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Maine's Oakhurst Dairy Sold to Kansas Farmer Co-op
01/31/2014   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

After nearly a century in business, Maine's biggest family-owned milk company has been sold to a national cooperative. Today, Oakhurst Dairy was acquired for an undisclosed price by Dairy Farmers of America. As Jennifer Mitchell reports, both entities say nothing will change. And so far, reaction from dairy farmers has been cautiously optimistic.

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Audio of Oakhurst ad: "Oakhurst has been in business for more than 90 years, and in that time a lot has changed, but through three generations, one thing has always remained the same, and that's our committment to providing wholesome healthy products and doing what's right for our employees, our customers, farmers, and their animals."

Today, that meant merging with the biggest dairy cooperative in the U.S., with some 16,000 members, 1.7 million cows, and more than $10 billion in annual sales. Oakhurst Dairy has always prided itself on being Maine's milk. And even after selling to a giant, Kansas-based cooperative, the company says that won't change.

"We'll continue to produce and distribute the Natural Goodness of Maine throughout Northern New England. It's business as usual here."

Bill Bennett, whose new title will be senior advisor, says Dairy Farmers of America approached Oakhurst with an offer, and Bennett says it just seemed like the right step to secure the company's future.

"Dairy Farmers of America just brings a lot to the table as far as we're concerned," he says. "They'll allow us to grow into the future with the expertise and financial backing of a big company, but knowing that they acquired us because they like us just the way we are. They want Maine people producing Maine milk here in Maine, under the Oakhurst label."

And Bennett also stresses that the farmers' pledge not to use artificial growth hormones will stand. While it's - as he puts it - business as usual now, as with all mergers, Dairy Farmers of America could alter the company's direction if it wanted to. But, says Pat Panko, a senior vice president from DFA, to do so would go against their favored business model.

"We can, but we're committed to operating these regional dairy businesses as regional dairy businesses," Panko says. "That is the most profitable way and most successful way to run a dairy company. The biggest mistake is trying to take these businesses and trying to run them centrally or nationally, in my opinion."

And so, the Bennett family will keep running the dairy, they say, and all 200 employees will remain in place.

So far, Oakhurst's farmers have been somewhat circumspect. "You know, we as producers haven't had a chance to digest and ask all the questions that are coming to us," says Libby Bleakney of Highland Farms in Cornish.

But Bleakney says there's no reason to think that the merger will have a negative effect on farmers or what consumers experience.

"Supposedly they say it'll be a good thing for us, with seamless transition over, and stuff staying pretty much the same," he says. "And so we can hope for that, and be positive and move forward."

Others say they're sorry to see the end of an era, after 92 years as a family-run business. Dale Cole, president of the Maine Dairy Industry Association told the Portland Press Herald that he was sad to see the change.

And Bennett acknowleges that the transition is a bittersweet one. But he says he'd rather be sure that consumers can buy Oakhurst in the future, rather than hang onto the past.


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