On its 70th anniversary, Northumberland Dairy
exemplifies the resiliency of the co-operative
(Published in The Atlantic Co-operator, March/April 2012, Vol. 78, No. 2)
As the flames consuming Northumberland Dairy’s production plant in Miramichi raged through the roof and into the night sky, exhausted workers fought to salvage what equipment they could carry. Watching the growing blaze with his devastated employees that night in April 1975 was Northumberland’s general manager, William Vickers.
“Your black smeared clothes and faces will remain in my mind for years to come,” Vickers wrote in a message he later posted on the dairy’s bulletin boards. “The staff were shattered emotionally; at the same time their silence was more terrible than weeping. This tragedy that fell upon us so unexpectedly will only serve to bind us in a more definite co-operative spirit.”
Vickers wasted no time turning that sentiment into action. After obtaining new packaging equipment from Minnesota and new bagging equipment from France, Northumberland began processing milk again just 15 days after the fire destroyed the production plant.
Vickers retired in 1988, but current general manager Jack Christie says that same strong sense of co-operative spirit has guided Northumberland through many challenges in its 70-year history.
The co-operative underwent extensive expansion in 1992 after purchasing the assets of the Perfection and McKay’s dairies in Moncton and Fredericton. Northumberland increased its fluid milk production 250 per cent and gained an extensive distribution network throughout southern New Brunswick.
“That was a big challenge, to incorporate the staff from those dairies, to rationalize the processing here to Miramichi into one plant and to convert those customers to Northumberland customers throughout New Brunswick,” Christie said. “It took about five years to make those changes and have it operating the way that we wanted it to operate.”
Ironically, the fire that almost destroyed the business eventually helped it grow. The increased capacity of the reconstructed facilities accommodated this increase in production.
“Because of the fire we had in 1975, we were set up to do a lot more volume,” Christie said. “So, when they rebuilt in ’75, they made it for a lot more capacity than they had at that time. But we still had to add eventually to our cooler, particularly, our warehouse. Also we had to upgrade some of our other equipment that supports our processing, and that continues even to this day.”
Christie said another challenge Northumberland faced was having to rethink its business approach following the introduction of new milk marketing regulations in the early 1980s.
“Prior to that, Northumberland sort of had an exclusive selling area in northeastern New Brunswick,” he said.
The regulations introduced new competition from the rest of the province but also enabled the co-operative to expand into Fredericton and Moncton for the first time.
Christie said in facing such challenges over the years, Northumberland’s co-operative structure has been an asset.
“A co-operative is a good form of ownership for a business if you look at how it’s structured,” he said. “The ownership is community-based, so they are much more in touch with what goes on in the community and what the community expects from a business and from the products they are buying.”
Christie also credits provincial co-operative legislation, which makes the executive accountable to the membership on an annual basis and places a term limit of nine years on board members.
“So that forces some renewal and some new blood to come into your governing structure,” he said.
Being a co-operative, Northumberland’s owners are themselves farmers with a deep understanding of the dairy business.
“Being a producer co-op owned by farmers, they are used to taking the long-term in business,” Christie said. “They are faced with their own challenges every day, whether it be the weather or price for their quantities. And they’ve been able to survive. Some of them are second- or third- generation farms.”
That type of long-term generational loyalty also extends to Northumberland’s staff. Employees whose parents and grandparents also worked at the dairy are among the co-operative’s 147 staff in Miramichi, 86 employees elsewhere in the province and up to 20 summer students each year..
With investments of $10 million in dairy production in the past five years, Northumberland is already looking to the next generation of dairy consumers. The chocolate milk it supplies to schools has been reduced from two per cent to one per cent milk as part of an overall effort to offer healthier choices. The small milk containers on restaurant tables have been reduced to two per cent milk, and the amount of sodium in its cottage cheese has been reduced by 25 per cent. There has also been an increase in the demand for Northumberland’s lactose-free products in recent years, Christie said.
Just as William Vickers told his employees after that devastating fire, seven decades of working together to overcome challenges has only bound Northumberland’s employees, customers and community in a more definite co-operative spirit.