Organic dairy producers appeal for more stringent regulations
Family farmers from around the country who produce organic milk are petitioning President Obama and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for the swift adoption of new strict rulemaking that will rein in the abuses of a handful of factory farms they claim are violating both the spirit and letter of the federal organic law.
The pending rewrite of the organic livestock standards, with an emphasis on assuring compliance with provisions that require that ruminants, like dairy cows, be grazed, is currently under review at OMB where the administration is being heavily lobbied by industrial farming interests to water down the rules.
To meet the explosive growth in the organic industry, over the last five years, a number of large industrial dairies, milking as many as 7,200 cows, have exploited the stellar reputation that organic dairy products have earned in the eyes of consumers who are looking for safer and more nutritious food for their families.
“With the flattening of demand for organic food, these giant dairies have flooded the market with cheap milk that is now crushing the family farmers who have built this industry,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “These CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding opera tions] are anathema to organic consumers investing in a more environmentally sensitive approach to food production and humane animal husbandry. Ironically, one of the reasons they are willing to pay extra for organic milk is they think that the farmers who produce it are being fairly treated.”
The current surplus of organic milk, caused by factory farms, has forced prices down for family farmers. Sadly, there have been reports around the country of a number of suicides of both conventional and organic dairy producers. Some organic farmers are now facing foreclosure, a stark contrast to the economic promise of organics over the past two decades of growth.
Organic farmers are particularly resentful of two corporate players that heavily lobbied USDA during both the Bush and Obama administrations, attempting to weaken regulatory language that requires dairy cows to be managed in a way that promotes their natural instinctive behaviors, including grazing on open pastures rather than spending most of their lives confined in barns and dirt feedlots.
The largest villain, in the eyes of dairy farmers, is Aurora Dairy. The $100 million corporation owns five “factory farms,” managing thousands of cows each, in arid regions of Texas and Colorado. Owning its own manufacturing plant, Aurora packages and ships milk for sale as storebrand products at Wal-Mart and a number of leading supermarket chains. Aurora’s factory farm milk reaches every corner of this country, undercutting ethical farmers and their marketing partners.
“Although the president of Aurora Dairy, Mark Retzloff, has heavily contributed to the Democratic Party, President Obama, and Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor who is now USDA Secretary, we trust that the current administration will focus on the suspect practices of his company rather than their past financial and political support,” Kastel stated.
In what has been described as the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry, in 2007, USDA found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the federal organic law, including confining their animals, instead of grazing, and bringing illegal conventional cows into their factory farm operations.
The Bush administration let Aurora off without a cent in fines, instead placing the company on a one-year probation. Since then, 19 classaction lawsuits by consumers, charging Aurora with consumer fraud, have been working their way through the federal court system.
More disturbing to many organic consumers and farmers alike, especially in California, is the revelation that a previously respected and popular organic brand, Straus Dairy, has actively partnered with Aurora in attempting to scuttle enforcement of the pasture requirements for organic cattle under evaluation by OMB.
“Albert Straus has repeatedly stated in public, and now is petitioning the Obama administration, claiming that it’s impossible in his environment north of San Francisco to comply with the new proposed federal requirements for pasturing his cattle,” said certified organic dairy producer John Mattos, who farms about 10 miles further north of the Straus operation in Sonoma County. Mattos is a member-owner of Organic Valley, a cooperative of family farmers that competes with Straus.
Mattos purposely chose to milk Jerseys and Jersey crossbreeds, instead of the more productive and more common Holsteins, because they thrive when grazing in more marginal areas. “I graze five-and-a-half months a year; my cows are outside year-round. I have no problems with the proposed standards,” Mattos affirmed.
There were no cows out on pasture at the Straus dairy when it was observed by Kastel when he visited the Straus operation and other area dairy farms in 2008.
“It is grossly unfair that just a handful of dairies, for selfish reasons, are trying to derail strict enforcement,” said Bob Camozzi, an organic farmer who also ships his milk to Clover Stornetta, another local North Coast California dairy brand.
“Our farmers are committed to maximizing pasture consumption by our cattle due to the economic benefits, the profoundly positive impact it has on the health of the animals, and the superior nutrients that are contained in pasture-based organic milk,” Camozzi explained.
Meeting with and lobbying OMB in Washington, along with Aurora, is not the first time Albert Straus has angered other members of the organic dairy community by speaking against strict enforcement of organic dairy regulations. “Albert has portrayed his brand as coming from his small family farm. But as his brand succeeded and grew in the marketplace, he apparently added too many cows to be grazed on the available land he owns and then he further grew his operation by buying from other area farmers,” said Tony Azevedo, a San Joaquin Valley dairyman and president of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
“It’s a shame that he chooses not to pasture on a regular basis.”
“It would be a national scandal, as some of us face losing our farms due to the industrial dairy scofflaws, if the Obama administration sides with the ‘bad actors’ in our industry,” affirmed Bruce Drinkman, an organic dairy farmer from Glenwood City, WI, who milks 55 cows. “We are in dire financial straits because of the same kind of unethical competition from factory farms that put so many of our conventional neighbors out of business. We need the president and the USDA on our side!” — WLJ