Organic Dairy Farmers to Rally July 16, Meet with USDA Secretary VilsackJuly 13th, 2009
Symbolic Milk Dump Planned as Tidal Wave of Milk
from Factory Dairies Drowns Family Farmers
WEST SALEM, WIS: A glut of organic milk, fueled by giant factory farms, threatens to wash family farmers off their land. Farmers and their advocates are calling an emergency rally this coming Thursday, July 16, in an effort to demonstrate their plight to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Vilsack will be in West Salem, WI on July 16 as part of a national tour.
Under the Bush administration, the USDA was accused of “looking the other way” as large corporate agribusinesses invested in organics while allegedly violating federal standards. In the dairy sector, there are now estimated to be 20 large industrial dairies, each milking thousands of cows, producing as much as 40% of the nation’s organic milk supply.
“With the slowdown in the economy, the market is no longer able to absorb the growing supply of organic milk,” stated Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “Processors have now cut the price of milk for farmers, and imposed production caps. Many family farmers are now in danger of losing their farms.”
Billed as the “Save the Organic Family Dairy Farm Rally,” the event will be held at 11 AM, July 16, at the La Crosse Interstate Fair in West Salem, Wisconsin. It immediately precedes a town hall meeting on rural issues with Vilsack, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Secretary Vilsack has been invited to say a few words to the farmers prior to the town hall session. “His acknowledgment of the dilemma that faces organic dairy producers will be a big morale boost,” said Kastel.
Besides The Cornucopia Institute, the emergency organic dairy rally is cosponsored by: Family Farm Defenders, Center for Rural Affairs, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Church’s Center for Land and People, National Family Farm Coalition, and the Interfaith Program Action Council.
In addition to the serious financial losses some farmers are experiencing, two of the largest organic milk processors and handlers, Dean Foods (marketing Horizon milk) and HP Hood, which owns Kemps dairy in the Midwest (marketing Stonyfield milk) have informed some of their farmers that they will not renew their contracts.
“These corporations have, in essence, signed a financial death warrant for these farmers,” said Kastel. Many organic producers borrowed tens of thousands of dollars, some well over $100,000, to convert to organics and modernize their farms. Without contracts to sell organic milk, many of these operators face bankruptcy and risk losing the farms that have been in their families for multiple generations.
“The only way we have been able to continue in business is to cash in our retirement IRA, our life savings,” says Bruce Drinkman, who milks 50 cows with his wife Mari outside of Glenwood City, WI. “If the secretary of agriculture and others in power don’t recognize our plight, soon we will lose everything.”
For years, members in the organic community and the National Organic Standards Board, the expert panel set up by Congress, have appealed to the USDA to crack down on “scofflaws” bending the organic regulations on giant factory dairies, mostly in the desert-West. “We are asking Secretary Vilsack to view this as a legitimate emergency and take immediate action, to shut down the giant farms that are violating federal organic law,” Kastel added. “Otherwise many of the ethical, hard-working farmers who built this industry will be driven out of business by cheaters.”
In addition to immediate enforcement action against factory farms allegedly “gaming the system,” Cornucopia has asked Vilsack to request the Justice Department to look into possible antitrust violations by the nation’s largest conventional and organic milk bottler and marketer, Dean Foods.
“I intend to tell the Secretary that there has been a sweetheart relationship between Dean Foods, and other giant agribusinesses, and the USDA for too long,” said John Kinsman, a LaValle, Wisconsin organic dairy farmer. “We need new management at the National Organic Program, the kind of change that President Obama promised during his campaign,” Kinsman added.
While the dustup over the large factory farms producing organic milk is infuriating to many organic farmers and consumers alike, there is no shortage of organic milk that is widely perceived to meet both the letter and spirit of the organic regulations.
The Cornucopia Institute completed an in-depth study last year rating the country’s 110 organic dairy brands based on their ethical approach to milk production. Nearly 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products were highly rated in the scorecard (www.cornucopia.org).
“In every market in this country, in every product category—cheese, butter, ice cream and milk—it is easy for consumers to find organic dairy products that truly meet their expectations,” said Will Fantle, research director at Cornucopia. “In general, consumers can really trust the organic label. These giant corporate dairies are just bad aberrations.”
Consumers, organic farmers other than dairy producers, businesspeople, organic industry stakeholders, and people in rural America who have benefited from the growth of organics are all encouraged to stand with the farmers at this “critical emergency rally.”
Organizers say that farmers will be bringing small quantities of their organic milk to “symbolically dump,” to illustrate the falling value of their farms and their output. They are encouraging all participants at the rally to bring non-perishable food items to share with others less fortunate.
“We want to welcome Secretary Vilsack to Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, where there are more organic dairy farmers than any other state,” said Kastel. “We know he understands the promise of organic agriculture for rural America. We just want to make sure he understands that families producing milk, conventional and organic, have their backs to the wall and desperately need his help.”
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Both President Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack have been widely praised in the organic community for their first moves after taking office. The president’s family turned over part of the White House lawn and planted an organic vegetable garden. At the same time, Secretary Vilsack installed a certified organic garden at the USDA headquarters, where he also sponsors a weekly farmers market.
“These actions were powerfully symbolic, suggesting that this administration would focus on our food system’s impacts on the environment, human health and the welfare of those who grow our food,” stated Cornucopia’s Fantle.
Vilsack also won praise for his selection for deputy secretary when he chose Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, a former Tufts University professor and administrator at the USDA. While an aide to Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Merrigan was the primary author of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the law that gave the USDA the authority to regulate organic food.