Family farmers who produce organic milk are petitioning for the swift adoption of new strict rule-making that would rein in the abuses of a handful of factory farms, which are violating both the spirit and letter of the federal organic law.
The pending rewrite of the organic livestock standards, with an emphasis on assuring compliance with provisions that require grazing for dairy cows, is under review at the Office of Management and Budget, where the administration is being heavily lobbied by industrial farming interests to water down the rules.
To meet the explosive growth in the organic industry, over the last five years a number of large industrial dairies, milking as many as 7,200 cows, have exploited the stellar reputation that organic dairy products have earned in the eyes of consumers who are looking for safer and more nutritious food for their families.
With the flattening of demand for organic food, these giant dairies have flooded the market with cheap milk that is now crushing the family farmers who have built this industry. These CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are anathema to organic consumers investing in a more environmentally sensitive approach to food production and humane animal husbandry. Ironically, one of the reasons they are willing to pay extra for organic milk is they think that the farmers who produce it are being fairly treated.
The current surplus of organic milk, caused by factory farms, has forced prices down for family farmers. Sadly, there have been reports around the country of a number of suicides of both conventional and organic dairy producers. Some organic farmers are now facing foreclosure, a stark contrast to the economic promise of organics over the past two decades of growth.
Organic farmers are particularly resentful of two corporate players that heavily lobbied the USDA during both the Bush and Obama administrations, attempting to weaken regulatory language that requires dairy cows to be managed in a way that promotes their natural instinctive behaviors, including grazing on open pastures rather than spending most of their lives confined in barns and feedlots.
The largest villain, in the eyes of dairy farmers, is Aurora Dairy. The $100 million corporation owns five “factory farms,” each with thousands of cows, in arid regions of Texas and Colorado. Owning its own manufacturing plant, Aurora packages and ships milk for sale as store-brand products at Walmart and a number of leading supermarket chains. Aurora’s factory farm milk reaches every corner of this country, undercutting ethical farmers and their marketing partners.
Although the president of Aurora Dairy, Mark Retzloff, has heavily contributed to the Democratic Party, President Obama, and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who is now USDA secretary, we trust that the current administration will focus on the suspect practices of his company rather than its past financial and political support.
In what has been described as the largest scandal in the history of the organic industry, in 2007 the USDA found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the federal organic law, including confining its animals instead of grazing, and bringing illegal conventional cows into its factory farm operations.
The Bush administration let Aurora off without a cent in fines, instead placing the company on a one-year probation. Since then, 19 class-action lawsuits by consumers, charging Aurora with consumer fraud, have been working their way through the federal court system.
Bruce Drinkman, an organic dairy farmer from Glenwood City, Wis., who milks 55 cows, is right when he says:
“It would be a national scandal, as some of us face losing our farms due to the industrial dairy scofflaws, if the Obama administration sides with the ‘bad actors’ in our industry. We are in dire financial straits because of the same kind of unethical competition from factory farms that put so many of our conventional neighbors out of business. We need the president and the USDA on our side!”
Mark Kastel is senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute.