Danone’s Horizon confirms it will drop its 89 Northeast organic dairies (ME, VT, NH, part of NY)

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 27,2021

DEERFIELD, Mass. — Danone confirmed it will drop 89 Northeast Horizon Organic dairy farms by this time next year. The global corporation headquartered in France had purchased WhiteWave — including Silk plant-based and Horizon Organic milk — from the former Dean Foods five years ago.

Receiving the letters in late August are the Horizon Organic family dairy farms in Maine (14), Vermont (28), Washington County, New York (17) and the balance located in New Hampshire as well as Clinton, Franklin, and Saint Lawrence counties, New York.

Producers in the affected Northeast region say they saw this coming, but no one expected it to be this fast and this impactful in a region such as the Northeast where the organic milk market has had a long and growing following among consumers and some of the first organic transitions were with Horizon more than two decades ago.

Organic producers in the region also say the commoditization of their product faces the same consolidation trends as conventional dairy farms, in part due to the inconsistent interpretation of organic standards by certifiers and the delayed publishing and enforcement of certain rules by USDA.

Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, as well as Senator Patrick Leahy are looking into the situation. Maine’s Governor Janet Mills and Ag Commissioner Amanda Beal also announced state support for these farms and the state’s overall dairy industry through a stakeholders working group with short- and long-term strategies.

For its part, Danone is unequivocal in saying it is focusing on buying milk from new partners that ‘fit’ its ‘processing footprint.’

“Danone is offering a 180-day notice, or farms can sign onto a one-year contract with no contract option after that. Apparently, the farmers who contract for the year can leave with 30 days’ notice if they find another market,” writes Edward Maltby, executive director of NODPA in a bulletin as the news broke August 22.

That’s a big IF.

Other of the region’s organic processors are not known to have much extra capacity to pick up new organic milk shippers. Even conventional milk buyers are mostly not taking on new dairy shippers with several still enforcing base programs and penalties on existing shippers in the Northeast. (However, during the second half of August into September, overall milk supply in the Northeast and Midatlantic has been reported by USDA Dairy Market News as “extremely tight.”)

Maltby notes that this round of contract terminations are mainly in New England and do not extend past four counties in New York (extreme northern and eastern New York) and do not include Pennsylvania. He and other sources indicate Danone is setting an arbitrary line for milk to come from farms within a 300-mile radius of the plants that process it, so as they shift their manufacturing footprint, the farm footprint incrementally shifts as well.

Is this the future of unsustainable ‘sustainability’?

Month after month, the Northeast Federal Milk Marketing Order statistical bulletin shows handlers bringing in milk — including and especially organic milk — to FMMO 1 from the Midwest and Southwest United States. In fact, large quantities of conventional and especially organic milk come into the Northeast in tankers and packages every month from as far away as Texas and Colorado.

Danone issued an emailed statement to NODPA late Tuesday (Aug. 24) that confirmed the rumors and the numbers.

“We greatly value our relationships with our farming partners and did not make this decision lightly. Growing transportation and operational challenges in the dairy industry, particularly in the northeast, led to this difficult decision. Eighty-nine producers across the northeast received this non-renewal notice. To help facilitate a smooth transition, we are offering each producer the opportunity to enter into a new agreement for us to purchase their milk until August 31, 2022 to provide additional time and support,” Danone stated in an email response to NODPA.

“We will be supporting new partners that better align with our manufacturing footprint,” the company statement continued. “We are committed to continuing to support organic dairy in the east, and in the last 12 months alone, we have on boarded more than 50 producers new to Horizon Organic that better fit our manufacturing footprint. This decision will help us continue providing our consumers with the products they love.”

Danone’s statement indicates it is still committed to organic dairy in the East; however, on July 29th, during its earnings call with investors, Danone announced its plans to offer new versions of its FAKE-milk brands with what they say will be “improved taste and texture” later this year (2021).

Furthermore, Danone built the nation’s largest fake-dairy plant in Dubois, Pennsylvania, where it makes plant-based non-dairy substances marketed as “yogurt,” certain soft cheese lookalikes and, yes, fake-milk beverages will be produced there also.

When the fake-dairy plant opened in Pennsylvania in February 2019, Danone officials linked it to their global goal “to triple our plant-based business by 2025.”

Toward that end, during Danone’s July 2021 earnings call, Shane Grant, co-chief executive officer of Danone and CEO of the North America division, said: “The opportunity we see is really the challenge of that (plant-based) convention. We know that in key plant-based markets like the U.S., 60% of consumers are not in the (milk) category. We know the barrier is primarily product taste and texture. We will launch against this opportunity new dairy-like technology under Silk NextMilk, under So Delicious Wondermilk and under Alpro Not Milk.”

Danone also reported to investors its net income jumped 5% in the first half of 2021.

NODPA’s Maltby observed in a Farmshine interview this week that the discriminating higher-price-point consumer of organic milk is a prime target for imitation brands. He noted that organic milk has been “very price stable” on the retail shelf at $4 per half-gallon for the past decade.

“Even now, at a $27 to $29 pay price for (organic) producers versus a prior pay price of $35 or $36, the retail price has remained the same, indicating some room for growth,” said Maltby.

