FREEPORT, Maine — As a way of sustaining Maine’s imperiled dairy farms, more of the state’s farmers have turned to the growing organic dairy products market.
Now, a new program at Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport will help train farmers interested in entering the organic dairy market while researching the best farming methods.
In Maine, there is a demand for organic dairy products, but aging demographics and a lack of new farmers entering the field means there may be limited supply, according to Wolfe’s Neck Farm Executive Director David Herring.
Maine is not well situated for farms with tens of thousands of cattle. The state is well suited for farms that want to follow a more organic approach, Herring said.
States with larger amounts of organic dairy farms have a larger support infrastructure that helps control pricing.
“The organic dairy industry in Maine is at a critical crossroads,” Herring said. “What we’re trying to create is a scale which can support the viability of more new farms. … We feel like the timing of a project like this is really critical to help buoy the industry a little bit and support its further development.”
The farm hopes the program will result in 15 new organic dairy farmers in Maine by 2020, a 30 percent increase compared to today, where the number stands at around 60.
The number of overall dairy farmers has been in decline across the United States, but organic production has a better payout and may be an incentive for more dairy farmers to go organic, according to Rebecca Brown, organic dairy program director at Wolfe’s Neck Farm.
“There’s been a growing interest in organic and local food in Maine for some time,” Herring said. “I think in Maine, we like to fancy ourselves with being on the leading edge of that. There’s definitely a growing demand for more local and organic products. You see that in stores and in the amount of direct consumer sales that are going on, through CSA or direct farm-to-consumer sales.”
The program will train new farmers and dairy farmers looking to transition into organic dairy farming, as well as research methods of organic dairy farming.
“All in all, in an industry, it might be a little bit tricky for folks who have transitioned from conventional to organic to really change the way they view the whole farm system,” Brown said.
The first group of trainees are due this summer, Herring said. They will live and work on Wolfe’s Neck Farm as part of an 18-month residential training program.
“We’re looking to demonstrate an organic, family-run farm here,” Herring said.
Wolfe’s Neck Farm is a 626-acre nonprofit demonstration farm, whose mission includes sustaining its tradition of agriculture and recreation, promoting education and preserving its open space.
Cows are nothing new at Wolfe’s Neck. For 50 years, beef cattle were farmed and grazed at Wolfe’s Neck Farm.
As part of the training and research program, there will be 60 dairy cows on the farm, a herd that is the equivalent to many seen on a small, family-run farm.
The research component of the organic dairy program includes experimenting with and demonstrating techniques, equipment and approaches, some that haven’t been done before, Herring said.
Most research will involve grazing management, forages and pasture management and will focus on what will maximize the profitability of the organic dairy farming industry.
“There are tons of different types of research that can be done on an organic dairy farm,” Herring said.
A grant was secured from Stonyfield, a producer of organic yogurt, and its parent company, Danone, which pays for staff, animals and the program’s operation.