Dear Governor Mills,
You might not expect to hear this from a vegan, but please help Maine dairy farmers. The devastating news that Danone is abandoning 14 organic farms in Maine is just the latest in decades of depressing headlines for dairy farmers.
I come from a dairy farm family in Maine that divorced the land in the early 1990s, and I don’t want the same fate for those farm families. Instead, today’s farmers need a 21st century business plan paired with government-backed financial assistance to move their business to the fast-growing agricultural sector: plant protein. Better yet, set up a program to help transform all of the state’s dairy farms.
Bloomberg Intelligence predicts that the plant-based food market will grow by more than 450%, from $ 29.4 billion in 2020 to $ 162 billion in 2030. Will farmers in Maine have a share of this market? Not without significant state investment.
A few farms in Maine have already started to establish themselves in the booming national and international market for plant proteins. One is Jake Dyer, a farmer from Aroostook County, vice-president of the family-owned Benedicta Grain Co. and agronomist on the Maine Potato Board. He’s been growing yellow peas, a sought-after commodity, since 2015. The dyer sometimes achieves higher yields than producers in the Midwest, and he believes more Maine farmers should add peas to their crop rotations. Until they do, Dyer and other Maine farmers growing the hot crop will not be able to access the bigger buyers who are looking for bulk quantities.
Maine Grains in Skowhegan processes limited batches of yellow field peas into flour and receives regular inquiries from large buyers looking for dry peas. But farmers aren’t growing enough peas in Maine to meet this level of demand, even though the plant has the capacity to process more peas. National brands such as Beyond Meat burgers and Ripple milks rely on yellow peas for their protein content.
Maine’s acreage devoted to high-demand crops such as yellow peas, hemp seeds, oats and canola, all key ingredients in plant-based milks and meats, remains small. Why? Maine lacks processing and distribution infrastructure to support more farmers.
Across the border, the Canadian government is years ahead of the United States and is investing millions to boost its plant-based agriculture sector. Since 2018, the Canadian government, in partnership with industry through Protein Industries Canada, has invested over $ 200 million (in US dollars) in the plant protein sector. Protein Industries Canada announced in May another $ 8 million investment with four plant-based food companies, including vegan cheese maker Daiya, to “help producers reach new markets” for protein ingredients at. based on peas, canola and pea-canola blends. The handful of farmers in Maine who grow canola oil for the market ship their harvest to Canada for processing and distribution.
Over the past couple of years, a few national companies and nonprofits have started to work to get dairy farmers off the farm and grow protein crops in their fields. But these efforts are limited in scope and scale. A state effort led by agricultural officials could have a huge impact on these 14 farms, their communities, and Maine’s economy.
Seeing photos taken in the backyards of some of the dairy farms affected by Danone’s announcement took me straight back to the 1970s and 1980s and my grandfather Gilson “Mac” McKenney’s 200-head dairy farm at Richmond. Mature trees flanked the front of the square, white farmhouse, and in a town full of farms, my grandfather’s was said to be one of the best-kept. Yet darkness lurked beyond the manicured lawns and the then modern facade of the barn complex.
At the back of the cow barn, a large door allowed the skid steer loader to scrape the manure off the concrete floor and place it in a standby trailer. If I sat with my cousins in the door to the hay loft above, we could look directly into the smelly brown liquefied waste and feel a wave of terror that we might fall. Eventually, the contents of the trailer would be dumped into a nearby walled enclosure, covered with a tarp and later spread out over the cornfields. Any uncovered manure would go to the farm pond when it rained. No one has ever verified its impact on groundwater. A few years later, and across the town of Litchfield, near my parents’ farm, an organic dairy farmer used a similar manure pit system, which generated so much runoff in Pleasant Pond that the he lake association paid to put a roof over the manure pit. .
The corn and hay fields were run under a modern business plan that called for regular spraying of the herbicide Roundup, then hailed as a miracle and now listed as a probable human carcinogen and banned by a growing list of jurisdictions . The spray targeted a number of native plants, particularly milkweed, which is crucial for the survival of monarch butterflies (native to Maine) but is toxic to cows (brought here by settlers).
But my most haunting memories are of the calves, all torn from their mothers within hours of being born. The females were transferred to the heifer farm until they were old enough to fertilize for milk. The males were auctioned for the calf. Poor mothers moaned and bellowed long afterward, and when I was a child I always felt sadness enveloping cows. The ghosts of lost cows.
Dairy farming has not made financial sense for decades, but continues due to massive industry consolidation (10,000 head “organic” dairy farms) and taxpayer-funded federal subsidies. Programs that channel excess milk to institutions such as schools, even though many students cannot digest it, help manage the excess. The federal government created the Milk Price Support Program in 1949, and government purchases of dairy products reached an annual high of $ 2.7 billion in public funds in 1983, according to the Farm Industry publication and Dairy. Beginning in the same year, the federal government began paying dairy farmers to slaughter their herds and leave the company. A few years later, my grandfather would do just that.
I was surprised on an unremarkable afternoon when I discovered a worn cassette, a relic scrawled but labeled in my late mother’s hand, “Dad & Gil, Summer ’83”. I located a working cassette player and inserted it, rapidly advancing Casey Kasem’s Top 40 countdown until I found more ghosts: the voices of my mother, my voice. grandfather and my uncle, all now dead.
“Son,” my grandfather’s voice crackled across the tape, sounding like he was sitting some distance away from the recording device. “I try to keep this farm because I love farming. You can talk to any farmer you know. Farmers do not have it easy these days.
“You’re going to end up in the red,” my Uncle Gil warned.
” What am I going to do ? Grandpa asked. “I love agriculture. It’s my life. I would like to give it to you, my son.
It didn’t have to be. On that lost day in 1983, when my mother recorded the conversation for unknown reasons, my uncle, who was 25 at the time, recommended reducing the operation by “getting rid of some of the weak producers.” But that wouldn’t keep my grandfather’s farm in the dark. By 1991, the cows, heifers, farm buildings and most of its area had disappeared.
The new owner never cultivated and instead clear-cut the forest, sold the topsoil, turned the barnyard into a dumping ground and stored hazardous materials on the land. He let the house fall into disrepair and I heard it will be demolished soon.
Watching the video, I wondered if any of the 14 dairy farms would suffer the same fate. They shouldn’t have to. But they could do it if farmers and the state hold on to the dying dairy industry rather than follow the Canadian path to prosperity. Not all of these dairy farmers will want to become crop farms, but those who want to pass on their farm will notice the appeal. Maine can keep its farmers in agriculture by switching them from animal protein to plant protein. The rapid expansion of the vegetable protein market could mean future prosperity for these 14 farming families, their communities and all of Maine. We need a leader to get us there.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. You can reach her at
Twitter: Avery Yale Kamila