Make your milk MOO

Poster for “Betting the Farm” at Fort Andross

Dairy farming has deep roots in Maine. A few years ago, prior to landing on Moxie as my subject, I contemplated a book about the demise of farming in Maine. That book never got off the ground, but I was struck by some of the numbers and how farming has fallen out of favor in most parts of the state, as well as the rest of country.

Producing milk is one of the leading agricultural activities in the United States. Like other forms of agriculture, science has increased productivity and yields. The number of cows milked, as well as the number of actual farms has been steadily declining since 1970. Former pasture land has been turned into house lots.

Since the 1950s, the number of farms has decreased 50 percent, and the number of farms with dairy cows has decreased about 90 percent. This is all due to a shift in farming, towards larger scale, industrial dairy farms. A farm with 100 milking cows was considered big in 1950, while farms with 5,000 milking cows were becoming the norm toward the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.

I first learned about the documentary, “Betting the Farm” in an article written by Avery Yale Kamila, of the Portland Press Herald. That was back in September. I made a note to try to catch a screening of the film when it came to our area. Last night, my sister had two tickets she couldn’t use due to a scheduling conflict, so Miss Mary and I got to do dinner and a movie—on a Thursday night, no less.

There’s little not to like about Frontier in Brunswick. Nestled in the historic Fort Andross Mill, alongside the Androscoggin River, the choice of foods, locally-sourced and never run-of­-the-mill (no pun intended), lends a unique experience to movie-going.

The Frontier entrance at Fort Andross (from inside the mill).

Over the course of my lifetime, cooperatives and collective organizations have fallen out of favor. Even worse, sometimes it seems as though we no longer seem capable of acting in a manner where the individual benefit is subsumed by the group.

“Betting the Farm” follows a group of dairy farmers in rural Aroostook and Washington Counties after they are dropped by their national milk company. It captures their fight to survive in an era where bigger always wins, and if you aren’t following the industrial Ag model, then you are continually battling your way upstream and fighting odds stacked against you. The farmers realize that their only hope  for survival and the survival of their farms depends on their ability to join forces to launch their own company, Maine’s Own Organic Milk, or MOO for short.

Maine filmmakers Cecily Pingree and her brother-in-law Jason Mann of Pull-Start Pictures follow three of the 10 farm families dropped by H.P. Hood. All of the farms are organic dairy farms and Hood’s justification is that they are too far from the processing facility to warrant continued association.

Sometimes we’re faced with stark choices in life. For these farmers, it came down to figuring out an innovative way to stay in business. If not, then it meant for some, like Washington County farmer Aaron Bell, ending what his family has been doing for eight generations.

The documentary begins hopefully. Buoyed by the idea that a farmer-owned low-profit, limited liability company (L3C) could be successful, this little group of farmers were bitten by setbacks in the early frames of the film’s narrative. Not the least of these setbacks being their lack of initial capitalization .

This is not a Hollywood tale. Quickly, reality sets in. Delays in the product launch slated for late 2009 (pushing it up to the first of the new year) , leaking containers, lack of availability in stores, consumers staying loyal to larger brands, and farmers beginning to squabble are all part of the challenges faced by a tiny David battling in a world of Goliaths. By the end of 2010, MOOMilk was down to $2,000 of their initial start-up capital of just under $500,000, an amount that was probably 1/10th of what they needed to launch an entrepreneurial venture like this one.

Even national right-wing talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, publicly berated the company, calling this model of banding together, “social engineering, “ and branding it as an attack on capitalism

Despite all the challenges, MOOMilk has managed to limp along and in late 2012, the company might be on its firmest footing, yet.

Milk cooperatives are not exactly a new idea. They were a primary model for dairy farmers in the late 1800s, negotiating prices with dealers, and seizing on opportunities to deliver their milk to America’s burgeoning urban markets. Milk cooperatives peaked in the 1940s, as the consolidation model was becoming standard for farming.

Cooperatives are again garnering interest and have regained traction as a viable business model, especially due to the amount of consumer interest in organic products and locally-produced foods, and support from large organic retailers like Whole Foods. The largest single supplier of organic milk in the U.S. is actually a co-op; Organic Valley is a 1,723 member cooperative established in 1988.

While MOOMilk isn’t flush with cash, they’ve been able to inch forward. They are now paying their farmers after months of being unable to. Whole Foods has added MOOMilk to its shelves in their stores and so has Hannaford’s.

The documentary is well-done. It shows farming for the tough, honest work that it is. It doesn’t romanticize its characters, and it’s obvious that after the initial euphoria, cooperation doesn’t come naturally to the farmers making up the cooperative. Some farms have left, although others are waiting to step in to fill the gap.

One other point that comes through clearly in the telling of the story is how our decisions as consumers have a tremendous ripple effect on local models of commerce.

“The ways that people choose to spend their food dollars can make a huge difference,” says MOOMilk farmer, Laura Chase. “It can literally change the landscape around them. If they support local farms and purchase from people that they know, they really can change the way things look around them. And then maybe we’ll have more family farms crop up.”

Otherwise, small farms will pass away and all we’ll be left with is an agricultural model that some argue can’t be sustained and in places like Maine, our future food security will be severely compromised.

Other screenings are scheduled and dates/locations can be found on the film’s web page.

Filmmaker Cecily Pingree speaking after “Betting the Farm” screening at Frontier.

3 thoughts on “Make your milk MOO

  1. She’s right about the spending of local dollars. There was a wonderful farm store right outside the base when I got here in England, and it should have thrived on our business. It didn’t, though, and the economic downturn finally overtook it. After two decades, it closed. I loved that store. Only a few miles away from me, less than 20 minutes by bicycle down a narrow old road, is a similar store in Lincolnshire that I patronize now. Is it more expensive than down at the big box groceries? Yes, but I find that if I don’t buy all the plastic stuff from the big box, I not only have more money for real food, but on net I’m eating more real food–grass-fed beef, real pork that isn’t soaked in sulfites and water, chickens that ate what they found on the ground–and total cost is less.

    I don’t care much for the organic tag, but it has more meaning when it comes to dairy, and I’d support MOO if I could. What you need, though, is someone more local still, someone from Androscoggin County, for example. What MOO needs to figure out is how to crack the Aroostook/Franklin county stranglehold of Hood. When fuel delivery prices rise, MOO will be more vulnerable than Hood. In a regional market defined by Hood, MOO is local, local enough for your money, but probably not local enough to supply you over the long haul.

    • I think what gets lost in American consumerism, particularly when our purchases get scrutinized is the difference between price vs. cost.

      The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has done a great deal of research on the costs associated with Big Box retailers like Wal-Mart and others, and how their model has crushed local economies.

      A book that I find helpful as a model of how to create local economies and supply chains is Ben Hewitt’s, “The Town That Food Saved.” Granted, this is one community, but to your point, it is important that we find local suppliers for all our various food stuffs.

      Thanks for your comment. It’s spot on.

  2. Price v. cost, absolutely. There are so many hidden costs to the current models, and some not so hidden ones as well. They still do milk bottle deliveries here. Quite a few people in the village get their eggs from their own chickens in their back yards. Can you, dear reader, do either of those things in your home? Six years in Europe have taught me that America is hamstrung by a lot more regulations than Europeans are, despite the EU’s bumbling efforts to standardize everything. MOO’s biggest obstacle isn’t Hood, it’s the layers of government regulations and the way the Federal pie gets sliced that keep MOO from getting a good footing to take on Hood. Just the way the big boys like it.

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