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More on Organic Dairy Fight

Organic milk farmers at odds over regulation Some oppose stricter grazing rules for cattle
Philip Brasher Des Moines Register (September 15, 2005)

WASHINGTON < Contented cows lazing on rolling green hills. That is the idyllic image that many consumers have of the farms where organic milk is produced.

The reality is becoming something different. With consumer demand for organic food booming, organic farms are starting to look a lot like the megafarms that dominate the conventional dairy industry < collections of barns housing thousands of cows that spend most of their lives eating feed, not grass.

The trend < which is spreading more in western states than in New York sparked a battle among organic farmers, many of whom fear that their business is headed the way of conventional agriculture. The Bush administration is being asked to step in and settle the issue.

"Cows are ruminants, they are grazers, that is their natural behavior," said James Riddle, chairman of a board that advises the Agriculture Department on organic standards.

The board has proposed changing the Agriculture Department's organic rules and guidance to ensure that cattle are kept on pasture for a significant portion of the year. It won't be enough just to give cattle organic feed, which is grown without the use of synthetic pesticides.

Large-scale dairies and even some smaller-scale Midwestern farmers said the standards could be difficult to meet. Advocates of the rule changes said they will protect the industry's image and keep family farms in business.

"As a consumer, I want my organic milk to come from cows that are not confined," said Caron Osberg, an Urbandale, Iowa, woman who reviews organic and natural products on a Web site, "No compromise on that."

The topography of farms in western New York is conducive to grass-growing, so the movement toward inside feed has not yet become an issue here, said John Lincoln, a Bloomfield, Ontario County, dairy farmer who is president of the New York Farm Bureau.

"The land in western New York is more tillable," Lincoln said. "Grazing is more of an option for (dairy farmers)."

Sales of organic food have been growing about 20 percent a year and are expected to reach $15 billion this year, according to the Organic Trade Association. Dairy products account for 13 percent of the organic market.

"The demand for organic milk is growing," Lincoln said.

Yet while consumers might be yearning for more organic products, it is a long process to convert the farm to those standards, Lincoln said. It takes three years to rid the farm of insecticides and fertilizers, he said.

"You don't know the economics until you do it on your farm," Lincoln said.

The organic megafarms include operations in Idaho and California. A Colorado facility owned by Boulder-based Aurora Organic Dairy has more than 5,000

Consumers pay less for Aurora because it is sold under the private labels of supermarket chains, not under the Aurora name, said Clark Driftmier, Aurora's senior vice president of marketing.

Company officials said all their cattle have access to pasture. But they said the standards being pushed by the Agriculture Department board < that cattle get 30 percent of the rations from pasture for at least 120 days a year < would be hard to meet for farms of all sizes all over the nation.

Some smaller-scale producers have told the Agriculture Department they also are concerned about the proposed standards.

Gerald Klinkner, who produces milk from 45 cattle near La Crosse, Wis., feeds his cattle organic hay, silage and corn when they are not grazing. But he said he doesn't have enough pasture to meet the 30 percent standard that the advisory board wants.

"My cattle still have access to wonderful pasture, but it's not at that rate," he said.

But Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer near Fairfield, Iowa, who grazes his 65 cattle eight to nine months out of the year, said that confining cows to barns in conventional-style megafarms isn't the organic way.

"Some people have come from the mind-set of conventional agriculture, switched to organic agriculture and haven't switched their mind-set to an organic system," he said.

Includes reporting by staff writer Mary Chao.