ST. ALBANS, Vt. — All seems normal at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery store on Federal Street. The gates are open, the sun is out and customers are inside.
Changes are coming, though. Eventually.
On Monday, July 29, members of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery voted 99-9 to merge with Kansas City, Kansas-based Dairy Farmers of America. The move came a month after the co-op’s board of directors voted unanimously to recommend that its membership join DFA.
Ten percent of the co-op’s 300-plus members had to be in attendance on July 29, and two-thirds of the members present had to approve the measure; it passed and became effective Aug 1.
In the past week, however, there have been no immediate or noticeable changes at the creamery’s Federal Street plant and store.
“We are committed to a well-thought-out transition process for our members, employees and customers,” said Leon Berthiaume, CEO of St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, via e-mail this week. “The most immediate and noticeable changes at the cooperative will be the inclusion of additional management resources for the various aspects of our operations, including the plant. The changes are going to be minimal in the next few months as our teams work together and determine how to move our organizations together. Moving forward, there will be outreach efforts to share more about DFA and introduce DFA member programs.”
The merger was in the works for more than a year — closer to two.
Since July 29, the consensus among co-op members has been that the merger was necessary for the co-op’s survival, but that it was also an unfortunate reality in a time when the dairy industry is struggling.
“The board made the right choice, and we’re adamant about that,” said Jacques Parent, vice chair of the board of directors. “We just saw the future getting bleaker and bleaker.”
Parent and his son-in-law, Alex Howrigan, co-own and operate an 800-head dairy farm in Highgate.
“It’s sad to say, but this merger had to happen,” Parent said. “It’s sad, sad, sad. When you’re passionate about dairy farming, like I am, and you can’t make a livelihood, it’s sad.”
Vermont has lost more than 400 dairy farms over the last 11 years. In 208, the co-op averaged approximately 495 member farmers; at the end of 2018, it had 350.
The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets has said that 10% of the state’s dairy farms stopped operating in 2018.
The creamery has been a member cooperative of DFA since 2003. As part of the merger, DFA also acquired McDermotts, a hauling company that was owned and operated by the co-op, along with the creamery store and processing plant.
DFA has pledged to invest $30 million into the creamery and help the co-op expand into new milk markets with its national marketing strategies and global reach. DFA has about 14,000 members nationwide and is governed by six regional councils.
“We are excited to welcome the hard-working members and employees of St. Albans to the DFA family,” said Brad Keating, senior vice president and chief operating officer of DFA’s Northeast Area, in a press release issued after the July 29 vote. “Together, we are committed to investing in continuing the strong tradition of dairy farming in the Northeast.”
The board of directors will continue to represent the co-op on DFA’s Northeast Council, based in Syracuse, New York. Parent already serves on the Northeast Council — and was headed to Syracuse this week — and he is in his fourth year as a co-op representative to DFA’s corporate board. In that capacity, Parent travels to 10 meetings a year — eight in Kansas City.
“We discuss everything at those meetings, every aspect of the dairy industry,” Parent said. “When I started seeing the future at those meetings, I recommended to (board chairman) Harold Howrigan and others that we start thinking about this merger.”
Back in June, Howrigan told Lancaster Farming that the merger seemed like the “next logical step” for the co-op. Howrigan is a sixth-generation dairy farmer with 300 cows in Sheldon.
“We are incredibly excited about this new chapter for dairy farmers in Vermont,” Howrigan said in the press release issued earlier this week. “We are very pleased with the outcome of today’s vote and are optimistic about the future our membership will have as DFA members.”
The vote happened on a sunny, hot summer afternoon at an American Legion Post in St. Albans. The media was not allowed inside, but pools of print and television reporters collected comments from farmers as they exited the hall toward their vehicles.
“I guess it’s kind of an unfortunate situation,” said Chris Sunderland, a farmer from Ellenburg Depot, New York, with about 130 cows. “At this point in time, it’s the best we can do to save what we have.”
Parent is urging farmers who are “not comfy” with the merger to contact the board of directors or the co-op’s management.
“Maybe we can help rectify things for you,” he said.