By PHILIP BRASHER
THE DES MOINES REGISTER (link no longer available)
REGISTER WASHINGTON BUREAU
Washington, D.C. – Contented cows lazing on rolling green hills. That is the idyllic image that many consumers have of the farms where organic milk is produced.
The reality is becoming something different. With consumer demand for organic food booming, organic farms are starting to look a lot like the megafarms that now dominate the conventional dairy industry – collections of barns housing thousands of cows that spend most of their lives eating feed, not grass.
Organic milk produced by a new megafarm in Colorado sells for $3.19 per half-gallon in the Washington, D.C., area, as much as $1.10 less than the cost of some national brands. At Des Moines supermarkets, organic milk typically ranges from $2.75 to $4.29 for a half-gallon.
The trend has sparked a battle among organic farmers, many of whom fear that their business is headed the way of conventional agriculture. The Bush administration is being asked to step in and settle the issue.
“Cows are ruminants, they are grazers, that is their natural behavior,” said James Riddle, chairman of a board that advises the Agriculture Department on organic standards.
The board has proposed changing the Agriculture Department’s organic rules and guidance to ensure that cattle are kept on pasture for a significant portion of the year. It won’t be enough just to give cattle organic feed, which is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.
Large-scale dairies and even some smaller-scale Midwestern farmers said the standards could be difficult to meet. Advocates of the rule changes said they will protect the industry’s image and keep family farms in business.
“As a consumer, I want my organic milk to come from cows that are not confined,” said Caron Osberg , an Urbandale woman who reviews organic and natural products on a Web site, www.ahealthylifeshop.com . “No compromise on that.”
The organic megafarms include operations in Idaho and California. A Colorado facility owned by Boulder-based Aurora Organic Dairy has more than 5,000 cattle.
Consumers pay less for Aurora because it is sold under the private labels of supermarket chains, not under the Aurora name, said Clark Driftmier, Aurora’s senior vice president of marketing.
Company officials said all their cattle have access to pasture. But they said the standards being pushed by the Agriculture Department board – that cattle get 30 percent of the rations from pasture for at least 120 days a year – would be hard to meet for farms of all sizes all over the nation.
Driftmier told the advisory board earlier this month that the pasture requirements would stifle the growth of organic agriculture.
He said it is important to convert as many conventional farms to organic agriculture as possible.
“There are those who warn that organic is getting too big, too corporate, too mainstream,” he said. “I argue something different, that organic is actually much, much too small.”
Some smaller-scale producers have told the Agriculture Department they also are concerned about the proposed standards.
Gerald Klinkner, who produces milk from 45 cattle near La Crosse , Wis., feeds his cattle organic hay, silage and corn when they are not grazing. But he said he doesn’t have enough pasture to meet the 30 percent standard that the advisory board wants.
“My cattle still have access to wonderful pasture, but it’s not at that rate,” he said.
But Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer near Fairfield who grazes his 65 cattle eight to nine months out of the year, said that confining cows to barns in conventional-style megafarms isn’t the organic way.
“Some people have come from the mind-set of conventional agriculture, switched to organic agriculture and haven’t switched their mind-set to an organic system,” he said. For most of the year, his cattle eat about six pounds of feed and 30 pounds of grass a day, well above the 30 percent standard.
The trend toward larger farms is likely to reduce the prices paid to farmers, said Andrew Novakovic, a dairy economist at Cornell University. Organic farmers have traditionally earned about $20 per 100 pounds of milk, $5 to $8 more than conventional milk earns.
Novakovic said he doesn’t think retail prices for organic milk would drop because consumers are willing to pay a higher price for the organic label. “Retailers view this as an item that consumers choose for characteristics other than price,” he said. “They can put a higher price on it . . . and consumers will pay it.”
The Agriculture Department has not set a timetable for approving or rejecting the proposals. Board members acknowledge that the 30-percent standard is largely an arbitrary figure but defend it as reasonable.
“We feel that this is reflective of what the consumers want,” said board member George Siemon, chief executive of a Wisconsin-based cooperative that produces Organic Valley milk.