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Organic is Saving Family-Sized Dairy Farms

Time Magazine

July 14, 2003

A New Cash Cow;
Organic dairy farming used to be about saving the earth. Now it's about saving the family business--one farm at a time

BY: Maryanne Murray Buechner/North Troy, Vermont

Rick Letourneau lost so much money as a conventional dairy farmer that he had to sell all his cattle and burn furniture to heat his house. Today, though, he proudly shows off his three dozen lowing, impatient cows as they wait their turn to give it up to a mechanical milker. He nods toward the new mudroom and double-hung windows and pale yellow siding on his home and talks about building two more winter shelters for the livestock. And he plans to keep improving his 85-acre spread near North Troy, Vt., with financing from his local bank. "The vice president told me that if I wasn't organic," Letourneau says, "we wouldn't be talking."

Organic farming used to be about saving the planet; now it's about saving the family farm. To be certified organic, a dairy farmer can't treat his cows with antibiotics or hormones and he must feed them grain and hay grown without herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. By meeting these tests, Letourneau gets $ 22 for every 100 lbs. of milk--about twice the price of conventional milk. That adds up to about $ 120,000 a year, which he supplements with $ 70,000 in contract work--spreading manure, baling hay--for nine other farms, allowing him to net $ 25,000 last year. While conventional-milk prices fluctuate wildly, the price of organic milk has held steady. The premium has been so steep for the past few years that more and more farmers, even some who once dismissed organic farming as a bunch of New Age nonsense, are changing their tune.

"Going organic used to be about philosophy," says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, an organic-yogurt maker based in Londonderry, N.H. "Now it's about the cash. It's about survival."

Family farmers, whose herds average around 100 cows, suffer the most when conventional-milk prices are low; they lack the economies of scale of the large factory-style producers. But organic farming levels the playing field, because certain land-use requirements can be more difficult--or even logistically impossible--for larger farms to meet.

Vermont had 2,000 dairy farms in 1990; today there are 1,400. Over the same period, the number of organic farms jumped from three to 60. Fifteen more are expected to be certified by the end of this year, and a similar number in each of the next two years. Nationally, the number of organic dairy cows has jumped from about 13,000 in 1997 to nearly 49,000 in 2001 (the latest year for which figures are available).

Driving this trend is consumer demand. Retail sales of organic dairy products are growing about 20% a year, even though a gallon of organic milk typically costs more than twice as much as regular milk. Its fans believe that organic milk is healthier because it comes from cows that aren't treated with antibiotics (which some researchers warn can be passed on in the milk and can increase the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria) and synthetic growth hormones (which are believed to accelerate development in children). Studies are not conclusive, and nonorganic milk producers insist that their products are safe. But consumers surveyed by the Hartman Group, a market-research firm, cite anecdotal evidence--a neighbor complaining about her milk-chugging 9-year-old daughter's developing breasts--to explain their preferences. And early puberty has been associated with an increase in a number of hormone-related cancers, such as breast cancer. The second most oft-cited reason consumers buy organic milk: its taste.

For a dairy farmer, the switch to organic can be difficult and expensive. Without synthetic growth hormones, cows produce less milk. Without antibiotics, some infections are tougher to treat. Organic grain costs twice as much as the regular kind, because managing crops without chemicals is more labor-intensive, and organic farmers must have more pastureland to support daily grazing. "We're not living high off the hog," says Lyle Edwards, a dairy farmer in Westfield, Vt., who has been certified organic since last summer. The advantage, he says, is that the higher price of organic milk allows him to earn more while producing less: "It's like getting off a treadmill."

Letourneau took the biggest hit in 2000, during the 90-day transition period then required by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont. His cows had to eat the pricier organic food while their milk still fetched conventional prices. If he made the switch today, federal regulations that took effect last fall would require him to phase in the organic feed over a full year before he was certified.

Letourneau had already been growing his hay without chemical fertilizers or sprays, so his land qualified immediately. Otherwise he would have faced a three-year transition. Ken Preston, a conventional dairy farmer in Randolph Center, Vt., who does use chemicals to grow hay and corn for his herd, believes he would go bankrupt before he ever made his first organic sale. "I've been really tempted to go organic, but I'd have to change my entire method of farming--and have the expense for three years before I could ship my milk at the higher price," he says. "At my profit margin, it would put me out of business."

Although he never used hormones (only about 15% of conventional dairy farmers do), Letourneau did rely on some antibiotics to prevent mastitis (yes, breast-feeding moms, cows can get it too), so he had to find new ways of managing udder health. He's glad he did; he's convinced that his herd is stronger for it. Before the switch, he was spending about $ 200 a month on barn calls from the vet and had to retire about 20% of his milkers every year--more meat than his freezer could hold. These days, his cull rate is down to about 7%--for conventional dairy farms, the average cull rate runs about 33%--and the vet hasn't paid a visit in three years.

"It's because they drive their cows so hard," Edwards explains. He fishes around his barn's medicine cabinet, pulling out vitamin pills and aspirins the size of a man's thumb. There's a "microbial supplement," to help digestion, and Uddermint, a cream made with peppermint oil for soothing sore teats. At his feet is a jug of aloe-vera juice, which he'll shoot down a cow's throat to help relieve stress. That morning he whipped up a brew of rice water, garlic, salt and beef bouillon to treat a calf with diarrhea. To go organic, he says, "you have to be open-minded. Fear is what holds a lot of people back. Fear of change."

Those who take the leap usually say they're glad they did, according to Jack Lazor, an organic farmer in Vermont since 1976, who has helped dozens of others get their start. "They try it for the money, and then six months later, they say they'd never do it any other way."

Letourneau counts himself among the converts. He studies his cows as they munch on the lush green pasture, a native mix of clover, timothy, orchard and bromegrass. He's talking about cutting back on his contract work; he wants to concentrate on his own farm and not work so hard. With all the healthy young stock he has got, he expects to be milking about 70 cows (up from 36) by this time next year. "I want to be able to retire in nine years," he says. That would certainly take some of the load off his arthritic knees. For now, though, there's haying to do.

New organic farmers "try it for the money, and then six months later, they say they'd never do it any other way."

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