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Debate: Can a Factory Farm Dairy Really Be "Organic"

Wisconsin State Journal
How now organic cow?
1/23/05

A horse is a horse, of course, of course. But a cow is a horse of a
different color, at least when it's an organic cow.

A dispute over what is, and what is not, an organic cow is the latest
disagreement to divide American farmers over the question: How should we
define "organic food?" A solution will require organic agriculture
supporters to stop thinking of organic farming as a weapon in a war between
small farms and big farms and start thinking of organic farming as a
business that can change agriculture for the benefit of all.

The fuss over organic cows came to a head this month when the Cornucopia
Institute, an organic farming and family farm advocacy organization based in
Wisconsin, filed a complaint with the U.S. Agriculture Department over how a
Colorado dairy farm is raising "organic" cows. The Agriculture Department
has agreed to investigate and to clarify federal standards governing organic
dairy farms.

Wisconsin has a big stake in the outcome. The state is home to more dairy
farms than any other state and is home to the nation's largest organic
producers' cooperative, Organic Valley of La Farge. While "organic" food
accounts for a small percentage of total food sales perhaps $15 billion out
of $550 billion a year it is a fast-growing category, with gains of 17
percent to 20 percent per year compared to a total food sales growth of just
2 percent to 3 percent.

Consumers also have a big stake in what happens. The "organic" label on food
does not mean that food is any safer or more healthful. But it can aid food
selection for consumers who believe organic food tastes better or suits a
social or political agenda.

The question "what now, organic cow?" involves two competing ideas of what
organic agriculture should be. One idea, underlying the Cornucopia
Institute's complaint, is that organic agriculture ought to be the bailiwick
of small, family farms the niche that saves them from the onslaught of
factory farming. The other idea, represented by the Colorado farm, is that
organic farming can revolutionize agriculture if it applies to farms of all
sizes.

The Colorado farm, Aurora Dairy, is a 5,000-cow operation. The Cornucopia
Institute calls it a factory farm, unworthy of "organic" designation. But
unlike typical factory farms that raise cows in confinement under a roof,
Aurora Dairy's cows are housed outside in pens. They are fed organic grain
and do not receive growth hormones or antibiotics. There is no denying that
the farm is an organic operation up to a point. That point is a federal
standard that requires "access to pasture." Aurora Dairy provides pasture
for only a limited number of cows because the area is too arid to produce
enough good pasture.

Deciding whether Aurora's operation meets the "organic" standard will not be
easy. Organic farming is a fuzzy concept to begin with. It was defined in
1995 by the National Organic Standards Board in four paragraphs that refer
to biodiversity, ecological balance and harmony but offer little to
distinguish a pastured cow from a cow without pasture. Moreover, if the
Agriculture Department determines that pasture is essential to organic
dairying, it will deny arid areas the benefit of organic dairy farms.

Whether Aurora Dairy gives its cows "access" to pasture under the rules will
be a technical decision. But the Agriculture Department's clarification of
organic rules should send a larger message: Organic standards should be
about how cows are fed and cared for, not about how big the farm is.

Organic agriculture offers a niche to which small farms are especially
suited. But it will have a wider impact if it is open to farms of all sizes.