Organic Broadcaster

Farmers, consumers must work together to restore economic justice to organic dairy

By Mark Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute

There’s a reason why the MOSES Conference happens every year in La Crosse. It’s literally at the crossroads of the organic community in the Upper Midwest. We all own the organic label.

Even if you are not milking cows, the integrity of organic dairy products should be important to you—not only as an organic consumer, but also because of the economic impact dairy has on the organic sector. After produce, dairy is the second-largest industry sector, and directly impacts many other workers and businesses.

When the first organic farming conference was planned, even before the nonprofit MOSES existed, organic dairy was front and center. It was growing rapidly, after initially commercializing in the mid-1980s. New farmers were just kicking the tires and needed help making the difficult transition shunning chemicals and most drugs.

Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) was a hot controversy, and the arrogance of the conventional dairy industry, siding with the agrichemical and drug giant rather than their consumers who had legitimate worries, fueled organic dairy’s growth.

At the first conference 30 years ago, we could all fit in one modest room in a circle of chairs, close enough to have a conversation. The MOSES Conference is now the largest event on organic agriculture in the country with participants from around the world.

The organic dairy industry has also grown expeditiously. But sadly, its option as a viable antidote to the rapacious agricultural industry, which has hemorrhaged family farmers off the land for decades, has gone off the rails.

In 2018, family-scale producers from California to Maine have seen their prices radically slashed, have been placed on quotas, and, depending on their debt load, may be operating at a significant loss. Even worse, some farmers are losing their markets, their contracts canceled without an alternative (organic or conventional) milk buyer, essentially signing a death warrant for these farms.

Some of the same companies canceling contracts are continuing to buy milk from “factory farms.” It is a lot easier and cheaper to buy from one giant dairy than dozens of independent farmers. At least one dairy plant in Wisconsin canceled a contract with a farmer-owned co-op and is now procuring its milk, by the semi load, from giant dairies in Texas.

When I started working in farm politics in the mid-1980s as organic dairy farming was commercializing, there were about 45,000 dairy farms in Wisconsin alone, averaging approximately 45 cows each. In 2018, Wisconsin has about 7,600 licensed dairies—and even nationally there aren’t 45,000 independent businesses producing milk.

Organic dairy was created as the “alternative” to former USDA Secretary Earl Butz’s directive to “get big or get out.” It was launched, in part, as an economic justice vehicle by farmers and supported by consumers who were willing to pay a price premium for food produced to a higher standard: careful environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and, yes, fair remuneration for the families who produce that food.

By the end of the 1980s, the hodgepodge of independent certification agencies, all with their own standards, was making it impossible to scale up organics in terms of interstate commerce and developing processed products with multiple ingredients.

Furthermore, it wasn’t even legally required to be third-party certified. In California, all growers had to do was not use banned agrichemicals the year they labeled their products “organic.” The next year they could nuke the ground with herbicides and load up on synthetic fertilizers, and the following year they could be in the organic business once again. Those of us practicing true organic agriculture, making long-term investments in soil fertility, weed control, and whole-farm management, quite frankly couldn’t compete.

When Congress debated passing The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the USDA actually testified against the measure. They didn’t want any part of regulating an alternative food system that would alienate powerful lobbyists and corporate agribusiness.

The USDA delayed implementation of regulations governing the industry and establishing the authority of the National Organic Program (NOP) for a full 12 years. Then, during the balance of George Bush’s tenure, they did everything they could to monkey-wrench the NOP.

Under President Obama, for the first time, they brought in management with experience in the organic industry. However, these were individuals allied with the industry’s powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association, and friendly with the largest corporate players.

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, credited with writing some of the Organic Foods Production Act as an aid for Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, was appointed as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture in 2009. Prior to her USDA appointment, she was a professor at Tufts and sent students to intern at Aurora Dairy during the height of public scrutiny on the giant industrial dairy’s abuse of organic standards. As Deputy Secretary, she appointed Miles McEvoy to run the NOP, and he immediately declared the “age of enforcement,” but never brought the hammer down, even when Freedom of Information documents obtained by Cornucopia indicated they found factory dairies cheating.

By then, almost all the major mass-market organic brands were controlled by “Big Food” and represented by the Organic Trade Association.

When The Cornucopia Institute was founded in 2004, there were two giant industrial dairies (a 4,400-cow operation and a split, 10,000-cow feedlot) competing with the many family farmers who had founded the organic dairy industry. These huge dairies’ lactating cows had zero access to pasture.

Although Cornucopia managed to create pressure, resulting in decertification of the larger operation, organic CAFOs have proliferated and are now estimated to produce half the nation’s organic milk supply, primarily from arid and southwestern states.

As the industry was growing aggressively, it was still able to bring on many additional family-scale farmers transitioning to organic management and, at the same time, absorb more milk from giant feedlot dairies. Now well over 20 operations milk upwards of 5,000—even 15,000—cows.

In recent years, family-scale organic dairy farmers have been hit by a tidal wave of surplus milk, radically driving down prices. Growth in retail organic dairy sales has rapidly slowed at a time when lots of new milk, principally from CAFOs, has come online. Contributing factors include a widening differential, as conventional milk pricing plummeted, and a shift in consumer preferences to plant-based “milk” alternatives. Cornucopia is currently working on a comparative analysis for consumers. Reportedly, most of the consumption in alternative not-milks is by shoppers who are not vegans, vegetarians, or lactose-intolerant but erroneously think that these products are more nutritious and healthy.

In terms of growth in organic dairy production, all cows are not created equal. Managing animals in a confinement environment and pumping them full of TMR (total mixed rations) before sending them out on token pasture means some herds have rolling production averages of, literally, twice as much milk as authentically managed organic cows.

