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Battle churns over organic milk

Laurie Budgar

April 23, 2008

8 Min Read
Battle churns over organic milk

Stakes in the war over whose milk is the most organic were raised recently when the Cornucopia Institute, an organic advocacy group in Cornucopia, Wis., announced it has surveyed the industry and would release a report at the end of February rating U.S. organic dairy operations.

Some organic milk producers believe Cornucopia's agenda serves only to fragment the organic industry, rather than advance it.

Even U.S. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Joan Shaffer is astounded at the animosity. "I worked for Sen. Russell Long during Watergate, when he handled Richard Nixon's tax returns. This is the only job where I've gotten hate mail."

Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at Cornucopia, said Cornucopia sent questionnaires to about 45 dairy "marketing entities," and about 35 responded. Its cover letter said, "Any firm(s) not participating will be indicated in the survey results, and that will likely taint the credibility of the organization."

Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said the organization has concerns that Cornucopia's methodologies "were not consistent with the most reliable organizations' research methodologies."

Kastel said the report, when published (at press time, scheduled for Feb. 22), would include the methodology, assumptions and rating system. "There are 12 questions. They're all 100 points per question," he said, noting that no questions were weighted more heavily than others. Kastel said the report would be published on the Cornucopia Web site ( and distributed in co-ops.

"The concern we have," DiMatteo said, "is that this is a rating system that calls into question the regulations and the organic label and the organic seal."

Industry groups are also concerned about some of Kastel's assumptions. The questionnaire's cover letter said, "The industrialization of organics, and vertical integration, will do to smaller farmers what has happened to their conventional neighbors: squeeze profits and reduce marketing control, leverage and power. And, most likely, it will put many of them out of business."

Kelly Shea, director of government and industry relations for Horizon Organic Dairy, owned by Dean Foods, disputed that point. "Our dairy in Idaho has been organic since 1994, and all we've done since 1994 is add more family farmers. We've never had some 'big dairy' come and start displacing family farmers."

Shea said Horizon didn't fill out the survey. "It was pretty obvious that it wasn't an academic survey, that it was more advocacy-focused."

Few in the industry agree with Kastel's focus on size. "The USDA's law is just about standards. It has nothing to do with scale," said George Siemon, chief executive of Organic Valley Family of Farms.

Kastel insisted he is not anti-corporate. For example, he approves of Chelsea, Mass.-based HP Hood, a $2.2 billion dairy company that produces organic milk under the Stonyfield brand and uses family farmers, which resonates with organic consumers. "They have no factory farms," he said.

Udder issues
Cornucopia has previously filed formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Agriculture against two large dairies—Aurora Organic Dairy, based in Boulder, Colo., and Horizon—alleging that the dairies aren't complying with the National Organic Program. The USDA is investigating those complaints, Kastel said.

Kastel believes that by sheer virtue of their size, the large dairies—which have as many as 6,000 cattle on a given site—cannot meet the NOP's access to pasture requirement.

"It takes a long time to move the animals in and out, and if you have to rotate pastures—logically, you just can't move them to pasture," he said, especially when some of the farms milk their cows three or four times daily. With thousands of cows on a farm, "they'd be walking all day."

Kastel takes further issue with large dairy operations that use a loophole in the current law that allows for temporary confinement based on weather or "stage of production." Aurora has interpreted that to authorize confinement during lactation, Kastel said. "[Lactating is] when [pasturing] makes the biggest difference in the quality of the milk and the expectation of the consumer. … A 305-day lactation period is not what anyone would consider temporary." Aurora officials declined to be interviewed for this story.

Shea said Horizon's animals typically are pastured for 10 hours a day or more, depending on weather. "When it's super, super hot we may night pasture them."

Joe Smillie, a member of the National Organic Standards Board and a certifier with Quality Assurance International, said cows at organic dairies in Western states, where drought has destroyed pastureland, might spend their time outside on concrete pads. "But they're in the sun, munching grass and flaxseed. If you were a cow, where would you rather be?"

Clarity concerns
What the NOP means by access to pasture has never been spelled out, although the USDA recently announced it is planning to write new standards addressing pasture, and the NOSB will hold a dairy symposium in April.

"We just need it to say really clearly in the rule that animals are required to be out grazing for their feed during the growing season," Shea said. "It's really important that organic farmers have clarity about this. This is their welfare and the welfare of their families. They need to not be wondering."

There are "issues that are out there that haven't been resolved, and this pasture issue happens to be one of the true hot buttons," said Organic Valley's Siemon.

But Kastel disagreed. "There's no need for all this extra rulemaking and guidance." The law is quite clear about its requirement for pasture, he said. "The real culprits here are the certifiers that are not enforcing the law."

Some are "certifiers of corporate convenience," Kastel said. "A number of the farms that are being investigated are certified by QAI. Draw your own conclusions."

QAI's Smillie responded: "Do we follow the law? It is an insult to even answer that question. Yes, we follow the law every day. That's our job. That's our life, that's our profession."

Don't go West
Some think Kastel's real beef is not with the scale of operations so much as their location—that he's biased against Western farms.

Some mountain-state farms have endured drought in the last decade, and others are on semi-arid rangeland, so they don't have the lush, green grass depicted on milk cartons—the very thing Kastel defines as pasture. "The regulations right now say that organic farmers must manage livestock to 'promote their natural and instinctive behaviors.' For dairy cows that means eating grass."

Kastel denied having a bias toward the Midwest. "Our membership base is extremely diversified nationally. We have members in California, Washington, Oregon, Colorado and Texas that are milking cows." Still, he said, "There are some places that are not appropriate for organic livestock production. If it's an area that only gets 7 inches of rain a year or less, that's wholly inappropriate. If grass is the production model for organics, it's really not appropriate."

But that would rule out local dairy production in large sections of North America.

A different kind of ethic
And local is another buzzword for Kastel. So are social responsibility, economic justice and sustainability. "The people who are paying premium prices for organic food—they think they're supporting a different kind of environmental ethic, animal husbandry ethic, social justice ethic," he said.

Kastel intends to use those criteria in his rating scale. "What I told [DiMatteo] was, instead of being afraid of this and instead of somehow looking at this as bad news, your take ought to be, 'Isn't this wonderful—almost all the brand names in the United States are operating in a highly ethical manner that consumers are going to be happy to embrace.' There are a few brands that need a little tweaking."

Organic Valley's Siemon sees it differently. "These are things that are out there that the USDA doesn't cover. … People are mixing up issues of standards with cultural issues."

Get along, li'l (and big) dairies
Siemon sees the cultural issues as a means of business differentiation. "We have a brand we want to pour a lot of that meaning into. It's not only our intent not to disparage other organic producers, we don't want to disparage conventional. We just want to talk about who we are in a positive way. I'm very distressed to see the organic family deteriorate down into fighting."

Smillie and Shea think Kastel and his supporters have lost sight of the original intentions of organics. "I'm doing this to stop the poisoning of the planet. If Horizon is trampling their pastures more than people in the East, it's not that big of a deal. They're not spraying chemicals everywhere and they're converting hundreds and hundreds of acres to organic," Smillie said.

"We want to get out of the mud and take the discussion of organic back to, 'How do we increase the net on the farm, and how do we constantly improve the health of the animals,'" Shea said. "We want to talk about soil input—back to the stuff we used to talk about, instead of 'I'm more organic than you are.'"

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 3/p. 19, 26

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