Organic – Critics say dairy tests the boundaries and spirit of what `organic’ means

August 20th, 2006

By Andrew Martin
Chicago Tribune – Washington Bureau (link no longer available)

KENNEDYVILLE, Md. — With its neat white barns and lush green pastures, the Horizon Organic dairy farm on the outskirts of this tiny town on Maryland’s picturesque Eastern Shore would seem to fit the organic ideal.

But on a recent Wednesday morning, with crisp blue skies and temperatures in the low 80s, there was something missing from Horizon’s pastures. Namely, there were no cows.

Critics of Horizon, including two former workers, say the empty pastures are emblematic. The dairy’s new management, installed a year ago, has been so obsessed with increasing production to meet the soaring demand for organic milk that it has mostly kept the cows in the barn, the former workers allege, despite a U.S. Department of Agriculture requirement that organic cows have access to pasture.

Where the cows once routinely spent their days munching on clover, now they are allowed out in pastures infrequently, typically at night or when a tour group visits the dairy, the workers said.

“One of my frustrations was putting cows out for tours to make it seem like we were really grazing,” said Jacob Tice, who served as grazing manager from February 2004 to July 14 of this year, when he quit in frustration. “Their primary objective was production. They didn’t want grazing to interfere.”

Said Robert Fry, who served as a contract veterinarian at the farm for eight years before he was dismissed in February: “They portray to their customers that they’ve got this happy cow out on grass, this pastoral, idyllic scene. And that’s not the case. There’s a bit of misrepresentation on their part to the consumer.”

When cows are kept in a barn, they can be fed large amounts of energy-rich food, increasing their milk production. Organic milk enthusiasts argue that it is healthier, more natural and better for the cows to be allowed to forage in a pasture, even if that results in less milk.

Horizon officials flatly deny the allegations, saying they follow and even exceed the USDA’s organic rules. Kelly Shea, the dairy’s vice president for environmental stewardship, said the company is constantly looking for ways to provide its cows with more pasture at the Maryland dairy.

“Grazing has to be a part of any organic dairy,” she said. “We absolutely meet and exceed the regs.”

As for why the cows were kept inside on a beautiful summer day, farm manager Greg Heidemann said the explanation was simple. “When it gets warm outside, we graze at night,” he said.

The allegations are the latest flare-up in a rancorous feud over the future of the booming organic milk business. While most organic milk is produced by small farmers, Horizon and a Colorado firm, Aurora Organic, operate several large, industrial-size dairies — derisively called “factory farms”–that are increasingly the norm in the much larger world of conventional milk.

More broadly, the debate over organic milk reflects the growing pains of an industry that started as a counterculture movement in the 1970s but has increasingly attracted the interest of major food and grocery companies, from General Mills to Wal-Mart. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk bottler, owns Horizon Organic.

As the organic business has flourished, critics maintain that big business has sought to water down the organic standards in the interest of profit, threatening the credibility of the organic label and the original values of the organic movement, which include helping the environment, producing healthy food and saving family farms.

Demands for cheaper product

Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, said the problem with Wal-Mart and other large players getting into the organic business is that they demand cheaper and cheaper prices, forcing suppliers such as Horizon to look for ways to cut corners.

“You can only get the kind of prices [large discount stores] want if you bend the rules a little bit, which is what they’ve done,” said Cummins, whose organization has called for a consumer boycott of Horizon and Aurora milk. “They are in flagrant violation of traditional organic standards.”

But Shea suggested that the criticism was driven by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy think tank, which she said has a “pathological obsession” with criticizing her company. Both Fry and Tice were put in touch with the Tribune by the Cornucopia Institute, which filed a complaint to the USDA this month about Horizon’s alleged lack of pasture at its dairies.

“He is absolutely killing this industry with his tactics, and hurting farmers,” she said, referring to Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s co-founder. Kastel said he is simply trying to stop the growth of factory-style organic dairies that he says threaten family farms.

“We are focused on large, industrial-sized organic farms that don’t comply with the letter or the spirit of the organic law,” he said.

Horizon currently gets 82 percent of its milk from organic farmers. The remainder comes from two farms, the Maryland farm and another, larger one in Idaho, that Horizon opened itself in the 1990s because it could not find additional conventional dairy farmers willing to convert, Shea said.

Several experts on dairy grazing disagreed on whether Horizon’s cows could be outside when the temperature is in the low 80s, as it was Wednesday morning. But they all were skeptical that the farm’s 130 acres of pasture could provide much feed for 500 cows, let alone meet a set of proposed guidelines for grazing by the National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory panel.

“It’s almost impossible,” said David Forgey, a dairy farmer who grazes his cows in Logansport, Ind. “They would never maintain the amount of forage out there that they need.”

Larry Tranel, a dairy field specialist for Iowa State University, said Horizon might be able to meet the minimum recommendation for grazing if it followed a strict system of rotating the cows through the pasture.

“I can’t say they couldn’t, but they are really pushing the envelope for that minimum standard,” he said.

In order to be certified as organic, food products must meet a set of standards that is overseen by the Agriculture Department. An organic cow, for instance, must eat pasture grass or animal feed that has not been treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The USDA standards also include a requirement that cows have access to pasture.

Because of complaints that several large farms were exploiting loopholes in the regulations, the Organic Standards Board sought to clarify the guidelines last year. Under the new guidelines, organic dairy cows would be required to get about one-third of their diet from pasture four months out of the year.

The board also urged that “in no case should temporary confinement be allowed as a continuous production system,” essentially meaning that pasturing should be the norm for cows producing milk labeled organic.

To date, the USDA has not adopted the recommendations.

“If they rewrote the regs tomorrow . . . we wouldn’t have to change a thing,” Shea said, adding that the cows in Maryland routinely get half their feed from the pasture during the spring.

`Rotational grazing’

Tice said that after he was hired in 2004, he set up a system of “rotational grazing” using posts and wires, which is recommended in order to maximize the amount and quality of feed that cows receive from pasture. Under such a system, a pasture is divided into smaller paddocks, and the cows are rotated through the system over several weeks to allow grass to grow back.

The system was not perfect because there wasn’t enough pasture for the size of the herd, Tice said. But he said it nonetheless provided the cows with as much pasture as the farm could manage.

But when Heidemann was hired last summer, Tice said the new manager made it clear that he was interested in boosting production.

“He decided that intensive rotational grazing doesn’t work here, that’s what he said,” said Tice, adding that much of his wire-and-post system was taken down when he was on vacation.

“If grazing was going to interfere with higher production, they didn’t want to graze,” he said.

While some cows were allowed out on pasture, particularly at night, Tice said the highest-producing milk cows mostly remained in the barn, particularly as the weather got hotter.

Fry, the veterinarian, said he also noticed a change when Heidemann took over. Fry was dismissed because of disagreements over veterinary practices, according to Horizon officials.

Previously, Fry said, “There was an effort for the cows to get as much [pasture] as possible.” But during the last year, he said, “They don’t appear to have an interest in grazing other than window-dressing and lip service.”

Heidemann said he did not understand why Tice and Fry would make such allegations but called them “absolutely false.”


A photo gallery of the Horizon Maryland farm, containing images provided to The Cornucopia Institute, can be found by clicking here.

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