A special report on who owns the brands you buy
By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian
Posted May 17, 2007
This article was first posted on May 6, 2005 long before the Vermont Milk Company, or the battle over the use of the words "Vermont made" on food products.
The next time you head to the dairy case and reach for a brand of milk proclaiming to be from Vermont cows, think again.
The name Vermont doesn’t guarantee that the milk you bring home is actually from Vermont farms. In fact, some brands you might not even consider as having a Vermont bovine connection do contain a fair amount.
At a time when Vermonters are debating the so-called Vermont Origin Rule — standards being worked on by the attorney general and others to define what can carry the “made in Vermont” moniker — and there is talk of starting a Vermont-based milk brand, the Guardian decided to examine the origins of the dairy brand industry in Vermont.
For starters, there are only three truly family owned farms that produce and bottle their own milk — Monument Farms in Weybridge, Thomas’ Dairy in Rutland, and Strafford Organic Creamery in Strafford. Of the three, only Strafford is organic, but both Thomas’ and Monument pledge their cows are free of artificial rBST.
Booth Brothers, owned by H.P. Hood, Inc., also claims to sport milk from Vermont farmers, but its spokeswoman said that at times of high demand they do take in milk from New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
“The foundation of our business in Vermont is Vermont farmers and we purchase as much milk as we can from Vermont farms, including independent farmers as well as dairy cooperatives,” said Lynn Bohan, a spokeswoman for Hood. The company produces Hood and Booth Brothers products at its plant in Barre, which it bought from Booth Brothers in 1997.
Hood also produces the Stonyfield Farm line of milk and other dairy products, as well as Crowley, and produces the Hannaford milk brand, Bohan said.
Hood, which is a privately-held company, is owned by the Kaneb Family, which purchased it from the Hood family in 1995. Kaneb, who came to milk from the oil business, is widely known as a philanthropist toward faith-based initiatives and made more than $500,000 in campaign contributions to Pres. Bush and GOP allies in the 2000 election cycle.
At the end of 2004, Hood was a $2.3 billion business with 25 plants in a dozen states and 5,000 employees.
That’s Vermont milk?
Two of the most prominent users of the Vermont name in milk are Organic Cow of Vermont and Vermont Family Farms, but neither are controlled by Vermont-based companies.
Organic Cow of Vermont, started by Peter and Bunny Flint more than a decade ago in 1990, is now a division of Horizon Organic out of Colorado. Horizon, in turn, is a division of Dean Foods in Dallas, TX. Dean Foods was created in 2001 when Dean Foods was purchased by Suiza Foods Corp. Suiza then adopted the Dean name. Dean Foods grossed $10.8 billion in 2004 and had 29,000 employees. Dean is publicly traded, and its political action committee contributed nearly $300,000 to politicians in 2003-2004 election cycle — about 70 percent to Republicans and the rest to Democrats, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Horizon officials declined to comment about their company and their Vermont-based farmers.
Vermont Family Farms was, up until recently, a brand fueled by milk from the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, a farmer cooperative started in 1919. The co-op sold the brand to an unidentified buyer. St. Albans Cooperative officials failed to respond to repeated requests for information.
The St. Albans Cooperative’s 500 members also produce milk for Ben & Jerry’s, and supply to other large dairy producers in the region such as Hood.
Cabot cheese, one of the more recognizable dairy brands after Ben & Jerry’s, is also a farmer-owned cooperative. However, it is in turn owned by a larger cooperative — Agri-Mark, which is based in Lawrence, MA.
Agri-Mark has 1,350 members in the Northeast, with New York and Vermont each representing one third of that total. The rest of New England makes up the remaining third, according to Bob Wellington, an Agri-Mark spokesman.
Including all Cabot and milk sales, Agri-Mark grossed $700 million last year. “Aside from Cabot, a lot of what we do is market our members’ milk. We do a lot of milk marketing, and sell to Columbo yogurt, Hood, and others,” said Wellington. “The market flow is so large that while Vermont milk will flow out of the state, there are times when the processors in Vermont need more milk and milk from other states flows into Vermont.”
Agri-Mark’s Middlebury plant makes a variety of cheddars, and its plant in Cabot makes cheddar, sour cream, and cottage cheese. All products are wrapped in Cabot, including the cheese made at a newly-purchased cooperative’s processing plant in Chatuguay, NY.
Agri-Mark isn’t immune from influencing politics either. It’s PAC contributed $67,000 during the 2003-2004 election cycle — about 75 percent of it going to Republicans, according to FEC files.
