Mark McKusick is a fourth generation dairy farmer in Dexter. He says that for the past decade business has been rough. "I converted to organic in 2002. We went through it when there wasn't any money to help with the transition and we damn near starved to death. But once we got there, our milk check was twice as much," McKusick says.
But since then, the demand for organic milk has weakened. The price of organic milk can be twice that of conventional milk, which hasn't enticed consumers on a budget. Large milk companies have asked farmers to cut production and McKusick says he's had to sell 50 of his cows. He now has 120.
"They said that wasn't efficient to go after that milk, that sales were soft," McKusick says. "We did a little investigation on our own, I found that hard to believe."
After supplying milk to the Hood company for years, McKusick says this year his contract was not renewed. So he and nine other farmers have decided to go into business together and start maine's first organic dairy company.
"I'm a little nervous and I'll be a lot better when the milk hits the shelves," McKusick says. "We're having a little trouble getting the machine up right now to start processing, but we have a whole team on this and hopefully we will get the milk out there on the shelves within the next month."
MOO Milk, which stands for Maine's Own Organic Milk, will come from farmers in Aroostook, Washington, Kennebec and Penobscot counties. It will be processed at Smiling Hill Farms in Westbrook and distributed by Oakhurst Dairy and Crown of Maine. McKusick says it should be stocked in Hannaford and independent grocery stores in Maine and New Hampshire.
"We're just waiting for MOO milk to hit the shelves and let the consumer know that we are striving to have the best quality, the best tasting organic milk out there," he says. "And it'll be fresh and local, it's not ultra-pasteurized and it will spoil in ten days so they need to buy it and drink it cause it's going to be great."
Also producing for MOO Milk is Richard Lary. He's in the process of selling his farm to his son, and will keep working to be sure the new business gets off the ground.
"I still work. I mean, even though I'm supposed to be retired I'm working on the farm," he says. "Like Mark said, I'm a little nervous. I'm on the board of directors and didn't really want to be put in that position but you can't be laid back in the dairy business. You either got to make it go, to make it work, or you're going to be doomed, so..."
Lary says he hopes people will buy MOO Milk in an effort to support organic dairy farmers in Maine. "They want local. I mean, WalMart has realized this and Hannaford has. And I think that's why it's going to take off, because people want local. The organic milk market has softened, so has the conventional one, but they still had a growth of 12 percent."
Lary and McKusick credit the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and the Maine Department of Agriculture for helping them get MOO Milk started. Attempts to contact those agencies this afternoon were not successful.