Collateral Damage: Organic Farmers Being Squeezed Out

October 12th, 2008

Corporate Takeover Threatens Farmers, Mission

Cornucopia, WI – Groups representing organic farmers and their customers are calling on consumers to help save the organic industry by exclusively patronizing dairies, and other brands, that uphold the spirit and letter of the federal organic law. They claim the acquisition of major brands by corporate agribusiness, and their dependence on factory farms, threatens to force families off the land and deprive consumers of the superior nutritional food they think they are paying for.

“This could be the end of the organic industry as we know it,” said Mark A. Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, widely recognized as the organic industry’s most aggressive farming watchdog. The Institute reports that the proliferation of industrial-scale dairies has bloated the organic milk supply, inflated the price of feed for dairy cows, and resulted in a financial crisis for family farmers, even as the market continues to grow – defying the general economic downturn.

The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute on October 13 filed formal legal complaints, seeking USDA enforcement, against two more operators of giant industrial dairies. The farm policy research group claims they are “masquerading as organic.” Cornucopia also announced that it has released an update to its popular organic scorecard helping consumers make informed choices in the marketplace in selecting dairy brands that represent the highest level of organic practices.

The dairy segment, second only behind fresh fruits and vegetables, represents nearly $4 billion worth of annual revenue or about 15 to 20% of the organic industry.

For eight years, participants in the organic community – farmers, consumers, retailers, and other stakeholders – have fought the industrialization of organic milk by giant corporations and factory farms milking as many as 10,000 animals. Although the National Organic Standards Board, the expert panel set up by Congress to advise the Secretary of Agriculture, has voted to crack down on industry scofflaws five times since 2000, Bush administration officials have refused to act.

“This cynical corporate takeover of organic farming, an agriculture segment that is held in high regard by consumers, resulting in a highly successful and growing market, has been aided and abetted by the gross disregard of the USDA’s enforcement responsibilities,” said Merrill Clark, a certified organic livestock producer and former member of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board.

Cornucopia also announced that it has released an update to its popular organic scorecard helping consumers make informed choices in the marketplace in selecting dairy brands that represent the highest level of organic practices.

Cornucopia’s legal complaints to the USDA targeted Phoenix-based Shamrock Farms, which operates an industrial dairy milking approximately 11,000 cows in the desert 54 miles south of their plant, and the Rockview Farms Dairy of Downey, California, the operator of another giant industrial dairy in the desert north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

“When Cornucopia staff visited Shamrock’s operation we found inadequate, overgrazed pasture adjacent to their milking facility, and we were told by Shamrock employees that the confined cows had not been out in weeks,” Kastel stated. Federal organic regulations require that cows be grazed. (Click here to view a photo gallery from the Shamrock operation.)

“Not only do these confinement operations create an unfair competitive playing field, discriminating against all the family farmers who work hard to fulfill both the letter and intent of the national organic standards, they also are denying the consumer the extra healthful nutrients that university studies have verified as being present in the milk of cows that graze fresh green grass,” said Kathie Arnold, president of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Cornucopia’s filing of a legal action against Rockview Farms Dairy chronicled similar alleged violations of organic livestock management rules. Rockview Farms, of Downey, California, produces their organic milk at a giant industrial farm in the Nevada desert near Amargosa Valley, just northwest of Las Vegas. Its milk is marketed under the Good Heart label. (Click here to view a photo gallery of the Rockview facilities.)

“Just like Shamrock, Rockview’s phony-baloney organic farm primarily confines their cattle in a massive feedlot milking both organic and conventional cows,” Kastel affirmed. “This outfit is everything that organics isn’t  – in addition to confining their cattle, Rockview has been accused of environmental damage and even irrigates some of their land with waste products from a municipal sewage plant.”

One way that Cornucopia is fighting unethical corporate players like Shamrock, Rockview, and the industry’s largest dairy, Dean Foods, which markets organic milk under the Horizon label, is to educate and engage consumers.

Cornucopia just updated their organic dairy scorecard, which ranks every brand in the country, large and small, based on their ethical approach to their milk production. It contains 107 organic brands covering fluid milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, and ice cream.

“We have encouraged our 900,000 members and collaborators to use Cornucopia’s research when making their purchasing decisions for organic dairy products,” said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA). In the past, OCA has called on its membership to boycott the Horizon brand and milk produced by Aurora Dairy, the nation’s largest manufacturer of private-label organic milk.

“We are carefully examining Cornucopia’s new findings and are likely to ramp up our pressure campaign to force these bad actors to change their business models or to exit the industry,” Cummins added.

The good news for consumers, according to the Cornucopia study, is that 85% of all name-brand marketers are respecting both the letter and spirit of the federal organic law.

Besides farmers concerned with their livelihoods, consumers have also voiced dissatisfaction with the USDA’s lack of enforcement by the alleged organic scofflaws.

A growing body of scientific literature clearly indicates that legitimately produced organic milk, from pasture-based animals, offers distinct nutritional advantages. This year Newcastle University reported that milk from grazing cows on organic farms contains significantly higher amounts of beneficial fatty acids, antioxidants, and vitamins.

According to Gillian Butler, livestock project manager for the Newcastle University study, their research “clearly shows that on organic farms, letting cows graze naturally, using forage-based diet, is the most important reason for the differences in the composition between organic and conventional milk.”

“I know I’m not the only consumer who would feel ripped off to know that when I spend extra money on organic milk for my family that it comes from giant factory farms,” said Andrea Rae of San Diego, Calif.

Rockview’s Amargosa operation, called Ponderosa Dairy, was indicted by a federal jury for illegally dumping nearly 2 million gallons of cattle waste in February 1998, creating a spill that snaked 18 miles across Nevada and California. “As far as I know, it’s the biggest dairy waste spill in the western United States,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard J. Cutler, lead prosecutor in the case, has elsewhere said to the media.

“Currently the local Ponderosa dairy poses more of a hazard to human health in Amargosa Valley than the proposed Yucca mountain repository for nuclear waste bordering our valley,” said Bill Barrackman, a certified organic pistachio grower located in the Amargosa Valley.

More on the environmental problems at Rockview’s Amargosa dairy can be found at:
www.cornucopia.org/Amargosa.pdf.

“Consumers who pay premium prices for organic products do so believing that they are produced with a different kind of environmental ethic, a different kind of animal husbandry ethic, and social justice for family farmers,” added Cornucopia’s Kastel.

“Our report, Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk, and the accompanying dairy brands scorecard will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers who are in danger of being washed off the land by a tidal wave of organic milk from these factory mega-farms,” Kastel noted.

The Cornucopia Institute’s update to the report and scorecard was a year in the making and involved in-depth research and surveys of the nation’s dairy product manufacturers located in every region of the country. Company owners and senior management had to approve and personally verify their responses to the Institute’s 19 survey questions. Brands received scores ranging from “five cows (ranking as the best) to “one cow” (substandard) based upon an analysis of the responses and other outside research.

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