A new collaboration to support family organic farms in the Northeast has signed on its first formal retail partner Friday: the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, a federation of more than 40 food co-ops across the Northeast.
Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership Founder and Chairman Gary Hirshberg said he expects to announce many more retail partners in the weeks to come. They’re currently in talks with every major food seller in the region, including Hannaford and Whole Foods and independent health food chains like A Market.
That means consumers will be able to see dairy products with the new NOFFP logo on store shelves very soon. Hirshberg, the former CEO of Stonyfield Organic, said the hope is that consumers will elect to purchase more of these local, organic brands in order to help keep these farms afloat.
He said he’s also looking for interested consumers to sign an online pledge stating they will try to make one out of every four weekly dairy products they buy from a regional organic family farm.
“The most important thing they can do, honestly, is to sign the pledge,” Hirshberg said. “The more numbers we can show, the more retailers we can get.”
Having more retail partners and major brands sign on to buy products from the farms will be the ideal solution for farms struggling to make ends meet.
The Partnership officially launched two weeks ago with the immediate goal of rescuing about 135 farms that have suddenly lost their dairy supply contracts with big buyers such as Horizon (a brand owned by Danone North America) and Maple Hill Creamery. Hirshberg said there were two farms in New Hampshire that lost contracts; one in Monroe and another in Newport.
So far, major organic dairy brands like Stonyfield and Organic Valley have already provided contracts to some of the farms that lost them.
“The only real solution is to grow demand, and the only real way to grow demand is to get large numbers of consumers, retailers, restaurateurs to join us as partners in the effort,” Hirshberg said.
While the impetus for Hirshberg’s idea to create the 501c(3) organization is to come to the rescue of small farms at risk of closing, he said the long term goal is to encompass each and every family-owned organic farm in the Northeast, from New York to Maine, in the advocacy and support the organization provides. He believes that includes over 1,000 farms.
In addition to the consumer pledge to buy more local, organic dairy products, the Partnership is also asking retailers to sign a similar pledge to increase the share of represented dairy products in 2022 compared to 2021.
Hirshberg said the loss of family organic farms is a problem that’s been going on for many years. When he was in high school in Manchester in the 1970s, he said there were about 4,000 farms in the state. By 1983, when he founded Stonyfield, there were over 500 farms. By the time he retired as CEO, in 2011, there were 83.
Similarly, Vermont lost 390 individual dairy farms between 2012 and 2021. A lot of that is due to business being redirected away from small, family-owned farms in favor of large agri-business operations, Hirshberg said.
“So we have a real problem. It’s been going on for a long time,” Hirshberg said.
Hirshberg and his wife provided a charitable contribution to the new nonprofit, hired a campaign manager and commissioned the design of the logo. Stonyfield, Organic Valley, Jesse Laflamme from Pete and Gerry’s Organics, the Kendall Foundation in Massachusetts and some philanthropists in Vermont also contributed to the effort. Since launching, individuals have also shown their support with donations made through the website.
The organization has an annual operating budget of about $150,000.