U.S. prices of wholesale organic milk have dropped significantly — in some cases by more than 30 percent — in the last year. While this might seem like welcome news for consumers looking for a price break on this premium milk, it comes at a cost to small farmers — some of whom are selling organic grass fed milk at non-organic prices or, worse, being forced to dump it.1
Small farmers risk being forced out of business in this market, even as the organic dairy industry has grown in size. The problem is that as larger industrialized farms have entered the organic market, it’s increasingly pushed the small players by the wayside. The Washington Post reported a glaring reason why: The number of organic cows rose by 13 percent from 2008 to 2015, but the amount of organic milk products produced rose by 35 percent.2
The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) attributed some of the increase to “better practices,” but others, including an investigation by The Washington Post, suggest skimping on organic practices may be a better description.3 Even NODPA noted the reason behind the large jump is “the increase in those mostly larger herds where the cows are fed in the barn instead of going out to pasture as the organic regulations require.”4
Large Organic Dairies Skimping on Grazing Time
Cows produce more milk, faster, when they’re fed grain in the barn, as opposed to grazing on grass on pasture. Industrialized organic dairies are capitalizing on this by skimping on grazing time, raising thousands of cows in veritable CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), yet still gaining the USDA organic label that suggests otherwise.
When the Post visited Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, the company that provides organic store brands to corporations like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco, a few problems were evident right off the bat. For starters, the farm is massive, housing 15,000 cows, “making it more than 100 times the size of a typical organic herd,” the Post noted. Further, organic standards require that cows have free access to certified organic pasture for the entire grazing season, but there are large loopholes in the requirement.
The Post investigation revealed that Aurora Organic Dairy appears to be stretching the limits of the rule, noting that “signs of grazing were sparse, at best” and “at no point was any more than 10 percent of the herd out.”5
The Post even had samples of Aurora’s organic milk tested for “a key indicator of grass-feeding” (its fatty acid profile), which revealed the milk matched conventional, not organic milk. When raised correctly, organic milk contains about 25 percent less omega-6 fats and 62 percent more omega-3 fats than conventional milk, along with more vitamin E, beta-carotene and beneficial conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).6
Organic Violators Allowed to Keep Operating
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not doing nearly enough to protect the integrity of its organic label. Farmers hire their own inspection agencies to comply with USDA rules, and even when violations are found, they typically amount to only a slap on the wrist in terms of punishment.
In 2007, for instance, while the USDA sanctioned Aurora Organic Dairy for willfully violating organic standards, the farm was allowed to continue operating after a settlement was reached. Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute told the Post:7
“The USDA has shown a remarkable lack of interest in whether these big organic dairies are really organic … Most times, they don’t even investigate. And when they find a problem, there’s very little punishment, if any. It’s a gross betrayal of the spirit of the organic law.”
The latest Post investigation did prompt some of Aurora’s wholesale customers to look into their practices but so far none, including Wal-Mart and Costco, have decided to change suppliers. Meanwhile, small farmers who allow their herds to graze the right way are unable to compete with the industrialized organic farms that are cutting corners, yet both get rewarded with the same USDA organic label.
Organic Amish farmer James Swantz told the Post, “We know with that high concentration of cows that it’s impossible to meet the grazing rule … They’re not organic. No way.”8
The Cornucopia Institute has engaged with two law firms that are investigating Aurora’s role in creating a glut of organic milk that has driven prices down and pushed many small farmers out of the business. Kastel told Sustainable Food News the law firms are investigating “the gross amount of milk [Aurora Organic Dairy] creates and … the marketplace pressure their customers place on the balance of participants in the industry.” He continued:9
"We are in the exploratory stage right now … It appears that there is a good legal basis to pursue this and we are attempting to develop a plaintiff pool. We just need to have solid and creditable plaintiffs with standing. We have already had a number of farmers who have expressed a willingness to pursue this legal action prior to our outreach …"