In the annals of rural farming, 10 organic dairy farmers in Maine are showing entrepreneurial spirit in trying economic times: After their contracts with a major milk processor were abruptly canceled, the farmers will distribute and sell their own cows’ milk locally under the name MOOMilk, short for Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co

MOOMilk is set to hit stores in Maine and Massachusetts by early November, just 18 months after the farmers faced far bleaker prospects, according to the Bangor Daily News

It all started 18 months ago, when H.P. Hood Inc. axed the dairy farms from its organic line for economic reasons. Furious, the farmers urged the milk processor to reconsider, particularly since many converted to organic at Hood’s urging.

Hood refused, but rather than fall prey to a ravaged economy, the farmers banded together to form a cooperative with investors, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau and the Maine Department of Agriculture.

With a price tag of $3.99 per half-gallon, the milk will be sold at standard organic prices and will take roughly 96 hours to get from the cow to the shelf. “When you see that truck with the MOOMilk logo on its side roll through your town, you will know it is your neighbor’s product,” said MOOMilk’s general manager, Bill Eldridge.

He said the farmers came together because of a shared concern for the rest of Maine’s small farms, which could also be vulnerable to corporations that are only interested in their bottom lines. Indeed, the Bangor Daily News quoted a letter written by Hood Senior Vice President, Paul Nightingale, in which he described the organic milk product as “uneconomic.”

“It is true that at the time we began our organic milk program, Hood had high hopes of growing,” Nightingale wrote to an attorney for one of the farmers. Since then, “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.”

But MOOMilk is making it work, with the cooperation of local entities. Smiling Hill Farm, in Westbrook, Me., which was processing milk twice a week, will now bottle MOOMilk four days a week. Oakhurst Dairy in Portland agreed to distribute the organic milk in Maine and Massachusetts. Hannaford supermarkets will stock the milk on its shelves.

“In the farmers’ minds, converting to conventional was a death sentence. Going out of business was a death sentence. This was the only and best answer,” Eldridge said.

The new company is still raising $500,000 in equity, having raised seed money from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and Maine’s Department of Agriculture. Participating farmers could become members of the corporation for $250 per unit of membership. MOOMilk will pay farmers $24 per hundredweight at first.

“We are so optimistic,” Mark McKusick, a farmer in Dexter, said. “I hope people realize this is fresh, local milk. It’s not ultrapasteurized. This milk is from us, right here in Maine.”

Dairy farmers launch organic brand
In a rough and tumble economy, 10 organic dairy farmers in Maine formed a cooperative to sell and distribute their own cows’ milk.