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Mega-Dairy Aurora Organic Admits It's an Intensive Confinement Organic Feedlot

Denver Post


Organic farm under fire over pasture rules
By Steve Raabe
Denver Post Staff Writer

Sunday, January 16, 2005 -

Aurora Organic Dairy is under attack from a group that says the Weld County
dairy is not as organic as its name suggests.

The Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a family-farm advocate, claims
that Aurora Organic violates federal standards that require access to
pasture for organic dairy cows.

Officials of the 5,700-cow farm - one of the nation's largest organic
dairies - said they disagree with Cornucopia's interpretation of the
regulations. The cows are treated humanely and produce high-quality organic
milk, they said.

The dispute illustrates a rift in the fast-growing organic industry between
small producers and large corporations, and over the definition of what's
really organic.

The long-simmering issue of organic dairy cows' access to pasture came to a
head last week when the Cornucopia Institute filed a complaint with the
National Organic Program, a regulatory unit of the U.S. Department of
Agriculture.

Pasture is scarce in arid Colorado, but Aurora Organic's cows at a
Platteville dairy are kept in outdoor pens and fed nothing but certified
organic feed, said Mark Retzloff, whose title at the company is president
and chief organic officer.

Retzloff said the dairy has been certified organic by the Colorado
Department of Agriculture and a certification agency, Quality Assurance
International.

Q&A: MARK RETZLOFF

Mark Retzloff, Aurora Organic Dairy's president and chief organic officer,
discussed with The Denver Post the controversy over what's organic and
what's not.

Q: The Cornucopia Institute's complaint to the USDA centers on the "access
to pasture" provision that applies to organic dairies.

Why the commotion over pasture?

A: The majority of organic dairy farms are in the Northeast and upper
Midwest. They're not familiar with dairy farming in the West.

We have a lot of open space, a lot of rangeland, but we don't have a lot of
water that produces pasture. Here in Colorado, we like to use our water to
grow higher-value grains and proteins.

We keep our cows in outside, sheltered pens, and they eat high-quality
organic feed. And we give our consumers high-quality organic milk.

Q: Should the regulation on access to pasture be rescinded?

A: Pasture isn't the issue.

The issues we really need to talk about are whether the animals are being
treated humanely and sustainably - not how many hours they spend on grass.

>From my point of view, it should be about animal health, and we'll put our
animals up against any cows anywhere in the country.

Q: A lot of people think of organic as small, mom-and-pop farms. What's the
role of big corporate operations in the organic industry?

A: Let's look at the numbers. Large organic dairy farms, 1,000 cows or
greater, make 25 percent to 30 percent of all the organic milk produced in
the United States. They support 200,000 acres of organic crops and feed
production. They account, conservatively, for at least 1,000 jobs.

Demand for organic milk is growing 20 percent a year. As long as demand
keeps growing, large farms are going to play a key role in fulfilling that
need.

Q: Do the higher profits of organic farming cause producers to cut corners
on organic standards, so they can claim to be organic?

A: There is some of that. But that's why everybody has to be certified and
all certifiers have to be accredited by the USDA.

The vast majority of producers out there are doing it right.

We're getting more and more people into the industry, and we need
regulations that people understand clearly.

Q: How do large dairy farms operate differently than smaller ones?

A: We have a lot of innovative practices we've been able to implement
because of our scale.

We have a wastewater treatment facility; we have a full-time vet and
full-time nutritionist on staff. These are things small farms can't do.

Don't get me wrong - small and medium-sized farms are just as important as
larger- scale ones.

If we're really going to be able to meet the consumer demand, it'll be from
a lot of smaller farms converting to organic.


"We're disappointed that any organization would choose to make
unsubstantiated attacks on our integrity," said Retzloff, referring to the
Cornucopia Institute. "This group has no firsthand knowledge of our farms or
our long-standing commitment to organic dairy standards."

Aurora Organic does not disclose financial or operational information for
competitive reasons. The Platteville dairy has a capacity of 20 million
gallons of milk per year.

The Cornucopia complaint states that "climatic conditions - such as arid
climate, which makes pasture impractical or not cost effective - cannot be
used to justify year-round noncompliance with the pasture rule."

Dave Carter of Westminster is a member of the National Organic Standards
Board, which advises the USDA. He said that the board in 2001 recommended to
the USDA that all organic dairy cows have "ongoing access to pasture." But
the USDA has not acted on the recommendation, he said, so its enforceability
is murky.

After the Cornucopia Institute's complaint was filed, the USDA asked the
National Organic Standards Board to again review the pasture provision and
to recommend a policy that would be enforceable by the USDA.

Carter said the complaint from Cornucopia symbolizes the concern in organic
farming that the growth of large-scale operations - like that of Aurora
Organic - may squeeze out the small organic farmer.

"It boils down to scale," he said. "The Cornucopia Institute has been very
active in saying they don't want industrial-scale organic farming."

Staff writer Steve Raabe can be reached at 303-820-1948 or
sraabe@denverpost.com .