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The Crisis in the Organic Dairy Movement

Farmers and Consumers, Working Together, Can Reestablish Economic Justice

A commentary by Mark Kastel, Co-founder, The Cornucopia Institute

Added September 2018

Who owns the organic label? We all do. And even if you are not milking cows, the integrity of organic dairy products should be important to you. Not just as an organic consumer but because, after produce, dairy is the second-largest industry sector and directly impacts many other workers and businesses (grain and hay suppliers, feed mills, veterinarians, truck drivers, plant workers, etc.). It's billions of dollars in organic commerce. And for many consumers, it's a "gateway" product, bringing organic food into their homes for the first time as their children age out of breastfeeding.

Mark Kastel

Sadly, the organic dairy option has gone off the rails as a viable antidote to the rapacious agricultural industry that has hemorrhaged family farmers off the land for decades.

In 2018, family-scale producers from California to Maine have seen their prices radically slashed, have been placed on quotas, and, depending on their debt load, may be operating at a significant loss. Even worse, some farmers are now losing their markets, having their contracts canceled without an alternative (organic or conventional) milk buyer. For these farmers, the cancellation of their supply agreements constitutes a “death warrant.” Some of the same companies canceling contracts are continuing to buy milk from “factory farms.” It is a lot easier and cheaper to buy from one giant dairy than dozens of independent-minded farmers.

When I started working in farm politics in the mid-1980s, at the same time organic dairy farming was commercializing, there were about 45,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin alone, averaging approximately 45 cows each. In 2018, Wisconsin has about 7,600 licensed dairies — and all states in the country combined can no longer even support 45,000 independent businesses producing milk.

Organic dairy was created as the “alternative” to the directive from former USDA Secretary Earl Butz: “Get big or get out.” It was launched, in part, so families could profitably continue to produce milk on a humane scale.

Organics was founded as an economic justice vehicle by farmers and supported by consumers who were willing to pay a price premium for food produced to a higher standard: careful environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and, yes, fair remuneration for the families who produce our food.

By the end of the 1980s, the hodgepodge of independent certification agencies, all with their own standards, were making it impossible to scale up organics in terms of interstate commerce and developing processed products with multiple ingredients. Furthermore, it wasn’t even legally required to be third-party certified. In California, based on state statute, all growers had to do was not use banned agrichemicals the year they labeled their products “organic.” The next year they could use herbicides to nuke the ground and load up on synthetic fertilizers, as an example, and the following year they could be in the organic business once again. Those of us practicing true organic agriculture, making long-term investments in soil fertility, weed control, and whole-farm management, quite frankly couldn’t compete. So, as they say, “Be careful what you ask for — you might actually get.”

When Congress debated passing The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA actually testified against the measure. They didn’t want any part of regulating an alternative food system that would alienate powerful lobbyists and corporate agribusiness (who had a visceral hatred for food that might be considered “safer,” or more nutritious, than conventional). So first, during the Clinton and Bush administrations, the USDA delayed implementation of regulations governing the industry and establishing the authority of National Organic Program for a full 12 years. Then, during the balance of Bush’s tenure, they did everything they could to monkey-wrench the NOP. Under President Obama, for the first time, they brought in management with experience in the organic industry. However, these were individuals allied with the industry’s powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, and friendly with the largest corporate players.

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, credited with writing some of the Organic Foods Production Act as an aid for Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was appointed as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Prior to her USDA appointment, she was a professor at Tufts and sent students to intern at Aurora Dairy during the height of public scrutiny on the giant industrial dairy’s abuse of organic standards. As Deputy Secretary, she appointed Miles McEvoy to run the NOP, and he immediately declared the “age of enforcement” – and then never brought the hammer down, even when Freedom of Information documents obtained by Cornucopia indicated they found factory dairies cheating.

By then, almost all the major mass-market organic brands were controlled by Big Food and represented by the Organic Trade Association.

When The Cornucopia Institute was founded in 2004, there were two giant industrial dairies (a 4,400-cow operation and a split, 10,000-cow feedlot) competing with the many family farmers who had founded the organic dairy industry. The huge dairies’ lactating cows had zero access to pasture.

Although Cornucopia managed to create pressure, decertifying the larger operation, organic CAFOs have proliferated and are now estimated to produce half the nation’s organic milk supply, primarily in arid and southwestern states.

As the industry was growing aggressively, it was able to bring on many additional family-scale farmers transitioning to organic management and, at the same time, absorb more milk from giant feedlot dairies. There are now well over 20 operations milking upwards of 5,000 – even 15,000 – cows.

In recent years, family-scale organic dairy farmers have been hit by a tidal wave of surplus milk, radically driving down prices. Growth in retail organic dairy sales has rapidly slowed at a time when lots of new milk, principally from CAFOs, has come online. Contributing factors include a widening differential, as conventional milk pricing plummeted, and a shift in consumer preferences to plant-based “milk” alternatives. Cornucopia is currently working on a comparative analysis for consumers. Reportedly, most of the consumption in alternative not-milks is by shoppers who are not vegans, vegetarians, or lactose intolerant but erroneously think that these products are more nutritious. In terms of growth in organic dairy production, all cows are not created equal. Managing animals in a confinement environment and pumping them full of TMR (totally mixed rations) before sending them out on token pasture means some herds have rolling averages of, literally, twice as much milk as authenticallymanaged organic cows.

Cornucopia staff, including myself as our point person on dairy issues after having been involved in the industry for almost three decades, have visited many of these operations (I definitely do not call them “farms”). We have also spent thousands to pay for aerial photography to surveille these giant facilities. But we really didn’t have to do any of that.