Cornucopia staff, including myself as our point person on dairy issues, have visited many of these operations. (I definitely do not call them “farms.”) We have also spent thousands to pay for aerial photography to surveille these giant facilities. But we really didn’t have to do any of that. All we needed to do was look at the regulatory documents that are required in each state, including the manure/nutrient management plans for these dairies.

Any experienced dairyman or woman knows that the numbers just do not add up. How can you actually milk cows, many thousands of them in a single facility, in semi-arid or true desert conditions, moving them in and out of the milking parlor sometimes three or four times a day? Real dairy producers know that it’s challenging to rotate cows to a fresh paddock even twice a day.
When Cornucopia surveyed certified organic dairy producers throughout the nation, we found that they averaged approximately one acre of pasture per cow (that varied a little bit because some producers included young stock).

In contrast, regulatory documents show that some of the certified organic CAFOs have a stocking density of 10 cows per acre. In technical terms, at Cornucopia we call that a phenomenal “stretch.” But if you dig deeper into the documents, or interview some of the current or former employees of the dairies, you find that some of these operations are actually cutting hay off the same “pasture.” In technical terms, we call that a “joke.”

And what do these pastures look like? In many cases they are not based on well-established perennials, but rather annuals that burn up in the desert heat, giving these giant dairies a convenient excuse to replant, irrigate, and keep the cattle off. From a legal standpoint, we contend that they are not meeting the mandate to provide “access to pasture” if they have no pasture! And when USDA investigators confirmed our allegations, once again, McEvoy and the NOP let the giant dairies off the hook.

Take the case of Aurora Dairy, the largest organic milk producer in the country, with giant CAFOs in Texas and Colorado. After adjudicating a formal legal complaint by The Cornucopia Institute a decade ago, career civil servants at the USDA found that Aurora had “willfully” violated 14 tenets of the federal organic standards and recommended they be decertified. Instead, Bush administration political appointees let them continue to operate with some modest adjustments to their operations under a one-year probation.

This certified organic dairy is 1 of 6 in Texas that produce 1.4 times more milk than the 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin.     Photo by Cornucopia Institute

In 2017, we worked with The Washington Post on an investigative story that documented Aurora’s largest dairy, managing 22,000 animals, doing a token job, at best, of grazing. We filed another complaint. This time it was adjudicated by holdovers at the NOP from the Obama administration.

How did they handle it? They had dismissed other complaints we filed in 2015, after aerial surveillance documented no cows out on pasture on days quite suitable for grazing. In these cases, the NOP did nothing more than contact the certifiers, the inspectors paid large fees by the giant dairies, who assured USDA officials that they were “certified in good standing.” Case closed.

When it came to the Aurora complaint we filed last year, armed with the Washington Post evidence, they decided it warranted a direct inspection by USDA investigators. So they contacted Aurora executives, and their lawyers, and made an appointment to visit.

On hearing this, Francis Thicke, a longtime certified organic dairy farmer from Fairfield, Iowa, former Obama-era appointee to the NOSB and 2012 MOSES Organic Farmer of the Year, said, “Whoever heard of a law enforcement agency calling up a suspected meth lab and setting up a mutually convenient appointment to carry out a search?”

Saving the Organic Label
There are now effectively two “organic” labels: One covers the true meaning of organic environmental stewardship, humane animal husbandry, and economic justice for farmers; the other has morphed into nothing more than corporate greed and exploitation—abusing the trust and goodwill of consumers.

Nowhere is this truer than in the dairy sector. Organic family farms are being forced out of business, and there’s a 50-50 chance that consumers are buying milk that isn’t meeting their expectations of organic. Based on most recent USDA records, the six certified “organic” dairies in Texas produce 1.4 times more milk than the 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin!

How do you tell the two organic labels apart? They both bear the same USDA seal.

The new Cornucopia Organic Dairy Scorecard separates illegal factory farm production—that burns out cows, is hard on the environment, competitively disadvantages ethical farmers, and produces milk with substandard nutrients—from authentic organic milk.

Cornucopia has done the research, but, with about 10,000 members, has a limited ability to shift market share without all of us working together.

We need organic farmers, who are universally respected by consumers, to make your voices heard. We will shortly have some materials available that you can share on social media. Dairy producers should partner with dairy processors. Sample products at grocery stores in your region. And work with us to figure out clever and creative ways to reach the people with true economic clout.

Together, we can make a difference. We can’t trust corporate agribusiness, or their lobbyists, or the political appointees at the USDA to protect us from fraud. There is a higher power than the USDA or the federal courts for enforcing the law—the consumer dollar! We must educate our family, friends, and neighbors. Together we have the power to move the needle.

We have a secret weapon in organics: Millions of consumers passionately care and want the safest and most nutritious food for their families, real organic food, and they want farmers to be treated fairly and respectfully.

It is imperative that we all work together to educate our consumer allies so they can vote with their food dollars to support the true heroes in organics, farmers and the brands their ethical processing and marketing partners control.

We will be supplying some hands-on tools that dairy producers, and other organic farmers can use to take action. I hope you will visit with us at the Cornucopia booth at the MOSES Conference this coming February. In the meantime, visit our website,, and take advantage of materials to engage your friends, family, and customers. We need everyone in the organic community to stand today with organic dairy farmers who now have their livelihoods at risk. Please remember that the reputation of the organic label, something we all own together, is at risk as well.

Mark Kastel is a cofounder and Senior Farm Policy Analyst of Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group best known for acting as an organic industry watchdog

From the September |October 2018 Issue

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