Fight­ing to stay in busi­ness

Or­ganic dairy farm­ers vow to com­pete in chang­ing in­dus­try

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By David Pitt

Small fam­ily op­er­ated dairy farms with cows freely graz­ing on ver­dant pas­tures are go­ing out of busi­ness as large con­fined an­i­mal op­er­a­tions with thou­sands of an­i­mals lined up in assem­bly-line fash­ion are ex­pand­ing into the or­ganic mar­ket.

Many tra­di­tional small-scale or­ganic farm­ers are de­ter­mined to fight back against the in­dus­try trans­for­ma­tion by ap­peal­ing to con­sumers to look closely at the or­ganic milk they buy to make sure it comes from a farm that meets the idyl­lic ex­pec­ta­tions por­trayed on the car­tons. While the large op­er­a­tions say they’re meet­ing U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture stan­dards for or­ganic milk, the smaller farms say fed­eral reg­u­la­tors un­der Re­pub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions have re­laxed en­force­ment of strict or­ganic stan­dards for dairy farms, al­low­ing con­fine­ment dairies to grow and put in­tense com­pe­ti­tion on small fam­ily op­er­ated dairies.

“There’s a higher author­ity than the USDA. There’s a higher author­ity than the fed­eral courts where we’ve lit­i­gated some of these is­sues. And that’s the con­sumer. Their dol­lar has power,” said Mark Kas­tel at the Wis­con­sin-based Cor­nu­copia In­sti­tute, a non­profit pub­lic in­ter­est group fo­cused on farm pol­icy.

The dairy in­dus­try, like much of U.S. farm­ing, has trended to­ward fewer but larger farms since the 1980s, when or­ganic milk was avail­able only at farm­ers mar­kets or spe­cialty gro­cers and the milk came from smallscale dairy farms sell­ing to a lo­cal co­op­er­a­tive. Now or­ganic dairy prod­ucts are widely dis-

trib­uted by main­stream gro­cers and mass re­tail­ers in­clud­ing Costco, Tar­get and Wal­mart. But much of those com­pa­nies’ store­brand milk comes from dairies with thou­sands of cows main­tained in im­mense con­fine­ment op­er­a­tions.

Kas­tel says that style of farm­ing is con­trary to what the founders of the or­ganic move­ment en­vi­sioned and what con­sumers be­lieve they’re buy­ing. His group on Thurs­day is re­leas­ing an up­dated Or­ganic Dairy Score­card , which will rank 160 brands eval­u­ated for their or­ganic prac­tices in­clud­ing qual­ity of pas­ture, how fre­quently cows graze and how of­ten they’re milked.

A spokes­woman for Aurora Or­ganic Dairy, the in­dus­try’s largest sup­plier to gro­cery chains such as Costco, Safe­way, and Wal­mart, said ac­tivists who be­lieve or­ganic food should come from only small pro­duc­ers are the pri­mary crit­ics in­ac­cu­rately por­tray­ing large-scale or­ganic pro­duc­tion.

Sonja Tuitele said the com­pany’s farms have more than 10,000 acres of or­ganic pas­ture for graz­ing and the farms ex­ceed min­i­mum re­quire­ments for graz­ing days and per­cent of diet from graz­ing.

The com­pany has nine barns in Colorado and Texas with about 26,000 cows. The largest has 4,400 cows and the small­est, 900 cows. Aurora CEO Scott McGinty said in a state­ment re­leased in April that the com­pany main­tains two USDA ac­cred­ited cer­ti­fiers for each farm.

“A sec­ond or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is a vol­un­tary qual­ity as­sur­ance step to en­sure our farms re­ceive more fre­quent in­spec­tions and mea­sure­ment of com­pli­ance,” he said.

Com­pe­ti­tion from large op­er­a­tions com­bined with plum­met­ing dairy prices in the past four years have left or­ganic dairy farm­ers ei­ther barely squeez­ing out a profit or in most cases los­ing money. It has ac­cel­er­ated the loss of smaller farms.

The U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture re­ported in Fe­bru­ary that the num­ber of U.S. dairy farms, in­clud­ing or­ganic and con­ven­tional fell nearly 4 per­cent last year from the pre­vi­ous year to 40,219. The num­ber of dairy farms de­clined 32 per­cent in the last decade.

For Patti and Brian Wil­son, the chang­ing in­dus­try has soured the prof­itabil­ity at their 600-acre dream dairy farm in Or­well, Ver­mont, they con­verted to or­ganic 16 years ago. Milk­ing their 50 cows has be­come un­prof­itable, said Patty, who was an agron­o­mist with the USDA be­fore she be­gan farm­ing full time.

“We just put an ad out list­ing our herd for sale,” she said. “It’s been a slow de­cline, kind of a slow death.”

South­ern Iowa or­ganic dairy farmer Fran­cis Thicke’s strat­egy is to work with other farm­ers to cre­ate the Real Or­ganic Project , an ef­fort to cre­ate an ad­di­tional la­bel that will be placed on pack­ag­ing to tell con­sumers that the prod­ucts meet tra­di­tional or­ganic stan­dards. A pi­lot project this year will have 50 farms with prod­ucts car­ry­ing the Real Or­gan­ics la­bel.

In ad­di­tion to meet­ing USDA cer­ti­fi­ca­tion re­quire­ments, they must meet the project’s stan­dards, in­clud­ing that pro­duce has been grown in soil and not hy­dro­pon­i­cally and that an­i­mals have ac­cess to the out­doors.

Thicke, who has been in or­ganic farm­ing since the 1970s, walks among 85 docile Jersey cows on his 730-acre Ra­di­ance Dairy farm near Fairfield as they lounge un­der a grove of trees on a sunny sum­mer day, ca­su­ally walk­ing and grab­bing mouth­fuls of thick green grass. He sells 2,000 gal­lons of or­ganic milk a week in the form of milk, cheese and yo­gurt to nearby restau­rants, gro­cery stores and a pri­vate col­lege.

“Ba­si­cally, it’s just bring­ing or­ganic back to the roots that the pi­o­neer or­ganic farm­ers en­vi­sioned,” Thicke said of the Real Or­gan­ics la­bel ef­fort.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Jersey cow feeds in a field on the Fran­cis Thicke or­ganic dairy farm in Fairfield, Iowa. Small fam­ily op­er­ated or­ganic dairy farms with cows freely graz­ing on ver­dant pas­tures are go­ing out of busi­ness while large con­fined an­i­mal op­er­a­tions with thou­sands of an­i­mals lined up in assem­bly-line fash­ion are ex­pand­ing. Many tra­di­tional small-scale or­ganic farm­ers are fight­ing to stay in busi­ness by ap­peal­ing to con­sumers to look closely at the or­ganic milk they buy to make sure it comes from a farm that meets the idyl­lic ex­pec­ta­tions por­trayed on the car­tons.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Or­ganic dairy farmer Fran­cis Thicke talks about his op­er­a­tion in Fairfield, Iowa.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Or­ganic dairy farmer Fran­cis Thicke holds the la­bel for milk pro­duced on his farm in Fairfield, Iowa.

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