All we needed to do was look at the regulatory documents that are required in each state, including the manure/nutrient management plans for these dairies.

Any experienced dairyman or woman knows that the numbers just do not add up. How can you actually milk cows, many thousands of them in a single facility, in semi-arid or true desert conditions, moving them in and out of the milking parlor sometimes three or four times a day? Real dairy producers know that it’s challenging to rotate cows to a fresh paddock even twice a day. When Cornucopia surveyed certified organic dairy producers throughout the nation, we found that they averaged approximately one acre of pasture per cow (that varied a little bit because some producers included young stock).

In contrast, regulatory documents show that some of the certified organic CAFOs have a stocking density of 10 cows per acre. In technical terms, at Cornucopia we call that a phenomenal “stretch.” But if you dig into the documents deeper, or interview some of the current or former employees of the dairies, you find that some of these operations are actually cutting hay off the “pasture.” In technical terms, we call that a “joke.” But it’s a joke that the USDA just doesn’t get.

And what do these pastures look like? In many cases they are not based on well-established perennials but rather annuals that burn up in the desert heat giving these giant dairies a convenient excuse to replant, irrigate, and keep the cattle off. From a legal standpoint, we contend that they are not meeting the mandate to provide “access to pasture”…if they have no pasture! And when USDA investigators confirmed our allegations, once again, McEvoy and the NOP let the giant dairies off the hook.

This agency, and some of the largest certifiers, have bent over backwards justifying the (rigged) system.

Take the case of Aurora Dairy, the largest organic milk producer in the country, with giant CAFOs in Texas and Colorado. After adjudicating a formal legal complaint by The Cornucopia Institute, a decade ago, career civil servants at the USDA found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the federal organic standards and recommended they be decertified.

Instead, Bush administration political appointees let them continue to operate with some modest adjustments to their operations under a one-year probation.

In 2017, we worked with The Washington Post on an investigative story that documented Aurora’s largest dairy, managing 22,000 animals, doing a token job, at best, of grazing. We filed another complaint. This time it was adjudicated by holdovers at the NOP from the Obama administration.

How did they handle it? They had dismissed other complaints we filed in 2015, after aerial surveillance documented no cows out on pasture on days quite suitable for grazing. In these cases, the NOP did nothing more than contact the certifiers, inspectors paid large fees by the giant dairies, who assured USDA officials that they were “certified in good standing.” Case closed.

When it came to the Aurora complaint we filed last year, armed with the Washington Post evidence, they decided it warranted a direct inspection by USDA investigators …. So they contacted Aurora executives, and their lawyers, and made an appointment to visit.

In the recent news coverage regarding the release of our comprehensive dairy report and accompanying brand scorecard, Francis Thicke, a longtime certified organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa and a former Obama-era appointee to the NOSB was quoted as saying, “Whoever heard of a law enforcement agency calling up a suspected meth lab and setting up a mutually convenient appointment to carry out a search?”

So, what can we do to save the organic label, something the majority of us truly believe in, in terms of its positive benefit to society and its potential to respectfully compensate farmers for their efforts?

There are now effectively “two organic labels.” One is about the true meaning of organic environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and economic justice for farmers. The other label has morphed into nothing more than corporate greed and exploitation — abusing the trust and goodwill of consumers.

Nowhere is this truer than in the dairy sector. Organic family farms are being forced out of business, and there’s a 50-50 chance that consumers are buying fraudulent organic milk. How do you tell the two organic labels apart? They both bear the same USDA seal.

The new Cornucopia Organic Dairy Scorecard separates illegal factory farm production — that burns out cows, is hard on the environment, competitively disadvantages ethical farmers, and produces milk with substandard nutrients — from authentic organic milk.

But with about 10,000 members — farmers and their urban allies — Cornucopia has done the research but has a limited ability to shift market share without all of us working together.

We need dairy producers, who are universally respected by consumers, to make your voices heard. We will shortly have some materials available that you can share on social media (and encourage your friends, families and customers to do so as well). Partner with your dairy processors. Make the investment of your valuable time to sample products at grocery stores in your region. And work with us to figure out clever and creative ways to reach the people with true economic clout.

Working together, we can make a difference. The USDA has been virtually worthless in terms of enforcing the law.

We can’t trust corporate agribusiness, their lobbyists at the Organic Trade Association, or political appointees of either party at the USDA to protect us from fraud (as Congress had intended): It’s imperative that we take the law into our own hands!

There is a higher authority than the USDA or the federal courts in enforcing the law — that’s the consumer dollar! We must and can educate our family, friends, and neighbors. Together we have the power to move the needle.

Farmers represent such a small percentage of our population that they have no real clout in Washington or the marketplace. That wasn’t true back in the first half of the last century. You couldn’t win federal office, or in many states, without winning the “farm vote.” But now, when the presidential caucuses are over in Iowa, and the candidates get done kissing the rear end of the ethanol lobbyists, we never hear about food or farming in electoral politics.

But we have a secret weapon in organics: Millions of consumers passionately care and want the safest and most nutritious food for their families, real organic food, and they want farmers to be treated fairly and respectfully.

It is imperative that we all work together to educate them so they can vote with their food dollars to support the true heroes in organics, farmers and the brands their ethical processing and marketing partners control.

I will be supplying some hands-on tools that dairy producers can use to dig their heels in and protect what we have all built together at the upcoming NODPA Field Days this September. My talk will be immediately followed by a town hall style discussion where the best ideas can be exchanged in terms of how we take back our industry and reconstitute the promise of organics. I look forward to our collaboration.

Mark Kastel can be reached at kastel@cornucopia.org