Natural Foods Merchandiser

Organic Valley partnership draws fire

by Vicky Uhland

In its quest to limit organic dairy production to small family farms, Wisconsin-based watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute has attacked large-scale operations such as Horizon and Aurora organic dairies. But its latest salvo is against Organic Valley, a cooperative that consists solely of small family farms.

Cornucopia Co-Director Mark Kastel is criticizing Organic Valley for buying milk from Natural Prairie dairy, a 50,000-acre West Texas organic farm with 8,000 to 9,000 cattle.

Natural Prairie is the " largest organic dairy in the United States," Kastel said. " Who would've thought that you could make that statement in the same paragraph with the words Organic Valley?"

Organic Valley, a co-op of 1,266 member farmers in 35 states and one Canadian province, averages 77 cows per farm. It gets less than 1 percent of its milk supply from Natural Prairie and other nonmember farms, according to CEO George Siemon.

Siemon said Organic Valley decided to partner with Natural Prairie last year when the co-op got into a bind trying to achieve a balance between milk supply and demand in Texas. When two of Organic Valley's three pioneer Texas farmer-members dropped out of the co-op, " We faced the decision of whether or not to abandon the rest of our family farmers in Texas, who we had made commitments to, by stopping the regional milk supply," Siemon said.

Organic Valley's board of directors opted to buy milk from Natural Prairie as a temporary measure until it could recruit more Texas farmers to its co-op, Siemon said. " With this supply, we have now been able to grow our Texas farmer-membership from one member to six, growing to eight in the fall of 2009."

In June, Cornucopia alerted Organic Valley members to the co-op's relationship with what Kastel calls an " industrial-scale dairy" that doesn't support the " different kind of environmental and animal husbandry ethic" along with " economic justice for family farmers" that consumers expect when they pay higher prices for organic milk.

Kastel said Natural Prairie sells off its calves at birth and replaces them with year-old heifers that have been raised on conventional feed and antibiotics, and are then transitioned to organic.

" By purchasing conventional dairy replacements, the large organic confinement dairies—mostly in the western states—financially benefit in other ways," Kastel said in a statement. " They are free to sell upward of $1 million in extra organic milk, at each dairy, that would otherwise be used to feed their baby calves. They also do not have to purchase more expensive organic feed during the first year of the animal's life."

Siemon said Natural Prairie has incorporated many innovative practices and is " unique for its size as a pasture-based model." The farm uses a water-conservation irrigation system and is developing a methane digester.

Siemon said Organic Valley hopes to end its agreement with Natural Prairie " pretty darn soon." While he noted that " the black-and-white perspective fostered in attacking each other in the organic family is not productive," he acknowledged that " this has been a good lesson for us. It's refreshed our dedication to relying 100 percent on our own members' production."

Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 7

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