Some Dairy Farmers Worry about 'Organic' Milk Labels
Even in the cold of winter, Roman Stoltzfoos sends his organic dairy cows tramping out to pasture after milking them.
That constant effort on his 200-acre Lancaster County farm is at the heart of a battle over the meaning of "organic" -- a term that can add $6 or $7 to the price of every hundred pounds of milk Stoltzfoos and other organic farmers sell.
At retail, organic milk can cost nearly twice as much -- $2.99 a half gallon recently at a supermarket in Roxborough, compared with $1.57 for ordinary milk.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that to be called "organic," milk must come from cows that have access to pasture. But it does not specify exactly how much of a cow's food must come from grazing, and how much can come from organic grains and other feed.
Stoltzfoos and other farmers are troubled by gigantic dairies out west that call their milk organic, even though they keep thousands of cows in open-air pens, feeding them organic hay and grain and letting them out to pasture only when they are not producing milk.
Stoltzfoos and others say consumers expect organic dairy products to come from cows that spend lots of time out in the pasture. If the cows are usually penned up, they worry, consumers could get turned off to the whole industry.
Marci Stern, who had a gallon of Natural by Nature organic milk in her cart last week at Essene Market & Cafe in Philadelphia, said she was surprised that pasture access would even be an issue. She just assumed it was essential, for any milk to be labeled organic.
The National Organic Standards Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on organic regulations, is expected to discuss the issue of pasture standards at a meeting that starts Monday in Washington.
Commercial success has heightened the tension. Organic food sales rose at an average annual rate of 19.5 percent between 1997 and 2003, according to the Organic Trade Association's most recent manufacturers' survey. Sales of organic dairy products increased by an average of 22.5 percent a year during that same period, to $1.4 billion.
Such rapid growth -- compared with less than 4 percent for the food industry as a whole -- is attracting ever more attention from large food companies with no organic legacy.
"There's real concern about the dilution of the organic mission," said Greg Bowman, online editor of Newfarm.org, a publication of the Rodale Institute in Kutztown.
Traditional advocates of organic food view the industry as a social movement tied to small operators with a passion for ecologically sensitive farming.
Others see organic food as simply a business opportunity created by consumer demand. An example of this approach is Campbell Soup Co.'s 2003 decision to sell organic tomato juice.
For Stoltzfoos, organic farming is not only ecologically sustainable, it has also made farming financially sustainable, thanks to the premium he receives for every hundred pounds of milk he sells.
Organic dairy farmers have been getting about $23 per hundred pounds -- about 12 gallons -- compared with about $16 for conventional milk.
In defense of Stoltzfoos and other small organic dairies, the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin advocate for family-scale farming, has filed complaints with the Agriculture Department against three large dairies in Colorado, Idaho and California, alleging violations of organic regulations.
The department, which has opened an investigation into at least one of them, a 5,600-head Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for Aurora said company officials were too busy preparing their comments for next week's meeting to be interviewed. The privately held company said in a statement last month that it "is fully committed to the organic mission."
Even among smaller organic dairy farmers who consider pasturing pivotal, there are differences in approach.
Last Thursday, Stoltzfoos' cows were gathered on a sloping meadow eating hay harvested last fall. Stoltzfoos practices a form of seasonal dairy farming, managing his herd of 100 cows so they reach their production peak in the spring when his pastures burst with food.
Stoltzfoos is tempted to stop milking when there is no fresh grass on his farm near Gap, because he believes cows' milk is more nutritious when most of their food comes from grazing.
But he keeps producing a small amount of milk -- about a fifth of peak production -- to maintain supplies through the winter. "We need milk in the winter just like we do in the summer," he said.
David Martin, president of the 20-member Lancaster Organic Farmers Cooperative to which Stoltzfoos also belongs, manages his own herd so that cows' peak production periods -- which come 60 to 90 days after they give birth -- are distributed evenly throughout the year.
And near Kirkwood, in southern Lancaster County, C. Arden Landis stops milking altogether during January and February. Landis keeps his cows on pasture all year, with the woods offering their only shelter.
Ned MacArthur, whose Natural Dairy Products Corp. buys milk from the Lancaster cooperative and sells it from Virginia to Massachusetts, sees trouble ahead for the industry if the term "organic" becomes diluted.
"The biggest danger I see in these big corporate dairies is the potential for the development of two different types of organic milk," he said: milk from cows whose diet is based on grazing, and milk from cows fed organic hay, grain and other feed.
"I think it will ultimately confuse consumers."
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News