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Shades of graze: Organic dairy producers are battling over pastures and standards (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

SULPHUR SPRINGS -- A year ago, Harry Lewis' 80-cow dairy farm joined the burgeoning organic food market after a long and costly transition process that ensured that his Jersey-Holstein crossbred cattle were free of antibiotics and growth hormones while their East Texas pastures were cleansed of chemical fertilizer.

Already, Lewis, his wife and their adult son are being paid 50 percent to 100 percent more for their herd's organic milk than for conventional milk. This improves the odds they can maintain the family farm that his grandfather secured 64 years ago through a New Deal program, which provided nine black families with at least 160 acres, a three-bedroom house, cows, hogs and a shared tractor and bull.

But all is not perfect in the world of sustainable agriculture. The lanky, 60-year-old Lewis finds himself in a battle that sharply contrasts with the wholesome, genteel image of organic food production.

Small farmers like Lewis, who rely heavily on grazing, are at odds with industrial-scale organic operations using dirt-floored feedlots, which produce more milk per cow on grain diets with less labor.

Right now, the organic boom keeps both sides busy. But family farmers are fearful of eventual overproduction, mirroring what has happened in conventional farming, with many small operators forced out.

Family farms have found a champion in the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin nonprofit watchdog group, which contended in March that two of the nation's biggest sellers of organic milk -- which have Texas ties -- may technically follow organic guidelines but have little of the picture-perfect green pastures seen on labels and ads.

Another group, the Organic Consumers Association, escalated the battle on April 4 by calling for a boycott of "bogus" organic milk brands, citing the Cornucopia report.

The issue is taking on urgency as an organic standards advisory board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold a symposium on toughening grazing rules Tuesday in State College, Pa., followed by a board meeting.

Harry Lewis makes clear which side he's on.

Rules of pasture

"Pasture is the golden rule," he said. His milking cows each get about 1.5 acres of grazing and are out almost every day of the year. He is aligned with Wisconsin-based Organic Valley, a co-operative of family farmers, which has a processing unit in Tyler.

"If you don't have pasture you don't have organic," Lewis said.

There is nothing illegal about large-scale organic dairy farms, or even confined feedlots. And nothing in federal organic guidelines now requires minimum grazing time, says Kathleen Merrigan, a Tufts University professor who helped draw up the organic standards.

The only grazing requirement is that the cattle have "access to pasture," which is open to interpretation, Merrigan said.

Organic dairy rules lagged those of row crops by about a decade. As a result, she said, they are far less detailed: "There hasn't been subsequent rule making on what 'access to pasture' means."

On Thursday, the USDA's organics standards board recommended that cows get more than 30 percent of its dry intake from grazing "on a daily basis during the growing season" -- or not less than 120 days a year.

But one certifying agent, who determines whether prospective organic farms comply with national standards, told the panel that even some small farmers might have trouble with toughened rules. At least half of those he contacted -- most with fewer than 50 dairy cows -- wouldn't be able to meet the proposed criteria, it said. Other farmers said that the condition of their animals, pasture quality and amount of rainfall would affect compliance with mandated grazing of 120 days.

A Utah State University study cited by Organic, Inc., a book on the industry released this month, found that milk from grass-fed cows has more nutritional value than milk from those given a diet of organic grain.

Aside from nutritional considerations, many consumers of organic milk are willing to pay more because they assume the cows are allowed to graze, contends Mark Kastel, author of the Cornucopia study.

Once bought by a tiny coterie of picky consumers, organic milk is now part of a $1.2 billion market for organic dairy products, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic milk represents just 3.5 percent of the total milk market but is growing 20 percent a year.

"Demand for organic milk has so swamped supply, companies are bidding up the price to farmers," said Samuel Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc. "It's a great position to be in."

Industry debate

For more than a decade, "the debate is whether the definition of organic milk should be tightened or that regulations relaxed so that even [pasture-less] feedlots stay in the business," Fromartz said. "What's changed is that you have a number of these large-scale organic farms, and the organic milk market is bigger. So the issue is coming to a head."

A major player, Horizon Organic (with reportedly 39 percent of the name-brand organic milk market), is owned by Dallas-based Dean Foods, the nation's largest dairy distributor, with $10 billion in annual sales. It owns such conventional local brands as Schepps Dairy and Oak Farms as well as Silk soy milk.

