Dairy farmers in central Maine said Friday they like doing business with Oakhurst and hope its sale to nationally owned cooperative won’t change things.
In China, Donna Stevens, 45, who owns Stevens Farm with her husband, Elwood, has sold milk to Oakhurst for nearly 18 years.
“Today was a little bit of a shocker for us, but we’re waiting to hear more information,” said Stevens. She said she is concerned that the sale might affect marketing to consumers as well as income for farmers.
Oakhurst Dairy, of Portland, hwas been in operation since 1921 and Friday announced its sale to Dairy Farmers of America, a cooperative owned by more than 8,000 farms in 48 states.
Consumers in Maine buy Oakhurst because the company prided itself on selling milk that came from Maine farmers, said Stevens. On Friday, farmers were told that nothing would change, but Stevens said she isn’t sure what that means. Her family sells to Oakhurst because they believe in the standards the company had, which included not using artificial hormones to make cows produce more milk and making sure farmers received pay advances to keep their farms going during tough times.
“One of the things Oakhurst has always stood by is that they would only buy from producers that don’t use artificial hormones. Our biggest concern with the sale of Oakhurst is whether they will stand by the standards,” Stevens said. “Are they going to stand by the Maine farmers and treat us the way we’ve been treated? Being an Oakhurst producer you’re really lucky because you’re treated really well.”
There is also concern among farmers over how they will be paid, said Stevens. Oakhurst paid farmers three times a month and also gave an advance on milk, which is not the way all dairy farmers are paid by their suppliers.
“They’ve told us it won’t change but you start thinking about these things. I hope it doesn’t change,” she said.
In 2012, Oakhurst named John and Sandy Nutting’s dairy farm in Leeds, Androscoggin Holsteins, one of its top five producers. Not for quantity, but quality, which Oakhurst has been known for rewarding more than other companies. The company has given bonuses to farmers who keep clean cows, barns and equipment, and deliver high-quality milk with low bacteria counts and potential for good shelf life.
“You could get an extra 48 cents per 100 pounds of milk through Oakhurst,” said John Nutting. A hundredweight of milk is 11.6 gallons.
After 44 years on the farm, the Nuttings sold their cows last year and put their place on the market. Nutting, like Stevens, worries that Oakhurst’s high standards as a family business might not be met by Dairy Farms of America.
“My initial fear would be for the Maine farmer,” Nutting said. “I don’t believe DFA premiums for quality will be as good as Oakhurst’s. With an organization with a national type of focus, usually – not always – the individual quality premiums aren’t as strong as those offered by the local dairies.”
He noted that Dairy Farms of America was the subject of a class-action lawsuit in 2007 by a group of dairy farmers who accused the company of suppressing milk prices in the Southeast. It settled that lawsuit for $158.6 million in January of 2013.
Nutting pointed to ways in which Oakhurst has also been good for Maine, running its trucks on alternative fuels, refusing to use milk from cows injected with artificial growth hormones, and standing up to Monsanto over the issue of labeling its milk as such.
“A lot of consumers are supporting Oakhurst for their pledge on synthetic hormones,” Nutting said. “Is DFA going to continue that?”
Yes, says Oakhurst Chairman Bill Bennett. “Having milk with no artificial growth hormone is important to our consumers so we remain committed to our pledge and will continue to pay our farmers to do so.”
In Norridgewock, dairy farmer Elroy Chartrand, 70, said he is comfortable with the sale and had expected the news.
“Before (Friday’s conference call) even happened, I told my wife, ‘I bet it has something to do with Oakhurst being sold.’ It was just a guess but the way things are changing in this world, it was something I expected,” said Chartrand, who owns Chartrand Farm, a 270-dairy cow operation.
Chartrand, who started shipping with Oakhurst in 1993, said he’s happy with the sale and doesn’t expect to have an effect on pay or job stability. The farm has seven employees, including Chartrand’s two sons and grandson.
Across Maine, farms and dairy companies have gotten bigger and the sale of Oakhurst is in line with that trend, he said.
Chuck Farrand, 54, who owns Farrand Farms, also in Norridgewock, said he had expected the sale since the death of Stan Bennett II, the former president of Oakhurst, in 2011. Although farmers were told Friday that operations will not change under the new management, Farrand said he thinks there will be gradual changes in the future, including the possibility of having to buy into the farmer-owned cooperative instead of being allowed to operate independently, he said.
“It won’t be the same I guess,” Farrand said. “They say there will be no changes but down the road I predict there will be.”
Jean McKeen, who runs Silver Maple Farms in Albion with her son Dennis, has sold about 28,000 pounds of milk to Oakhurst every other day. If, as promised, the sale changes nothing, she’ll be pleased. But after 40 years in the business, she’s learned to roll with what comes her way.
“I guess we’ve got to believe them and wait and see,” she said.
Mary Pols of the Portland Press Herald contributed to this story.
Rachel Ohm— 612-2368 [email protected]