By Sharon Kiley Mack of the BDN Staff: DEXTER, Maine — A group of organic farmers representing three different producers is calling for a nationwide boycott of all H.P. Hood branded products and Stonyfield Organic Milk, also produced by Hood, because of what they term unfair business practices.
In February, Hood told eight Maine organic dairy farmers in Aroostook and Washington counties that their milk contracts would not be renewed. This spring the company gave two more farmers, one in Dexter and one in Clinton, the same message.
“Let it start here, in Maine,” dairy farmer Mark McKusick said Friday at his farm in Dexter. “We are calling on all farmers and consumers in other states to join us.”
McKusick said that at a recent meeting of the Maine Organic Milk Producers, a straw vote showed a majority of Maine producers support the boycott. “They represented farmers supplying milk to Horizon, Organic Valley, Hood and Stonyfield,” he said.
“If enough farmers and consumers stick together it will have an effect,” Martin Lane of Shady Lane Farms in New Vineyard said.
The movement comes just weeks before the first of the Maine organic dairy farmers’ contracts expires on Aug. 1.
McKusick and Richard Lary, a Clinton organic dairy farmer, also were dropped by the company after they publicly criticized Hood.
“They promised us the moon and then bailed on us,” said Cheryl McKusick, Mark McKusick’s wife. “When I asked Hood to meet with the producers, [a Hood official] told me I was confused. I feel Stonyfield is more concerned with cows passing gas than the farmers that supply them.”
The McKusicks hired an attorney to try to hold Hood to its contract, but Hood refused to meet with the attorney, McKusick said.
In a letter obtained by the Bangor Daily News from Paul C. Nightingale, senior vice president of H.P. Hood, to McKusick’s attorney, James Austin of Dexter, Nightingale defended Hood’s position.
“It is true that at the time we began our organic milk program, Hood had high hopes of growing,” Nightingale wrote.
He said that since the signing of McKusick’s contract, however, “a constellation of events has occurred that have all but eliminated the economic incentive for farmers to convert to organic production in Maine, and which make the contractual arrangements we had with your clients uneconomic.”
Nightingale cited new regulations for organic certification, the Maine Milk Commission’s subsidy program, the emergence of megafarms that flood the market and the soft world economy as key reasons for the failed organic milk market.
Nightingale denied that any false or misleading representations were made to those under Hood contracts.
The farmers maintain otherwise.
“Not so,” Cheryl McKusick said. “We were lied to. People are afraid to say anything because of what happens. Look at Richard and Mark and what happened when they spoke up. Hood dumped them.”
“I don’t know how they expect us to sit back and be nice and kind when they are taking our livelihood away,” Lane said.
The spokesperson for H.P. Hood was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, organic producers, the Maine Department of Agriculture and the Maine Farm Bureau continue to seek a solution for the failed organic milk market in Maine.
This season’s rainy weather also is having a dire effect.
“I don’t have one-quarter of my winter feed in,” Lary said. “I have 26 acres of corn all turned yellow. I just bought a new tractor, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it,” Lary said.
The farmers said they are hoping a Maine boycott will be embraced across the country.
“We need to have a nationwide boycott and drive this home: The federal milk system is broken,” McKusick said.
Any farmer who wants to join the Maine boycott may contact email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.