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June 30, 2014 | last updated June 30, 2014 11:39 am

Stonyfield awards $1.69M grant to Wolfe's Neck Farm

Stonyfield, an organic yogurt maker located in Londonderry, N.H., is partnering with Wolfe's Neck Farm in Freeport to launch a $1.69 million training program to revitalize and strengthen the organic dairy industry in Maine and New England.

The three-year grant, announced on Friday, is intended to "jumpstart the next generation of organic dairy farmers in New England," said Britt Lundgren, Stonyfield's director of organic and sustainable agriculture. "We're designing the program to address the unique challenges faced by dairy farmers in our region by giving qualified young farmers the tools they need to succeed when starting up their own organic dairy."

The program will also involve a research element, added Dave Herring, executive director of Wolfe's Neck Farm, noting that the grant will help fund "forage- and pasture-based research to advance organic dairy farming across the region.

"Maine has a chance to play a leading role in shaping the future of food and farming in the Northeast simply because we have the land to produce more food," Herring said in a prepared statement. "Maine only produces 3% to 5% of the protein we consume. This number should be closer to 30% to 50%. By preparing young organic dairy farmers to bring more land into production, we can increase that percentage and improve the environment, our health and our economy."

The three-year initiative to revitalize Maine's organic dairy industry comes on the heels of the sudden folding in mid-May of Falmouth-based Maine's Own Organic Milk, which had been the retail seller of milk from 12 Maine organic dairy farms. Stonyfield yogurt facility in Londonderry stepped in with a temporary wholesale agreement to purchase all of the farmers' milk for up to three months, and is working with Organic Valley and Oakhurst Dairy to help MOO Milk's member farmers gain long-term contacts for their milk supply.

Maine Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization, also has created an emergency relief fund to help the affected farmers, who are exploring options for resurrecting the MOO Milk brand.

The first farmer trainees are expected to start in 2015 and complete their training in 2016.

Rick Kersbergen, professor for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's sustainable dairy and forage systems' program, will be on sabbatical at Wolfe's Neck Farm later this year to help support and launch this initiative.

According to Kersbergen, the average age of organic dairy farmers in Maine is 57 and the total number of dairy farms in the state has been in decline for years — from 597 dairies in 1995 to 285 today. In that same period, he said, the number of organic dairies has grown from 1 to 60, but growth in organic dairy has also started to slow, due in part to the economic barriers to entry for new organic dairy farmers.

"Researching and putting into practice the best ways to grow high quality forage and then training organic dairy farmers on those practices is a key to helping those farmers control their costs, improve their products and create a sustainable future for organic dairy here in the Northeast," Kersbergen said in a statement.

Danone Ecosystem Fund, an endowment fund of Stonyfield's parent company, also is a partner in the program.

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