Successful organic co-operative sees milk supply siphoned away

Dairy farmer Andrea Cumpson speaks with pride about being part of the farmer-owned Organic Meadow co-operative. “Our heart and soul goes into a product we’re really proud of, that represents our farm and cows once it leaves.”

The integrity of farmers like Andrea is a big reason that Organic Meadow has grown into a successful co-operative that sells milk and other organic dairy products across Canada. But that co-op is in trouble now, because the milk they produce is being siphoned away by competing corporations to sell under big brand names.

The co-op started in 1989, when farmers got together at kitchen table meetings and shared the knowledge, skills, and capital they needed to be successful.

Eventually they were able to build their own organic processing plant. Organic Meadow deserves much of the credit for making organic dairy farming not only possible, but also successful in Ontario.

The deep irony is that because they were so successful at growing both production and demand, large dairy corporations like Neilson and President’s Choice decided that they wanted a piece of the market.

And instead of being forward-thinking like the Organic Meadow farmers had been, those companies threw their weight around and told the provincial dairy body that they should be getting milk that Organic Meadow farmers were producing.

The result? Milk is being siphoned away from Organic Meadow’s own cooperative processing and redirected to large corporate brands, who have been processing the milk and selling it under their own labels.  Organic Meadow, without access to a sufficient quantity of its own milk, can’t keep up with retail demand for its products like cheese, butter, and yogurt.

And since the co-op doesn’t get to keep enough of its own milk for processing, it has slowly been running out of money.

Readers may be confused about how this can happen. In most kinds of farming, it can’t. If we grow carrots on our farm, President’s Choice can’t just sweep in, snatch them up, and resell them under their own label. What is happening to dairy farmers is an unfortunate side effect of the mostly-very-good system of supply management.

Supply management means that dairy farmers produce roughly the same amount of milk as there is demand for. Most of the time this system works quite well. There is never a major milk shortage, nor a supply glut. This keeps retail prices reasonable and provides a predictable market and regular income for dairy farmers. A provincial body called the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO) is responsible for the day-to-day details of supply management, and in general they do a fine job.

In the case of organic milk, unfortunately, the DFO seems to have bowed to corporate pressure. And in doing so they’ve undermined actual dairy farmers in favor of big companies. They’re allowing those companies, latecomers to organic milk, to skip the difficult and time-consuming process of cultivating their organic suppliers, instead getting their milk supply from Organic Meadow farmers who did put in that work over decades.

The Organic Meadow farmers I know are driven by something deeper than profit. “We didn’t go into organic farming just to make money,” said Andrea Cumpson, who farms near Inverary. “There’s so much more to it.”

Andrea also told me about the pride she feels at farming in a way that’s good for her cows and for the land. About the sense of integrity she feels that extends all the way from her farm to the milk or cheese or butter that bears the name of her co-op.

Processing milk at the Organic Meadow facility is also important to farmers like Andrea. “Unless my milk leaves my farm to be processed under our Organic Meadow label, I have no control over whether the milk will be ultra high temperature treated,” she said. “As research indicates, this process can have negative and harmful impacts on the product and potentially the families that drink it.”

Organic Meadow farmers have invested in a cooperative business model that fosters the sense of community and integrity that has made the co-op and its members successful over the years. They have put their lives into their farms, have built a successful co-operative from scratch. It’s easy to imagine the frustration they feel when the milk they’ve produced with such integrity is sold under the brand name of a company that is undermining them.

It’s time for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario to make sure that Organic Meadow can keep adequate quantities of the milk they produce to process themselves. It’s only fair.