The Cornucopia Institute’s Senior Farm Policy Analyst Mark Kastel journeyed to Washington, D.C. for the August 15-17 meeting of the National Organic Standards Board. He was there to push for final adoption of the proposed pasture guidance for dairy cows and ruminants that would close loopholes being used by several large industrial confinement dairy farms to avoid the pasture requirement for their milking herds. Mark Kastel’s account details the surprising turn of events in D.C.

At the spring NOSB meeting the board passed two minor rule changes that would have closed some of the loopholes that large industrial farms were using to get around the requirement that ruminants (dairy cattle) must be pastured. The changes would have made it clearer that it is not enough for animals to have “access to pasture” but that they must in fact “graze.” Large farms were using this loophole to justify confining their cattle even though pasture was theoretically available. A second rule change would have made it clear that lactation was not a “stage of production/life,” allowing farmers to “temporarily” confine their cattle during all or most of lactation.

Even though the vast majority of dairy farmers and their certifiers clearly understand that pasture is at an integral part of organic dairy production, these rule changes were needed to rein in investors that are spending millions of dollars attempting to exploit the good reputation organic agriculture has in the eyes of the consumer.

These rule modifications were well reasoned and insightful. However, they were suddenly, and without warning, rejected by the USDA National Organic Program staff at the August NOSB meeting. The staff defined the changes as ambiguous and without clear regulatory intent.

We objected to the USDA rejecting the NOSB’s proposed language without negotiating an acceptable alternative, if they had legitimate concerns. In fact, the USDA could have crafted alternative language and presented it to the board at their meeting last week for approval. Instead, they sent the rule changes back to the NOSB to start the process over again.

Depending on the NOSB meeting schedule, this might not be taken up again until next spring. It might take as long as 18 months from that point in time until these rules take effect as law. And then, farms that are out of compliance would presumably be given an opportunity to file a new management plan and modify their operations. Thus, in the best case scenario, it could be as long as 3-4 years from now until enforcement actions, based on the proposed rule changes, could take place.

The delay by the USDA is unacceptable on a hot issue, where the organic community, consumers, and farmers have come to consensus, and it is highly disrespectful. However, in our opinion, shared by other policy experts, the current set of rules is being violated, and our filed complaints, pending at the USDA, very well might lead to an immediate crackdown on the renegade factory farms–stay tuned.

It should be noted that although the USDA has been anything but an ally in this fight, the members of the National Organic Standards Board truly deserve our respect and appreciation. They have continued to carefully listen and take into consideration comments from the public and have taken aggressive action (passing both the rejected rule changes and a new guidance document). In this sense, the voices of farmers and consumers have been heard”and that is a victory. Unfortunately, the guidance they passed does not change the law itself and, thus, without the rule changes, might not have the same power in terms of instigating enforcement action. Please click on the link below for the full text of the guidance document adopted by the NOSB:

A minor concern we had, in comparison to the impact of delaying pasture enforcement, is the poor environment at the NOSB meetings for citizen participation. In the past, NOSB meetings had moved around the country in order to solicit farmer participation. Now they seem to be permanently hosted in Washington. It has always been an expensive location for farmers, but the recent meeting was an abomination. The corporate lobbyists and USDA staff all have expense accounts to accommodate meeting expenses and travel–but not citizen/farmers. To host the meeting at a luxury hotel where rooms are $200–$300 a night, including $30 for parking, is highly unfortunate. Furthermore, the location of this hotel was remote from any more reasonable accommodation or choices for nearby economical meal options.

We tried to schedule a working/lunch meeting for farmers prior to the event and were quoted $20-$40 per person. This was in the meeting room that already cost $700 for a half day! One farmer told me he passed up the $19 breakfast one morning and instead choose the $6 bagel (plus tax and tip). He was quickly corrected by his wife who said, no, it was a seven dollar bagel, because he had the optional cream cheese!

When the meeting was held in Austin, Texas, or La Crosse, Wisconsin, farmers could find hotel rooms for $50 (with free parking) and many options for reasonable meals, not to mention that many were close enough to drive to the event rather than fly. We will again be asking the USDA to schedule their meetings outside the Beltway, to maximize participation, rather than holding them at a site most convenient to staff and Washington-based corporate lobbyists. Maybe a small point, but the organic community (industry) was developed through a loving/collaborative working relationship between all stakeholders. It was truly bottom-up, not Washington-down democracy.

Finally, our sincere thanks to the farmers who made the trek to Washington and participated in the strategy meetings and delivered testimony before the NOSB. Along with the many organic producers from around the country, and consumers who sent in proxies to back you up, you folks are the real heroes, and you give the staff at The Cornucopia Institute the benefit of your knowledge and the moral authority to speak on your behalf. The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Association both also deserve recognition for their organizing efforts. Participating at this month’s meeting were:

      Steve & Gloriann Pechacek, WI


      Jim & Jackie Greenburg, Stroudsburg, WI


      Steve Morrison, Charleston, ME


      Steve Bowen of WI


      Henry Perkins, Albion, ME


      Rick Segalla, Canaan, CT


      Mr. and Mrs. Jim Greenberg, WI


      Sally Brown, Groton, NY


      Kevin & Lisa Engelbert, Nichols, NY


      Kathie Arnold, Truxton, NY


    Tony Azevedo, Stevinson, CA

Proxy statements were written by :

      Lyle Edwards, Westfield, VT


      Ernest Martin, Shiloh, OH


      Ed Zimba, Deford, MI


    Barbara Buchmayer, Purdin, MO

And proxy letters were submitted by almost 400 citizens, mostly dairy farmers, from around the country, along with hundreds of consumer petitions in support of strict pasture enforcement. Your backup gave the farmers in attendance more clout!

Farmers and consumers are the true owners of the organic label and as long as we continue to work together we can maintain organic integrity and save the industry from corporate exploitation. We welcome corporate investment in organics. But these investors must respect the ethics that are the foundation for the industry’s growth and not use illegal tactics that place family-scale farmers at a competitive and potentially ruinous disadvantage.

For more information, email us at [email protected]

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