these farmers, as well as temporary price supports to allow these farmers to transition to new markets.”

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