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Factory Style Dairy Feedlots Violating Organic Pasture Requirement

From: Des Moines Register

Is it really organic?

Consumers who want to know about the production practices for organic milk
can't tell much from carton labels.

For milk to be certified organic, the U.S. Agriculture Department requires
dairy cattle to have access to pasture but doesn't specify how much time
they must spend grazing, or how much of their diet must come from grass
instead of feed. However, both the pasture and the feed must be certified

"Simply reading on the carton how the company describes itself is not
reliable," said Rich Wood of Food Animal Concerns Trust, an advocacy group.

As organic farms grow, USDA considers making them keep cattle in pastures



August 27, 2005

Washington, D.C. - Contented cows lazing on rolling green hills. That is the
idyllic image that many consumers have of the farms where organic milk is

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 now dominate the conventional dairy industry - collections of
barns housing thousands of cows that spend most of their lives eating feed,
not grass.

Organic milk produced by a new megafarm in Colorado sells for $3.19 per
half-gallon in the Washington, D.C., area, as much as $1.10 less than the
cost of some national brands. At Des Moines supermarkets, organic milk
typically ranges from $2.75 to $4.29 for a half-gallon.

The trend has 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 woman who reviews organic and
natural products on a Web site, . "No compromise on
Organic sales

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 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.

Driftmier told the advisory board earlier this month that the pasture
requirements would stifle the growth of organic agriculture.

He said it is important to convert as many conventional farms to organic
agriculture as possible.

"There are those who warn that organic is getting too big, too corporate,
too mainstream," he said. "I argue something different, that organic is
actually much, much too small."

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 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. For most of the year, his cattle eat about six
pounds of feed and 30 pounds of grass a day, well above the 30 percent

The trend toward larger farms is likely to reduce the prices paid to
farmers, said Andrew Novakovic, a dairy economist at Cornell University.
Organic farmers have traditionally earned about $20 per 100 pounds of milk,
$5 to $8 more than conventional milk earns.

Novakovic said he doesn't think retail prices for organic milk would drop
because consumers are willing to pay a higher price for the organic label.
"Retailers view this as an item that consumers choose for characteristics
other than price," he said. "They can put a higher price on it . . . and
consumers will pay it."

The Agriculture Department has not set a timetable for approving or
rejecting the proposals. Board members acknowledge that the 30-percent
standard is largely an arbitrary figure but defend it as reasonable.

"We feel that this is reflective of what the consumers want," said board
member George Siemon, chief executive of a Wisconsin-based cooperative that
produces Organic Valley milk.