CORNUCOPIA, WISCONSIN: The Cornucopia Institute filed two formal complaints today with the USDA’s Office of Compliance asking them to initiate investigations into alleged violations of the federal organic law by factory farms operating in Idaho and California. At issue are fundamental organic livestock management practices that require ruminants, including dairy cows, to consume a significant percentage of their feed from pasture. The complaints ask the USDA to investigate whether it is legal to confine cows in an industrial setting, without access to pasture, and still label milk and dairy products organic.
The 4000-head Idaho factory farm is owned and managed by country’s largest organic dairy marketer, Dean/Horizon. The California industrial farm—owned by Case Vander Eyk, Jr. and with 10,000 cows split between its organic and conventional operation—also supplies Dean/Horizon with milk. (Last month, The Cornucopia Institute filed a similar complaint with the USDA concerning management practices at the 5700-head Aurora dairy, based in Colorado—another supplier of milk for Dean/Horizon.)
“We have been interested in these confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, for some time,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst, at the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. As demand for organic milk has skyrocketed, investors have built large industrial farms mimicking what has become the standard paradigm in the conventional dairy industry. “It is our contention that you cannot milk 2000—6000 cows and offer them true access to pasture as required by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that governs all domestic organic farming and food processing,” said Kastel.
In filing their latest complaints with the USDA, The Cornucopia Institute relied upon a number of published interviews with the owners and management of these farms and over a dozen independent interviews with dairy experts who had visited the farms and examined farm records including; a veterinarian, consultants, suppliers and other dairy farmers. The group has also reviewed independent photographic evidence.
“According to reports, both the Idaho and California operations differ little from conventional confinement dairies other than having their high-producing cows fed certified organic feed,” said Kastel. “Real organic farms have made great financial investments in converting to pasture-based production — enhancing the nutritional properties of the milk and for enhancing animal health—while it appears that these large corporate-dominated enterprises are happy just to pay lip service to required organic ethics.”
“This is a matter of fairness and ethics,” said James Miller, a Columbus, Wisconsin dairy farmer. “When we certified our 1475 acres and 340 cows organic we went to the expense and effort to convert our very best and most fertile fields, surrounding the barn, to pasture.” Cows managed organically and pasture-based tend to have lower levels of production and also live much longer and healthier lives. “We should not be put at a competitive disadvantage by taking the high-road in organics,” Miller affirmed.
Dean/Horizon’s Idaho factory dairy is located in Jerome County and near the community of Paul. The arid, near-desert environment makes pasturing difficult and economically impractical for the thousands of dairy animals. As a result, the animals are confined to drylots with feed brought to them in bulk quantities. (A photo gallery of the Dean/Horizon farm can be found here.)
Craig Muchow, a diversified organic farmer from Gooding, Idaho noted that the Dean/Horizon farm has turned its back on many area farmers after initially seeking their support: “After Horizon converted their large farm to organic they solicited local hay growers and offered us a price-premium to supply them with alfalfa if we also converted to organic production. That worked well for the first few years but then they did away with most premiums and now they have abandoned many small farmers in the area altogether.” According to a number of neighbors, much of the feed the Horizon farm now buys is shipped in on railroad cars and processed by one of the largest corporate agribusiness concerns in the United States.
“Even if the Dean/Horizon farm were to acquire more acreage for pasture,” Kastel said, “it is likely that this land is simply not suitable for organic dairying.” Asked Kastel: “Are they going to irrigate pasture for thousands of cows in an area that’s been drought-stricken for the past several years? State residents are very concerned about depleting the aquifer.”
The Vander Eyk factory dairy is located in California’s San Joaquin Valley and near the community of Pixley. Vander Eyk’s “split” operation combines as many as 7000 conventional cows with approximately 3000 organic animals. Dairy cows are reportedly trucked to pasture on the farm but The Cornucopia Institute contends that this is not a practice used for the portion of the herd that is being actively milked.
“The problem is the locating of these dairies,” said Roman Stoltzfoos a Kinzers, Pennsylvania, pasture-based farmer milking 130 cows. “If anyone gave two hoots about organics they would have located their dairy where they could have grazed and kept it smaller.”
The mammoth Vander Eyk farm has also been targeted for its employment practices. The owner recently reached a $360,000 labor settlement covering 125 workers who contended that were not allowed rest or meal breaks, nor paid overtime, and were not reimbursed for safety equipment they had to purchase for use in their jobs.
“I am relieved that these workers will be rightfully compensated,” said Melissa Barrios staff attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation who represented the workers.
Other factory-farm herd management practices, though not formally part of Cornucopia’s USDA complaints, came under fire from Kastel. “Milking by these confinement operations greatly increases the stress on dairy cows,” Kastel said. “Some of these factory farms are sending as many as 40% of their animals to slaughter each year because the long-term health of the animals is not enough of a concern, as the organic law intends.”
Wisconsin dairyman James Miller contends that his organic management practices are what organic consumers expect and demand. “We are proud to be producing what a lot of people want,” said Miller who markets his milk with the Organic Valley cooperative. “Maintaining the high integrity of organic production and the respect of our customers is just plain good business.”
“Conventional agriculture is corrupted by corporations who view producing food very differently,” said Pennsylvania dairyman Roman Stoltzfoos whose family ships their milk to Natural by Nature. “Now if they have their way, they will be corrupting organic agriculture too.”
After The Cornucopia Institute filed its January 10th complaint with the USDA concerning management practices at the Aurora dairy, the federal agency requested that its National Organic Standards Board review pasture requirements at its upcoming March 1 meeting in Washington, DC. Farmers will be out in full force and pressuring for stricter enforcement.
More on the Horizon-Aurora Relationship
Before converting to organic production, and being purchased by Horizon, the Idaho farm, on which The Cornucopia Institute today filed a complaint with the USDA, was owned by the Aurora Dairy Group, one of the largest corporate dairy farm owners in United States, controlling thousands of cows. Their majority shareholder is Mark Peperzak. Peperzak, was
also one of the founders and past chairman of Horizon prior to its purchase by Dean Foods.
Peperzak along with Mark Retzloff (also a past founder of Horizon) are two of the principles in the giant organic Aurora feedlot-dairy in Platteville, Colorado. The Cornucopia Institute filed a similar complaint with the USDA on January 10 concerning their organic herd management practices.
Dean Foods is largest milk bottler in United States with about a third of the market. They purchased Horizon, the largest bottler of organic milk, in 2003 and combined the operations with White Wave, the manufacturer of the nation’s leading refrigerated soy drink, Silk. They are an impressive and dominant factor in the organic marketplace.
Milk from the two farms under investigation, along with the Aurora Dairy, are by far the largest farms producing organic milk in the country.
Commenting on the intertwined relationship of the farms, Kastel said “These are millionaires who have invested in corporate factory farms and are now attempting to cash in on the premiums offered by organic consumers. The common denominator is Dean Foods, the $11 billion corporation that now owns and controls Horizon.”