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North Lawrence Dairy closes: Workers, locals, farmers feel the effects

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Late last month, a yogurt plant in North Lawrence became the latest dairy processor in northern New York to close. North Lawrence has had a dairy processing plant for more than 100 years, and the closure will leave 132 people out of a job. But the effects will be felt by a lot more people than that.

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Keith McDonald is one of the 132 workers who lost jobs at the plant.

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Nora Flaherty
Digital Editor, News

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On Friday April 29th at 1:00pm, workers came out of the North Lawrence dairy plant just like they would any other day—except for the hugging. In spite of pizza and wings provided by the union, it had been a somber day.

Keith McDonald worked at the dairy for 27 years. "I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, I’ve seen people raise their children here—bursts of marriages, children, unfortunately divorces, I’ve seen a lot of happy people and I’ve seen some sad times here."

Healthy food holdings had been making yogurt under the Breyers name at the plant, and its license to use the name had ended.  In January, the company announced it was going to close. It’s retained a few workers to help with the shutdown, but those employees will be gone too as of June. McDonald says it will seem weird not coming to work—"I haven’t looked for work since 1978."

Victor Burnett is the Lawrence town supervisor. He says the plant's employees have contributed a lot to the local economy, and that’s going to be missing with the plant closed. "Where the factory’s located right now, it’s within walking distance of two restaurants, a grocery store, a gas station"...

The grapevine grocery and restaurant is across a short bridge from the plant. Samantha Black works there—she’s from North Lawrence. She’s worried about the whole town. "There’s nothing else to draw people here other than the dairy, so, it’s sad to see all these people losing their jobs, and it could effect our entire business as well—so who’s to say any of the local businesses will survive without the dairy."

When a plant closes, dairy farmers are hurt, too. Like Jon Greenwood. He and his wife run a big farm with about 1200 cows, just outside Canton. The fewer plants there are, the less competition there is—and that can mean farmers get a lower price for their milk.

There are only a few dairy processing plants left in the north country— McAdam Cheese in Chateaugay, Kraft foods in Lowville, Great lakes cheese in Adams, and Crowley foods in LaFargeville are the bigger ones.

Most of New York’s raw milk comes from up north—but there’s little incentive for processors to be up here. As far as they’re concerned, it makes more sense to be downstate—closer to their markets. But Greenwood points out that longer haul costs farmers money. "Anytime you have a short haul that disappears or leaves, your costs go up."

Bernadette Logozar works with the Cornell cooperative extension in Franklin County. She says mounting pressures and costs force a lot of farmers to do some serious thinking about how they make a living. That’s especially true of smaller farms.

"It depends on the farmer, personal and financial situation. Whether they want to take on more debt at their current age, whether they want to push through it or whether it’s too much, whether they want to transition out of dairy or out of farming entirely."

Back at the Grapevine in North Lawrence, one former dairy farmer—Lloyd Beatty—is eating a sandwich with his wife.

He says the whole dairy chain used to be the backbone of local economies—losing the North Lawrence plant is one more sign that’s getting weaker and weaker. "You don’t have any local market, everything’s shipped out and it’s controlled by people who aren’t vested in the community. You have fewer and fewer businesses locally that are dealing with it. It used to be a primary source of economic power in the area."

People don’t seem to be upset with healthy food holdings for shutting the plant. Or at least they don’t want to say so. Keith McDonald hopes to work at the plant again, and he’s not the only one. "It’s just my opinion, I think most people are fearful of the press and don’t’ want to portray themselves as negative or in fear of a future employer not hiring them because they spoke with the press or something. But I don’t have a lot of negative things to say, it’s been a pretty positive experience here."

The north Lawrence dairy has changed hands before…and it’s recently been updated. So although people aren’t naming names word is there’s been interest in the plant from several potential buyers.

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