In fact, organic milk sales volume has been inching higher over the past few years, and during the Coronavirus pandemic, when all whole milk sales grew dramatically, organic whole milk sales volume grew by an even higher percentage in volume gains. Plant-based imitations grew on a dollar sales basis although volume is not tracked by USDA the way real fluid dairy milk sales are tracked by volume. Sales growth in plant-based imitations are also a function of the increasing price point, not so much reflective of volume.

Fake-dairy doesn’t offer the nutritional standing of real dairy products, but consumers are duped by advertising campaigns (especially Danone’s Silk commercials on television) into believing real and fake milk are interchangeable in their diets. 

Consumers are also being fed a steady diet of ‘save the planet’ rhetoric centered on plant-based and lab-cultured ‘alternatives’ thanks to regurgitated myths that do not tell the whole story about ruminant cows.

Danone has set a goal to be what it calls “the first carbon-positive dairy brand” by 2025. This includes its Horizon Organic brand. In a March 2020 Marketwatch report, Horizon was ranked as the world’s largest USDA certified organic dairy brand. A few months ago in April 2021, Danone released a report showing that its Horizon brand derived 18% of its carbon footprint from cow manure management, 14% from animal feed, and 9% from keeping milk cold in refrigerators. (That’s less than half, what is the rest?)

As dairy processing innovations continue to lengthen plant code to 30 to 40 days, and beyond, the processing trend in the fluid milk category – organic and conventional – is toward ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurization and extended shelf life (ESL) aseptic packaging for extended warehousing, longer-distance transportation, and larger global circles of distribution where regional supply chains with fresher products will need to find ways to differentiate themselves.

Meanwhile, notes Maltby, it’s the total effect that consumers aren’t realizing because it’s not broadcast in advertising or on labels. The whole package, total effect of real dairy sales includes better nutrition, along with the components dairy farmers bring to their rural communities in terms of economic support and true environmental leadership.

“You don’t see this many organic farms dumped in a year. It’s unusual. This will have a dramatic effect on our rural communities and environment,” said Maltby.

In 2018-19 Danone began dropping organic dairies milking fewer than 500 cows in the western states, coming back to those farms offering conventional contracts using their proprietary “cost-plus” pricing method.

During a 2019 Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA) meeting in Nevada, some of those affected producers shared this news and blamed inconsistent enforcement of USDA organic rules on access to pasture, percentage of dry matter intake from grazing and other production standards. 

Maltby noted that NODPA and other organic dairy organizations are advocating with USDA and their members in Congress to ensure the Origin of Livestock rule for organic certification is strong “to not allow transitioned animals to retain their organic certification for milk when transferred or sold.”

Maltby observed that USDA and certifiers have “created an un-level playing field with their failure to publish this regulation over the past decade.”

He says NODPA and other organic groups also seek better enforcement of organic production standards, explaining that some certifiers “are still not interpreting or enforcing the access to pasture regulation in their definition of the grazing season.”

NODPA is urging anyone with influence within the CROPP Cooperative and Lactalis/ Stonyfield, to encourage them to enter into discussion with the Northeast organic dairy community about ways to move forward.

“A year is a very short time,” said Maltby.

A boycott of Danone products is also mentioned in the bulletin at the NODPA website.

“We hope to direct people away from thinking too narrowly about Horizon and consider boycotting the Danone (Dannon) products instead, to raise the issue with some leverage for these family farms,” he said. “Danone obviously believes it has adequate supply in other areas of the U.S., at a lower cost and from larger operations, that make their trucking logistics cheaper and easier.”

While dairy producers pay the cost to transport their milk from farm to processing, the milk produced in the Northeast is considered higher-priced at the farm level in part because of the FMMO structure but also because the Northeast lacks capacity for “balancing” the organic fluid milk market with processing assets to take milk for Class III and IV products when Class I sales and processing ebb and flow seasonally.

In addition, more organic feeds are produced in the western U.S. and Canada, and there is a transportation component to that scenario from a carbon footprint modeling aspect that becomes a wash when they just bring the milk to the Northeast from elsewhere instead of inputs for cattle on Northeast farms.

The costs of assembling milk from multiple small farms in a region, including field inspections and interactions, is also considered a cost the global Danone company would like to control by sourcing from fewer and larger “new partners”.

However, remembering the food disruptions, waste, and shortages during the pandemic, especially from the centralized models of the meat and poultry industries, Maltby notes that, “If this is the cost of maintaining farms in our region, in our economies and our communities, isn’t that (food security) something for companies like Danone to consider?”   

Bottom line, Danone appears to be looking to control the criteria of its environmental claims so that other companies can’t mimic them. The company is reportedly looking to build a “Regenerative Organic” certification to differentiate its products in the marketplace and capitalize on buzz terms in the climate discussion.

Meanwhile, current USDA-certified organic dairy producers, especially small and mid-sized family farms, feel abandoned in that conversation because they say they don’t see USDA defending what already are the organic standards and regulations, allowing two things to happen simultaneously – the dilution of standards commoditizing their product in the sourcing by companies like Danone, which then turn right around to reinvent real and fake dairy niche differentiation with new partners.

Stay tuned for updates in Farmshine and at the NODPA website

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