In late 2021 a wave of organic dairy handlers terminated contracts with producers in the northeast including 92 in New York State (Tables 1 and 2). These terminations are potentially devastating for producers who have few, if any, options for finding a new handler. In light of this news, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) with support from the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) conducted outreach to as many producers as possible to gain a better understanding of the organic dairy landscape and the challenges and opportunities facing producers. In November 2021, NOFA-NY, with support from the Organic Farmers Association, mailed 691 organic dairy producers a survey. The following page outlines the results of that survey.
Table 1: Horizon Organic Terminated Contracts in NY
|County||Number of farms||Total lbs per pickup*|
*Pickups occur every other day. This amounts to an estimated 1-2 truckloads every other day.
Table 2: Maple Hill Terminated Contracts in NY
|Region||Number of farms||Average lbs per month|
Who Filled out the Survey
105 producers responded to the survey. They were asked to share their location (table 3), the volume of milk shipped annually (Chart 1), the number of cows milked, handler contract and cooperative membership information and the status of contracts that they have/had with handlers/buyers.
The greatest number of responses came from the Finger Lakes but organic producers from across the state filled out the survey. Farm size ranged from milking 3 cows to 285, with the majority milking between 20 and 60 cows (see chart 1 for the volume of milk shipped).
The top handlers listed by respondents included Horizon Organic, Organic Valley, Maple Hill Creamery, and Dairy Farmers of America. The top cooperatives listed by respondents included Dairy Farmers of America, National Farmers Organization, CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley), and Upstate Niagara Cooperative.
11 respondents indicated that they had received termination notices from Horizon Organic or Maple Hill Creamery in 2021. Of those, most indicated that they were looking for a new buyer, and one indicated shifting operations to focus on other organic crops and livestock. Despite the majority of respondents being under contract, responses to the open-ended questions about challenges and opportunities indicated great uncertainty and similar challenges regardless of contract status.
Table 3: Locations of Respondents
|Region*||Number of Organic Dairies**||Respondent Region Frequency||Respondents as % of the Total Number of Organic Dairies in the Region|
**As listed in USDA Organic Integrity Database 10/22/21)
Chart 1: Average Annual Volume of Milk Shipped
Challenges and Opportunities
In two open-ended questions, producers were asked to share their greatest challenges (n=89) and their vision for the future (n=69). These responses were coded into broad categories.
- 47% described profitability as a great challenge including low milk pay price, high costs of inputs/high production costs, and high hauling costs
- 25% described market challenges including limited opportunities to sell milk and dairy products, market instability, and difficulty competing with larger farms
- 23% described challenges with compliance including meeting regulatory standards (ie milk quality), contractual obligations (ie unfair buying practices), or Organic program/certification requirements (ie keeping up with paperwork)
- 18% described on-farm challenges including finding/maintaining labor, quality feed/forage production, keeping up with the demands of farming, dealing with animal health issues, and adjusting to extreme weather and climate change
Vision for the future of NYS organic dairy
- 68% described a need for market and regulatory improvements including
- Supporting small scale farms, processors, and local markets
- Regulating large farms and ending government support for big ag
- Improving market fairness, competition, and access
- 19% described improving cooperative and handler practices to increase fairness and prioritize local producers
The results of this survey give a window into the ongoing challenges faced by New York’s small organic dairies. They also illuminate the NY organic dairy community’s priorities for improving regulations and market conditions. The majority of respondents have active contracts or cooperative agreements but market instability and decreasing profit margins were expressed by nearly half of all respondents indicating that despite existing contracts, producers do not have a sense of security.
NOFA-NY is immensely grateful to the producers that took the time to respond to this survey and to the Organic Farmers Association (OFA) for their support. The results will directly inform how we engage in and advocate for policies that impact organic dairy and helped shape our vision for the future of organic dairy in NY and the region.
NOFA-NY’s vision for organic dairy
A paradigm shift is needed to achieve NOFA-NY’s vision for a robust local food system that both nourishes eaters and values producers while providing dignified work and protecting the planet. This need is especially evident in the organic dairy market in NY and the northeast. We recognize that no one solution will solve the organic dairy crisis, therefore, we are taking a multifaceted approach to our advocacy that prioritizes:
- Building fair, competitive, local and regional organic dairy markets that offer stability to producers and increase opportunities to supply households, cafeterias, and eateries statewide with NY organic dairy products
- Pushing for organic milk pay pricing that keeps up with increasing input, production, and transportation costs so that producers can thrive, provide dignified work for themselves and their employees, cultivate healthy and safe operations, and produce high-quality milk
- Increasing the integrity of the Organic label and creating a level playing field for producers of all sizes and from all parts of the country
- Enabling and incentivizing public and private investments in rebuilding and revitalizing local processing and on-farm infrastructure
- Developing pathways for farms and processors to continually improve, and be rewarded for, positive climate outcomes and ecosystem services
- Cultivating a robust system of farm services including mental health and business planning that are integral parts of our farming system and not last resorts
With questions or feedback about this survey and our advocacy, please reach out to Katie Baildon, NOFA-NY policy coordinator, at kbaildon@nofany-org or 315-988-4000 ext 507.