The living conditions of the American organic dairy cow attracted more ink and java script in 2006 than ever before. These pampered packs even made the cover of Business Week magazine. Accusers said the organic dairy industry was resorting to factory farming methods to meet the cost-trimming demands of the conventional marketplace.
For this Colorado-based food journalist, the arguments focused on two Colorado companies in my proverbial backyard: private-label supplier Aurora Organic Dairy and Horizon Organic Dairy. My proximity allowed me to visit all manner and size of farms, both organic and conventional. In truth, the issues surrounding these black and white bovines are far from, well, black and white.
No matter which farm I saw, none met my preconceived notion. Gone were the big red barns. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cows have planned grazing times, the equivalent of bovine recess. They live under metal sheds and are milked in centralized milking parlors. The cheery farmer in overalls is now the hired help and glass milk bottles have been swapped for supermarket plastic jugs.
It might be disappointing, but it's not a sign that the organic industry is being undermined, as has been alluded to. It's more about perspective, scale, competition and a shifting consumer base.
Are big organic farms putting the price squeeze on small dairies? If one uses the conventional market as predictor, the worry is warranted. Since 1993, the number of small conventional dairy farms declined dramatically by 60 percent. In the same time though, organic cow populations increased almost ten-fold and milk prices paid to farmers increased by 28 percent (8 percent for conventional).
The exact number of organic farms is vague, but about 80 percent of organic milk is produced on small family farms. More than 1,000 small farms are under the Horizon Organic and Organic Valley's respective company umbrellas, and both are only too happy to sign on more farmers to meet a 20 percent supply shortage and 20 percent growth predictions. Does this sound like corporate greed is pushing out the small farmer?
Four farms owned by Horizon and Aurora are certainly big, with herd sizes exceeding 3,000 cows-a scale the organic dairy industry has never witnessed-though conventional dairies may house 10,000 cows, so scale is relative. Step back and you'll see these farms represent a trend that has the citadels of both dairy sectors worried, namely competition from historically non-dairy producing states. Until recently, dairies in Wisconsin, New York, Minnesota and Pennsylvania produced about half of all conventional and organic milk.
Now, western states including Idaho, Texas, Colorado and California, where the vilified dairies are located, are gaining noticeable market share in all dairy sectors. Why? Population growth, westerners like organic milk, and the region has ample land and sunshine, which mean more profit and less disease (both vital for affordable organic production).
The drawback is less rainfall (or recently, too much snow), so grazing is limited, especially when compared to grass-rich Eastern dairies. This is where one Aurora farm in Platteville, Colorado got into trouble. From a hillside vantage point, one can see the cows have some room to roam in their sandy exercise pens, but the overall impression is austere. Company executives say drought and encroaching development cut off any means to add more pasture. Accordingly, Aurora is adding pasture and cutting herd size by 75 percent. In addition, Horizon and Aurora's other farms are adopting highly sustainable and novel concepts of small farms within larger farm complexes. None of these facts made the headlines.
Veterinarians say the rules need to allow variances because of regional weather patterns, but none is more or less organic than the other. For instance, if you knew that small dairy farmers often confine cows to stalls in harsh winter months or that the EU organic standards allow limited antibiotic use, would you think any less of these founding farmers of organic certification?
Complete resignation to corporate interests isn't advisable and diligence is needed to maintain high organic standards.
The biggest disappointment is that an industry known for open dialogue has lost some of its civility. The past year has given the impression that the greenest of Americans should be renamed the meanest of Americans. Even this journalist was grimly warned that my reputation might be damaged if I moderated a forum sponsored by Horizon (I ignored the warning).
The constituents of the organic industry are changing, which inevitably leads to tension.
Even the consumers are less definable. Early organic shoppers were on a mission-not just a shopping trip; today's consumers are driven by other values of convenience and budget.
While this may be hard to accept, without small and large organic farms, supply will consistently fall short of demand. Consumers will tire of empty organic dairy cases and return to more available conventional products. And given all the sniping, conventional farmers considering transitioning to organic will close the barn door to change. No more happy cows, no more organic valleys, not even private labels brands-now that would be bad news.
Kimberly Lord Stewart is author of the upcoming book, 'Eating Between the Lines, a supermarket shopper's guide to the truth behind food labels' (St. Martin's Griffin, Feb. 2007) and the former executive editor of Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine.