The Capitol Press
Friday, October 21, 2005

A loophole in the national organic standards that is allowing a handful of large dairies in arid parts of the West to produce milk labeled as “organic” with only token access to pasture needs to be closed, say many organic farmers and organics advocates.

This spring, The Cornucopia Institute, which is dedicated to maintaining consumer confidence in the organic food label, filed legal complaints with the USDA alleging that a growing number of factory farms are ignoring the organic rule that requires that dairy cows to have “access to pasture.”

In its recent action alert, Cornucopia pointed to what it calls “a new and troubling trend — factory farms producing “organic” milk in confinement conditions.”

According to the alert, as far back as 2000 concerned consumers and farmers asked the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to address the issue.

Jim Riddle, a member of the board, an advisory group made up of people in the organics industry, said the board has consistently and unanimously supported rule-change language that would require cows — including those that are being milked — to be grazed on pasture during the growing season.

But though the board adopted these recommendations, the USDA did not publish the proposed rule changes for public comment.

Riddle said that the USDA has also refused to take enforcement against dairy operations that do not provide pasture to lactating cows during the growing season.

Exasperated by years of delays, Cornucopia is urging organic farmers and consumer advocates to send a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns asking him to personally intervene and make sure that this issue is on the agenda during the November meeting of the National Organic Standards Board.

According to Cornucopia’s sample letter, corporate farm operators are “gaming the system” and putting family-scale farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Craig Minowa of the Organic Consumers Association emphasizes that consumer confidence is key to the continuing growth of organics.

“When consumers are buying organic, they have an image of a family farm following the traditional methods of farming,” he said. “They’re shocked when they learn that there are some factory-style dairies out there that are selling their milk under the organic label.”

Horizon Organic, which has a large organic dairy farm of about 4,000 cows in the desert of Central Idaho, is an example of the type of dairy that troubles many organic dairy operators.

Horizon is owned by WhiteWave Foods, a division of multinational Dean Foods.

A phone call to WhiteWave about this issue went unanswered.

Jon Bansen, a family farmer in Monmouth, Ore., and a member of Organic Valley, a cooperative of 550 dairies in 17 states, said that grazing is the cornerstone of organic dairying.

“It’s all about bringing cows back to grazing,” he said. “Cows are ruminants and they’re meant to eat forage.”

Bansen believes that organic dairy farmers have a responsibility to their cows, the land and to the consumer.

“Consumers assume that cows are out on grass.” he said. “We’re beholden to the trust that our consumers have about what we do.”

Yet he doesn’t think that throwing stones at large corporate dairies that are taking advantage of the grazing loophole is a good tactic because it can confuse consumers.

“That’s why the (grazing) standard is so important,” said Bansen. “We need enforceable rules that all organic dairies are required to follow.”

Like others who farm organically, he’s worried that large corporations will subvert the intent of the National Organic Program and thereby erode consumer confidence in the organic label.

“Corporate America has more money than co-op America,” he said, referring to possible corporate influence on USDA policies.

Andrew Dykstra, a Skagit County, Wash., organic dairy farmer and also a member of Organic Valley, said that grazing is what makes the system work.

HEALTHIER FOR COWS

“It’s a lot healthier for the cows,” he said. “They’re ruminants and like to be outside. That’s different from locking them up shoulder to shoulder on cement slabs in buildings.”

He isn’t opposed to large organic dairies.

“If they can figure out how to do it, that’s fine with me,” he said. “But they’ve got to be grazing their cows, not just putting them out in a dry lot.”

Tom Griffin, milk procurement manager for Organic Valley, said the problem is that the phrase, “access to pasture,” allows for a lenient interpretation of the rule.

“There has been a lot of testimony from family farmers saying that they want to see this firmed up,” he said. “We’re hoping that the rule will become what it should be.”
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Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Wooley, Wash.
Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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