Cornucopia has singled out Dean in the debate.

"We are at war with Dean, and Dean's at war with us," says Kastel, Cornucopia's senior farm policy analyst.

Horizon denies Kastel's allegations.

"There are no confinement places," Horizon spokeswoman Kelly Shay said.

The company would not say how much grazing time its 4,000 cows get at its Paul, Idaho, dairy, but concedes it's less than 120 days. However, Horizon announced before Cornucopia's report was released that the herd would be split and more land is being acquired so it can "meet or beat" the 120-day "goal," company officials said.

Horizon has another operation, a 500-cow dairy in Maryland, and buys 80 percent of its organic milk from outside suppliers. Some are as small as Vermont farmer Barbara Carpenter's farm with 12 cows.

"Historically, organics have been a small niche market, and family farmers were allowed to grow and flourish in a small environment," said Jule Taylor, Horizon's procurement chief. "A lot of this [criticism] is out of fear of larger companies getting involved in organics and fear that they will compromise organic integrity. But it's an unfounded fear."

Kastel says that much of Horizon's outsourced milk originates at farms following "accepted legal and ethical standards." But about a third is also produced at operations with 800 or more head -- not, he says, typical family farms and, therefore, likely to have more confinement.

Cornucopia says about a fifth of 68 name-brand and private-label organic dairy items are produced by operations not following widely accepted organic principles. "Even those with packages showing cows idyllically grazing on grass-covered pastures ... the milk may well come from dairies that confine their cattle to dirt feedlots and small sheds," Kastel said.

Hubert Karreman, 43, a dairy veterinarian whose clients include small organic dairies in Pennsylvania's Amish country, insists that even large farms can give adequate pasture time.

"The debate has become red hot in the organic dairy industry right now," Karreman said. "These activist groups are judge, jury and executioner."

Cornucopia also points a finger at Aurora Organic Dairy of Colorado, which was formed by Horizon's founders. It sells only store-brand dairy products to several major national chains. Aurora has two large dairies, including a 3,400-head operation on what was once singing cowboy-actor Gene Autry's ranch in Dublin, 90 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

Complicated issue

Horizon and Aurora say the issue is more complicated. Aurora also questions the methodology of Cornucopia's study, alleging that the results were skewed to put farmers allied with the institute in the best light. Both companies say the group ignores or misrepresents improvements being phased in at their operations.

Cornucopia's study is "political garbage," said Clark Driftmier, an Aurora vice president. And he has words for critics within the industry. Small-scale New England farmers, he said, "want all organic farms to look like a Currier & Ives print. They don't tell you that their animals are locked in a cold, clammy barn for the winter, or what their incidence of pneumonia or scour [diarrhea] is."

Moreover, he sees something sinister behind the debate. "There is a group trying to artificially restrict growth for market-distorting purposes and for their own economic advantage," he charged.

Still, both Aurora and Horizon say they'd prefer giving their herds more grazing time.

"We are on public record in support of bringing more clarity to pasture regulations -- clarity where there is now ambiguity," said Taylor of Horizon's. "Our suppliers coast to coast have different conditions. But there's consensus in the industry that 120 days is achievable regardless of region. Some would actually be above that."

At Aurora's farm in Plattville, Colo., fewer than half the 3,900 milking cows pasture every day, Driftmier said. At its Texas farm, "some but not all" of the 3,400 lactating cows graze every day. The newest farm, in Kersey, Colo., will let all 3,200 cows to graze "essentially every day when the weather is nice." Designed to meet anticipated rule changes, Kersey "is our template for how our large-scale organic dairy farming would be going forward," he said.

Driftmier says he'd like farmers to work together to "convert a significant percentage of U.S. agriculture to sustainable methods."

But with large corporations taking market share from family farms in other organic fields, such overtures might not be readily accepted. As early as 1993, Aurora President Mark Retzloff described mandated pasturing as a hardship on organic dairy producers, according to Fromartz's Organic, Inc.

Merrigan of Tufts says the internal sniping and backbiting will only hurt the industry's own public image.

"Many are waging a war about the structure of organic agriculture -- that 'little' is good and 'big' is bad -- commingled in a way that's confusing to the public about what the standards are," Merrigan said. "My argument to the organic industry, whether on the Cornucopia side or the Horizon side or in between, is that we still are a very stark alternative to conventional products," she said.