Hide your oat milk, because Maine’s two U.S. senators recently joined colleagues in a renewed push to get the Food & Drug Administration to stop vegan companies from using words such as “milk” and “cheese” on their labels.

But even if the FDA bans certain words on vegan packaging, it won’t help Maine dairy farmers. Label it oat juice, oat beverage or cold-pressed oat elixir, and people like me will continue to drink it.

Instead, what struggling dairy farmers need is a bold, future-focused plan that allows them to keep farming by funding their transition to plant-based enterprises that supply the fast-growing demand for crops needed to make vegan milks and meats, while using techniques such as organic management, cover cropping and no-till farming to sequester carbon and build soil fertility.

WAR OF WORDS

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and five fellow senators allege in a letter to the head of the FDA that American shoppers think they’re buying flavored cow’s milk when they purchase vegan milks, even though some market research shows people buy vegan milks because they prefer to avoid drinking cow’s milk.

But the problem is bigger than vegan milks. Two of the U.S.’s largest cow’s milk processors, Dean Foods and Borden Dairy, recently filed for bankruptcy. Meanwhile, small dairy farmers face an array of challenges, such as consolidation, overproduction and tariffs, in addition to plant-based competition. All conspire to make their business model unsustainable, even with current government subsidies.

While I disagree with their methods, I believe the senators’ motives are honorable.

I’m a Maine dairy farmer’s granddaughter, haunted not only by the bellows of the cows whose hours-old calves were taken away but also by the deep distress my family felt as we watched profits dwindle and disappear at our 200-head dairy farm in Richmond.

Gilson McKenney Sr., the author’s grandfather, bales hay on his dairy farm in Richmond in the 1970s. Economics forced McKenney out of farming in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of McKenney Family

The pain experienced by farm families is real, and the senators have no doubt seen this firsthand. But if they really want to improve the fortunes of Maine’s farm families, they need to update their efforts. Rather than quibbling over labels, imagine what the senators could achieve if they concentrated their efforts on moving farmers into the profitable plant-based future of food.

When my family’s farm in Richmond entered the red, my grandfather (a conventional farmer, staunch conservative and loyal Republican) looked out in the world and saw the conventional options: Sell the land. Sell the animals. In the end, he did both. The saddest day was not when the farmhouse and barns were sold. No, it was the day the livestock trailers came. The herd was rounded up, the trailer gates were locked, and the cows departed for the slaughterhouse. The humans left behind stood in silence, watching the swirling dust kicked up by the 18-wheelers settle in the now quiet barnyard.

PROFITABLE PLANTS

I wish somehow I could reach back through time and steer my late grandfather to transform his sprawling acreage into a plant-based enterprise, growing crops such as oats, hemp and yellow field peas. In the 1980s, this would have been a radical, risky move (not to mention illegal in the case of hemp). Yet in 2020, it is a business model backed by shifting demographics, an altered food scene and a stock market stunned by the IPO success of Beyond Meat.

Maine farmers have the land, soil and climate to grow many of these high-demand food crops, yet the margins are tight on small dairy farms. To make such a major change, many farmers will need financial assistance. They will need new equipment, new storage facilities, new distribution networks and new processing plants.

Government funding can make the difference between staying on the land and selling the family farm. It will also determine whether our food will be grown on U.S. soil or imported from countries where the governments are providing funds to accelerate the switch from animal-based to plant-based farming.

Buy a 12-ounce bag of hulled hemp seeds in any local grocery store and it costs more than $10 and comes from either Canada or China. That’s because the Canadian and Chinese governments are investing heavily in plant-based foods by funding the construction of food-grade processing plants and underwriting research. Last summer, I wrote about how a handful of Maine farmers have started growing yellow peas (a key ingredient in Ripple milks, Beyond Meat hamburgers and other vegan products) as a rotation crop, yet they lack access to the larger buyers and processing plants responding to the uptick in demand for vegan foods.

Meanwhile, family farmers over the border benefit from the Canadian government’s efforts, including a new $10 million processing plant for field peas, beans and grains on Prince Edward Island.

VEGAN MARKET GROWS

Last summer, the Canadian office of Innovation, Science and Economic Development announced a $4 million investment in hemp seed and canola processing, part of Canada’s plant-based protein Supercluster Initiative. A government press release noted, “The Supercluster is a crucial element in Canada’s goal to be a dominant player in meeting global demand for plant-based proteins.”

In the United States, the private sector has stepped up in some measure. Earlier this year, the American vegan oat yogurt brand Hälsa, which currently imports oats from Scandinavia, announced plans to work with U.S. dairy farms to help them switch to growing organic oats for Hälsa. High Meadows Farm in Hoosick, New York, is the first farm to join the program.

Last year, fast-growing vegan cheese brand Miyoko’s Creamery announced plans to develop a line of cheeses made with U.S.-grown potatoes and legumes, such as yellow peas. (Its current products are made with imported organic cashews and coconuts.) The California-based company said it is looking for dairy farmers who want financial and technical assistance to transition to growing the crops Miyoko’s needs to make its cheeses.

In 2019, nonprofit Mercy for Animals launched a project called Transfarmation to assist factory farmers ready to make a leap into the plant-based market. The group is working on recruiting its first 10 farms.

Finally, Lobbyists4Good, in partnership with the the Agriculture Fairness Alliance, is meeting with members of Congress to pitch the At-Risk Farmer & Rancher Diversification & Transition Act. The pilot program calls for a total of $5 million in annual payments to farms switching from animal-based to plant-based agriculture.

Billy DeLancey, the organization’s CEO, said he has yet to contact members of Maine’s congressional delegation. When he does, I hope the senators remember that bans on words won’t help Maine dairy farmers, but yellow peas, hemp and oats could.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]

Twitter/AveryYaleKamila


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