Panel Seeks to Put Organic Loophole Out to Pasture

Henry Perkins, an organic dairy farmer from Maine, brought a sign to Washington that read "Let Them Eat Grass."

WASHINGTON — Henry Perkins, an organic dairy farmer from Maine, brought a sign to Washington that read "Let Them Eat Grass." On Wednesday, after two days of debate, a federal advisory panel on the organic industry took Perkins' message to heart.

The advisory panel recommended that the U.S. Department of Agriculture tighten existing rules that require organic livestock to be raised and fed on open pasture, rather than in confined pens.

While the recommendation applies to all organic livestock, from chickens to pigs, it would most directly affect the organic dairy business, which is dominated by small and midsize farmers who feared that the growth of industrial-sized organic dairies could turn off consumers and threaten their livelihood.

Under existing rules, organic livestock are required to have "access to pasture" except under certain circumstances, including when they are ill or in a "stage of production" such as birthing and the first six months of life. But some large-scale dairy operations had kept their milking cows in outdoor pens, saying that the "stage of production" exemption also included lactating cows.

The advisory committee on Wednesday voted to close the loophole, ruling that milking cows were not exempt from the pasture requirement.

Furthermore, the advisory committee plans to post new guidelines for farmers to determine how many acres of pasture are required for each cow, based on federal standards for grazing. Farmers in areas with plenty of rainfall, such as Wisconsin, would be allowed more cows per acre than those in drier areas like Colorado, simply because there is more grass to eat.

Under the recommended rules, organic dairy cows would be required to graze on pasture at least 120 days a year. George Siemon, chief executive officer of Organic Valley, an organic dairy cooperative composed mainly of small and midsize farms, said large organic dairies will have to change.

"Whether they'll pasture to the satisfaction of the farmers [who testified at the hearing], probably not," said Siemon, a member of the advisory panel.

The rules must be approved by the USDA and would not take effect for several years, he said.

One of the companies that would be most directly affected by the recommendations is Aurora Organic Dairy, which operates a 5,300-cow dairy in Colorado and is planning to open a second later this year in Texas.

Clark Driftmier, Aurora's senior vice president of marketing, said his company had not yet seen the recommendations. But he said Aurora would comply with whatever standards were adopted.

Several dozen farmers traveled to Washington to testify before the committee, where they extolled the virtues of pasture and argued that consumers expected organic milk to come from cows that spend their days lolling in open pastures.

"Grass is the be-all and end-all of the cow," said Jack Lazor, a Vermont organic dairy farmer. "Cows have the ability to pollute the Earth or heal the Earth. If your animals are in a feed lot ... it's not a healthy situation, and you're not making the Earth a better place."

Mark Kastel, director of the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy think tank, urged the committee to adopt strict rules to stop large-scale "factory farms" from abusing the system.

"We cannot allow corporate profiteering to besmirch the good name of organic," said Kastel, whose formal complaint against several large-scale dairies prompted the advisory panel's review of the pasture rules.

The debate over pasture had prompted broader questions among industry leaders about the mission of the organic industry. Siemon, for one, argued that a cornerstone of the organic trade is saving small family farms.

But others, including Aurora's chief organic officer, Mark Retzloff, believe that converting as many acres of farmland to organic is more important. To feed Aurora's cows in Colorado, for instance, 50,000 acres of crops were converted to organic. They also argue that large dairies are bringing down the price of organic milk and making it available to more consumers.

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