A $1.7 million training program being launched by Wolfe’s Neck Farm in partnership with organic yogurt maker Stonyfield aims to revitalize and strengthen the organic dairy industry in Maine and New England while ushering in the next generation of organic dairy farmers.
The Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program will be funded by a three-year, $1,693,000 grant awarded to Wolfe’s Neck by Stonyfield and the Danone Ecosystem Fund, a nonprofit created by Stonyfield’s parent company, French food and beverage maker Danone.
Program organizers said the first farmer trainees are expected to start in 2015 and complete their training in 2016.
“This program has the potential to jumpstart the next generation of organic dairy farmers in New England,” Britt Lundgren, Stonyfield’s director of organic and sustainable agriculture, said in a news release. “We’re designing the program to address the unique challenges faced by dairy farmers in our region by giving qualified young farmers the tools they need to succeed when starting up their own organic dairy.”
Dairy farming has been on the decline in Maine for decades. The number of Maine dairies has dropped from 597 in 1995 to 285 today, according to Rick Kersbergen, professor for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Sustainable Dairy and Forage Systems.
In that same period, the number of organic dairies has grown from one to 60, but Kersbergen said growth in Maine’s organic dairy industry has also started to slow.
The industry suffered a serious setback when Falmouth-based Maine’s Own Organic Milk, known as MOO Milk, announced abruptly in May that it would cease all direct-to-consumer sales. Company officials cited ongoing problems with the company’s carton-filling equipment as the primary reason.
The decision came just one year after MOO Milk secured $3.9 million in private funding with the goal of bolstering its finances and hiring an advertising agency to promote its brand.
Kersbergen said today’s aspiring organic farmers face far greater economic barriers to entry than their predecessors.
As a result, too few next-generation farmers have entered the industry, he said, adding that the average age of an organic dairy farmer in Maine is 57.
“The timing is perfect for an initiative like this,” Kersbergen said. He plans to go on sabbatical to Wolfe’s Neck later this year to help support and launch the program.
The new training program also will include a research element, Wolfe’s Neck Executive Director Dave Herring said.
“Our goal is to build a viable and sustainable organic dairy model at Wolfe’s Neck Farm that will be used for two purposes: training the next generation of organic dairy farmers and conducting forage and pasture-based research to advance organic dairy farming across the region,” Herring said.
Kersberger said consumer demand for organic milk and its byproducts is on the rise. Still, organic dairy farmers have struggled to make their businesses economically viable.
Finding less expensive ways to start and maintain an organic dairy farm will be a major goal of the program, he said.
“Researching and putting into practice the best ways to grow high-quality forage and then training organic dairy farmers on those practices is a key to helping those farmers control their costs, improve their products and create a sustainable future for organic dairy here in the Northeast,” Kersberger said.
According to Herring, the training program will be designed to help strengthen New England’s entire food system.
“Maine has a chance to play a leading role in shaping the future of food and farming in the Northeast simply because we have the land to produce more food,” he said. “Maine only produces 3 to 5 percent of the protein we consume. This number should be closer to 30 to 50 percent.”