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Horizon Organic Criticized for
"Corporate" Dairy Practices

From: <www.organicts.com>

USA: THE NEW AMERICAN ORGANIC DAIRY FARMER
February 11, 2002

By: Noel C. Paul,
Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA)

Vermont - Even as sales grow, the organic-milk movement faces an identity
crisis. The participation of at least one giant organic-milk producer,
small-farm advocates say, threatens to overshadow the local, family-focused
character of organics with the bland, big-profit motives of corporate
America.

Now, most organic dairy farmers earn about $20 for 100 pounds of milk - the
common commercial unit of sale. That's about $5 more than conventional dairy
farmers, whose earnings have remained flat for 20 years. During that time,
however, the cost of machinery, feed, and cattle has risen. The
consequence: Since 1991, the number of dairy operations in Vermont has
decreased by 35 percent - with a decline of more than 40 percent nationwide
- according to the Agriculture Department. The stark reality of dairy
economics leaves most dairy farmers with three choices: go bankrupt, grow
bigger, or find a new niche.

28 year old organic dairy farmer Travis Forgues has managed to avoid the
route to go large. He cites his membership in Organic Valley, a LaFarge,
Wisc.-based cooperative - now one of the largest suppliers of organic
fruits, vegetables, and milk in the country. Organic Valley never takes on
more milk than it can sell - guaranteeing each farmer a consistent income.
There is no incentive for member farmers to produce more milk, because
production is capped to prevent market saturation. For many agriculturists,
the group represents pure organics, because it is run by the farmers
themselves.

Horizon Organic, which now owns The Organic Cow, produces more than
30 percent of its milk at two industrial-size dairies, one of which milks close
to 5,000 cows. The publicly owned, Colorado-based company controls more
than 70 percent of the nation's organic milk market. The emergence of Horizon
as the dominant player in organic milk has opened the doors of supermarkets
across the US to its product, introducing the organic concept to millions of
consumers. It has also likely made organic milk far more affordable for the
average consumer. (A half-gallon of The Organic Cow 2 percent milk costs
$2.99 - a dollar more than most nonorganic milk.)

Ten years ago, Horizon argues, the company had no alternative but to
establish their own large farms because organic producers were few and
scattered. In 2002, however, small-time farmers' urgent push to find a new
niche has cast a cloud over Horizon's business model. Paul Stecker, a
Horizon milk producer from Cabot, Vt., believes his employer's impact on
the market may soon cause him to lose his farm. The 39-year-old dairyman
was one of The Organic Cow's first producers. Horizon will now pay him
$1.50 less for his milk when his contract comes up in April, Mr. Stecker says.
"That is not a sustainable price and it's a little insulting really," says Stecker,
who last year turned down a contract that would have paid him 50 cents more.

Still, Stecker was looking to leave Horizon regardless."The reason we went
into organic to begin with was because we didn't want to be a part of big
business," he says.

Some industry-watchers point to testimonies like Stecker's as evidence of
contradictory goals in the organic-dairy world: Horizon is ultimately
accountable to its shareholders, so must focus on net profit; agricultural
reformers prioritize sustainability, counting on sympathetic consumers to
bankroll their experiment.

Unless independent dairymen join large co-ops, they still require industrial
knowhow to pasteurize, process, and package their milk. To that end, Paul
Stecker calls Travis Forgues once a week in an effort to secure a spot with
Organic Valley. Stecker is just one of 20.

"Some people bang on my door, others call all the time," says Forgues.
"Organic farming shouldn't be about making money. It's about how many
farmers can we save."

Full article: http://www.csmonitor.com/2002/0211/p15s02-wmgn.html


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