Loophole remains in `organic’ definition

By Andrew Martin
Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau (link no longer available)
Published October 19, 2005

WASHINGTON — Seven months after a federal advisory board sought to close loopholes to ensure that organic dairy cows are raised in pastures, rather than in confined pens, the Department of Agriculture has yet to embrace the board’s recommendations.

While department officials said they are seeking to clarify fuzzy regulatory language, some organic dairy farmers have accused the USDA of dragging its feet. They worry that the agency, under pressure from large dairy companies, may ignore the board’s advice.

The debate may seem to be about an arcane regulation, but some organic farmers contend that unless agency officials close the loophole, the organic dairy industry would follow the same path as the conventional dairy trade, where industrial-size farms are quickly replacing small- and mid-size dairy farms.

Proponents of large-scale dairy farming, meanwhile, argue that such regulations constrict the growth of the organic industry.

The dispute boils down to how the USDA defines an organic cow. Among its requirements, existing rules call for dairy cows to have “access to pasture.”

A handful of large-scale dairy farms have used an exemption in the regulation to raise their cows almost entirely in outdoor pens, where they eat organic feed. The exemption allows cows to be raised in confined pens during a “stage of production,” such as birthing or the first six months of life; the large-scale dairies argue that lactation fits into the “stage of production” exemption too.

After listening to dozens of farmers argue that “access to pasture” meant that cows should spend most of their days munching on grass in open fields, the National Organic Standards Board in March voted to close the loophole so that milking cows would not be exempt from the pasture requirement.

At an August meeting of the advisory board, Agriculture Department officials argued that the new language for the regulation lacked precision and asked the board to revise it. The USDA has scheduled two hours for additional comments at the board’s November meeting and hopes to hone the language for the pasture rule by next spring.

Barbara Robinson, deputy administrator for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the organic program, said more precise language is needed so the department can enforce the regulation and so that farmers don’t find new loopholes.

“We weren’t turning down their recommendation,” she said. “What we’re saying is, `Let’s keep working on that.’ . . . We need something that is legally defensible.”

The USDA’s decision promises to reverberate through the booming organic dairy business, which is growing at such a rapid rate that demand for organic milk outstrips supply by about 10 percent, said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association. As a result, some stores are struggling to keep their shelves filled with organic milk, she said.

The organic milk business continues to be dominated by small- and mid-size dairy farms, and it has been championed as a way for small dairy farmers to survive–and even thrive–at a time when thousands of small conventional dairy farms are being replaced by large-scale operations.

The quest for lower costs

But the dynamic growth of organic milk has attracted investors who want to bring some of the scale and efficiencies of conventional dairy farms to the organic milk industry. Proponents of large dairy farms argue that their scale can make organic milk more affordable for consumers.

Clark Driftmier, senior vice president of marketing at Colorado-based Aurora Organic Dairy, which operates two large-scale dairies and is planning a third, said his company plans to comply with the new regulation on pasture. Nevertheless, he complained that some of Aurora’s critics simply want to keep organic an exclusive club of smaller farms based in the Midwest and Northeast, where there are abundant green pastures.

Driftmier said that since the first large-scale organic dairy farm opened 12 years ago, smaller organic farmers have been contending that their demise is imminent.

Since that time, he said, demand for organic milk has steadily increased, as has the price of organic milk and the number of organic farms.

“The price is higher than it’s ever been,” he said. “All indications are that it’s going to go up and not down in the future.”

A guise for `factory farms’?

Mark Kastel, a co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy think tank, said large-scale dairy farms are simply “factory farms” that feed cows organic feed.

He argued that the USDA should have closed the loopholes years ago.

“They’ve allowed these farms to proliferate,” he said.

Some of the larger farms have as many as 5,000 cows apiece, while an average organic farm in the Northeast or Midwest has about 50 cows, he said.

Kathie Arnold, an organic dairy farmer in New York, said she didn’t know why the USDA was taking so long to revise the regulations.

But she said that most organic consumers expect their milk comes from cows grazing on pastures, a notion that is reinforced by advertisements.

“They never show cows eating on dry lots; they don’t promote that fact,” she said. “They promote green pastures, the idyllic view of cows on green pastures.”

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