Miyoko Schinner, founder and CEO of the plant-based cheese and butter company Miyoko’s Creamery, knows that those in the dairy industry might blame the rise of plant-based foods like hers for their declining sales. But in Schinner’s view, the food economy of the future has room for small dairy farmers who want to stay on their land. “And we’re going to help you stay on your land,” she says, “but by doing it slightly differently.”
Through its Dairy Farm Transition Program, Miyoko’s Creamery will help at least one dairy farmer (to start) shift to crop production, providing resources and support as they make the transition from cows to plants that Miyoko’s will then purchase. It’s a win-win, Schinner says, that helps dairy farmers reposition themselves in the agricultural system, and helps Miyoko’s establish a domestic supply chain that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Across America, small dairy farmers are struggling. The rise in plant-based milks is just one factor; they’re also being gobbled up by consolidations, or dropped from contracts, left with nowhere to sell their milk. They’re dealing with fluctuating market prices and rising costs. They’re contending with changes to the climate, like drought, and they’re having to figure out how they fit into a sustainable future; producing a glass of cow’s milk creates nearly three times more greenhouse gas emissions than plant-based milks.
Miyoko’s is part of a burgeoning plant-based industry which could be valued at $162 billion over the next decade, and has itself gained attention and funding—including a $52 million series C round in 2021. But still, Schinner says, “We don’t want to be the company that comes in, makes new products, and leaves the rest of the people in the agricultural system where they start losing sales and thinking, ‘My industry is dying because of the plant-based foods that are coming up.’ We want to be the company that says, ‘You know what, we’re going to create a new economy, and within that economy there’s room for everybody.'”
The Dairy Farm Transition Program, the winner of the corporate social responsibility category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards, began to officially take shape last year, under the stewardship of Emma Stein, farm transition manager at Miyoko’s. The program has hired consultants; talked to dairy farmers in Maine, Wisconsin, New York, and California; started analyzing supply chain opportunities, and is figuring out how to select farms that could work with the company—based on how much land they have, how many cows would need to be transitioned to sanctuaries, and how much debt the farmers carry. The company is taking applications from farmers right now, as well as reaching out to farmers across the country.
The company is also learning how to provide the resources those farmers will need. “We’re going to subsidize them monetarily, but not just that,” Schinner says. “If you’ve never grown sunflowers before, or potatoes, how do we show them how we do that?” The company hopes that the path they help create for one farmer can then be a roadmap for others to follow.
Currently, vast amounts of land are set aside for either animal production or to grow food for animals—together, pasture and cropland for animal feed account for 41% of land in the contiguous U.S. “More folks growing plants for humans—that could just be so great for our environment, good for animals, good for people,” Stein says. “If we shift some of that production away from going towards animals and towards directly feeding humans, there’s wins for everyone across the board, and especially for farmers.”