by Jim Goodman, Wisconsin Dairy Farmer
[Editor’s note: this article was shared with us by a Willy Street Co-op Owner. We have written about organic standards and the challenges inherent in producing organic food, especially when many Americans expect their food to be inexpensive, however this article offers something that we haven’t: the extended perspective of a farmer. Jim Goodman’s milk isn’t available to us, but his story is very similar to those we’ve heard from small organic farmers whose products we sell. Jim mentions Aurora Dairy; about 10 years ago, we carried Horizon Organics milk, which receives milk from Aurora Dairy. We ended up dropping the product due to the same concerns Jim raises. This article, originally published in The Milkweed, has been reprinted and edited for length with permission of the author.]
The first day our milk was sold as certified organic, we thought we had it made. The market for organic milk was growing and there was no reason to believe the growing consumer demand would not continue. Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, even regular supermarket chains were looking to get at least some organic product on their shelves and for starters, that usually meant dairy.
We learned there was a lot to be said for growing your own feed as opposed to purchasing it. There was a learning curve, but using pasture as part of a crop rotation of hay, grain and cover crops—at least once you figured it out—made you wonder why you ever needed pesticides at all.
There are accepted organic farming practices that work and most farmers learn how to manage their farms, learn from each other and follow the rules. That is important, following the rules; rules are, after all, based on management practices that work. No doubt organic farmers in New England have more difficulty growing grain that we do here in the Midwest, but since organic cattle are mostly out on pasture, no grain or minimal grain feeding can work.
Grazing dairy cattle in the parts of the West can be a problem too. In some areas it can be difficult to meet the pasture requirements of 30% dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season, but I have seen small organic dairies that have figured it out. That’s a problem most of us east of the Mississippi don’t generally have, but then Western farmers don’t have to worry quite so much about moving snow and keeping water running when it drops to -20 either. We all have our management challenges.
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) puts rules for organic production in place. They need to be followed, so farmers have to find a way. NOP is, per their website, “a regulatory program housed within the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. We are responsible for developing national standards for organically-produced agricultural products. These standards assure consumers that products with the USDA organic seal meet consistent, uniform standards.”
Pretty straightforward, developing standards and assuring that organic products meet those “consistent, uniform standards.” Wouldn’t it be grand if all organic certification agencies and the USDA actually enforced those standards? If all organic products with the USDA Organic seal actually met those standards?
Well, that would be a perfect world scenario and unfortunately, that is not the world we live in. If one’s wages were cut 30% with no reduction in workload, that would be a big deal. Yet, that is exactly what organic dairy farmers have seen happen to their pay price over the past year. And the salt in the wound is the fact that, according to USDA Ag Marketing Service data, organic dairy prices at the retail level have actually gone up over the past year.
Most consumers of organic food are lured by the labels showing cows grazing next to a little red barn, that is what they want to buy, products from happy cows owned by profitable farmers that respect the rules, the environment and their animals. And a lot of organic milk is still produced that way: the barns are not always red, but most organic farmers still fit the image their customers see on the label.
But recent articles in the Washington Post describe a fact many small organic farmers have protested for at least ten years: there are many organic farms milking thousands of cows in operations that are little different than conventional confinement operations. Post reporters, during several visits to Aurora dairy in Greeley, Colorado found only a few hundred cows grazing at any one time out of a herd of 15,000.
It is cheaper to produce milk this way, but it is not organic; they are not following the regulations. Organic certification is based on a yearly inspection, so there is a lot of trust involved and in the case of these industrial organic farms, the trust has been betrayed. USDA has done little more than give Aurora a slap on the wrist.
Aurora’s website states that “Aurora Organic Dairy is a leading producer and processor of high quality organic milk and butter for retail store brands.” These would be stores such as Walmart, Costco and Target. The sheer volume sold in these mega-stores does undercut a fair organic milk price and the fact that there are questions about the integrity of organic milk from these industrial organic farms, seems to make little difference to the mega-retailers.
These cows are not meeting the grazing standards, but they are eating something. The feed is supposed to be organic; organic farmers must provide paperwork proving the organic integrity of grown or purchased feed. Which brings up the question of who is growing all this organic feed and if they are actually following USDA organic standards?
While the laws of supply and demand should encourage US organic farmers to increase production as well as encourage more farmers to convert to organic production, it is not happening. US production accounts for about 60% of the organic corn and 20% of the soybeans needed to satisfy market demand. And while demand for organic grain is increasing about 15% a year, the deficit has and continues to be filled by lower priced imported grain from the Black Sea Region of Eastern Europe.
Why? Imported grain is cheaper, despite shipping costs. And it is cheaper because it is not organic. Peter Whoriskey reported in the Washington Post (May 12, 2017) that “The label said ‘organic’ but these massive imports of corn and soybeans weren’t.” He describes a shipment of conventional soybeans from Turkey to California last year that, somehow in transit, became organic. At least the documentation said it was organic. This remarkable transformation boosted the profit margin on this one shipment by over $4 million.
When simply providing a false organic certificate can make conventional grain organic, it is easy to see why organic grain farmers are losing money and why many are giving up on organic production entirely. Organic grain prices, like organic milk prices, are unsustainable; farmers cannot survive. Over the past couple of years prices have fallen 30 to 50%.
If consumers believe it is organic, if they believe USDA is insuring its integrity they will pay more and industry will profit. Organic farmers with integrity may lose out to fraudulent imports, CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) organic dairies and poultry operations, but as long as Walmart can sell the myth it’s okay. Pressure on USDA seems to work; there is very little action to correct the situation and we can continue to expect low milk prices and another harvest season of continuing low grain prices.
Those of us who still uphold that image of small red barns have struggled with drought, flooding and oppressive heat, but we have pastured our cattle as required by the NOP. We continue to grow our crops by the rules and we don’t keep our cattle, poultry or pigs in confinement.
We have provided a product that consumers expect when they buy organic and we make it work economically—without cutting corners. How much longer we can do this really depends on whether or not USDA decides that organic rules need to be followed by everyone, no matter how big their farm is, or what country they farm in.
About the Author
Jim Goodman and his wife Rebecca run a 45-cow organic dairy and direct market beef farm in southwest Wisconsin. His farming roots trace back to his great-grandfather’s immigration from Ireland during the famine and the farm’s original purchase in 1848. A farm activist, Jim credits more than 150 years of failed farm and social policy as his motivation to advocate for a farmer-controlled consumer-oriented food system. Jim currently serves on the policy advisory boards for the Center for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association, and is a board member of Midwest Environmental Advocates and of the Family Farm Defenders.
He is the past chair of the USDA North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education Administrative Council and a member of the USDA National Research, Extension, Education and Economics Advisory Board.
Jim’s writing and speaking focus on the principals of Food Sovereignty the fact that food, like health care or education is not a commodity, but rather a basic human right.