None of these dairy-based PACs, or individuals, the Guardian reviewed appear to have provided money to Vermont politicians.
A tale of two farms
This year, Monument Farms in Weybridge will celebrate 75 years of being in business.
“My parents started the business and my father knew he had to grow to increase the business and couldn’t just milk cows and sell milk to the coops,” recalled Millicent Rooney, who, along with her son Jon Rooney and two nephews Peter and Bob James, runs Monument Farms today.
Monument Farms has about 400 milking cows, and has another 300 calves and heifers on the farm, she added. On occasion, Monument buys milk from a neighboring farm, but predominantly their milk brand comes from its herd.
Rooney said one key to their success is keeping their service area small and manageable.
Monument’s largest customer is Middlebury College. It has been buying milk from Monument for more than 50 years.
Rooney knows there is an interest in putting together a processing plant to create a Vermont brand of milk, but she is skeptical that it would work. Startup costs are high, the market isn’t always stable, and distribution in a small state like Vermont, coupled with marketing costs against the bigger corporations out selling milk, makes it tough row to hoe.
“We’re covering the areas of the state we want to cover right now, and I don’t know that we would be able to expand farther afield, at least with the space we have now and number of animals,” said Rooney. “We will probably stay the way we are.”
With less than five years under their belt, the Stafford Organic Creamery is a new kid on the block. The farm’s origins date to the 1960s and the back to the land movement that brought urban hippie settlers to Vermont.
One of them was Earl Ransom’s father, who sold organic vegetables. Earl, after college, wanted to come back to the farm and did, first raising beef cattle and then bought his first 24 head of dairy cows. He now milks 40.
When the Organic Cow, based in Chelsea, started up Ransom transitioned to being fully organic and sold milk to the small and growing milk label. Years later, after the brand was first sold to Hood and then later to Horizon, Ransom and others left after getting tired of dealing with the more corporate ownership. In the summer of 2000, Ransom and Huyffer bought a mini dairy processor and in the spring of 2001 sent their first milk out the door. It was not a huge product line, Huyffer notes, but they later added ice cream flavors (they now have 13), chocolate milk, egg nog, half and half, and whipping cream.
“There are a lot of things that folks don’t know about the milk brands on the shelves, and when we get an educated dairy case manager it makes all the difference. It’s not about how many people shop at a store that matters, it’s if they care about supporting local farms and integrity of the products they buy,” said Huyffer.
A brand of their own
With only a handful of farm-based milk bottlers left, and more of the milk flow being controlled by multi-billion dollar companies with few ties to Vermont, there has been talk of starting a Vermont-based dairy brand that would be owned and operated by a farmer-controlled cooperative.
Travis Forgues, an organic dairy farmer who, with his father, milks 80 cows in Alburg, was, like Huyffer, a supplier to Organic Cow. He, too, became disillusioned when the company’s ownership changed.
Forgues helped connect organic farmers with Organic Valley, a Wisconsin-based cooperative that currently supplies milk for seven regional brands of its own milk, as well as milk for Stonyfield Yogurt. Organic Valley’s New England Pastures blend includes milk from about 60 organic Vermont farms. Its Northeast Pastures brand is predominantly milk from New York, Forgues said.
Forgues believes that a Vermont-based brand of milk could fill a void in the market. But, he has some reservations.
The main problem is that processors are having a hard time finding enough milk to fill the need for organic milk and Horizon and Hood are in a price battle. “And they have a lot of money that they can spend on enticing farmers. These are billion dollar companies and they are willing, and able, to lose money but we don’t have the money to go backward,” Forgues said.
Organic Valley is aware of efforts in Vermont to start up a dairy processing plant, and is keeping abreast of the process with some interest.
The main question to answer, Forgues said, is can such a brand be adequately marketed in Vermont and elsewhere? Or, would such a plant have to focus on including farmers in New Hampshire and Maine and therefore be a New England brand?
“I see a great opportunity for anyone willing to back such a processing plant,” said Forgues. “I think it could be a good thing for farmers.”
Huyffer is concerned about any attempts to start a Vermont brand of milk because she believes that the margins are so thin for her and other small farm producers that a new competitor fueled with tax dollars could put them out of business.
“I’m worried about it, sure,” she said. “We’re already selling an organic line of milk right here in Vermont. I see this plan as a good way to waste taxpayer money, perhaps put a few small producers out of business and then soon we’re all be drinking milk from California.”