Farmers Say Mega-Dairies Milk the Organic System Americans spend $2 billion per year on organic milk. For milk to be labeled organic, the USDA says that cows must be raised on pesticide-free feed, without hormones. As organic mega-dairies sprout up, small-dairy farmers say some so-called "organic" cows don't get enough meadow time.
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Farmers Say Mega-Dairies Milk the Organic System

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Farmers Say Mega-Dairies Milk the Organic System

Farmers Say Mega-Dairies Milk the Organic System

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The organic food business has grown from a health conscious movement to a multi-billion dollar industry. Americans now spend two billion dollars a year on organic milk alone. There are even organic mega-dairies with thousands of cows. The U.S.D.A. insists the cows be raised on feed without pesticides or hormones but does not say how much time they must spend out in pastures. Smaller dairy farmers complain some so-called organic cows don't get enough meadow time. NPR's Jeff Brady chews a bit on that one for us.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

The smaller movement farmers has an ideal when it comes to organic diary farming and Art Tickies(ph) 90-cow farm in Southeast Minnesota is it.

(Soundbite of chickens)

BRADY: Chickens are allowed to roam free to keep the bugs under control.

(Soundbite of cows)

BRADY: And the 90 cows that provide milk live on green pasture for all but the cold winter months. Tickie rotates the cows between pastures so they don't destroy the fields, and there's no manure lagoon here. The cows fertilize the grass as the amble along.

Mr. ART TICKIE (Farmer): For one thing, when they're eating out here in the pasture they're eating live grass. All the nutrition's in there. You know, when you cut your hay, from the minute you cut it, it's starting to deteriorate. I'm not saying that's bad feed, but I'm saying they're here, they're eating it live and it's really the way it's been designed for a cow to eat, you know.

BRADY: Tickie says he likes working this way. He doesn't have to buy expensive equipment and fuel to cut and haul hay.

Mr. TICKIE: I'd rather be working with cattle than with machinery and so I think everybody has to do what they think is best for them, you know, but I just like working with animals. I don't enjoy driving tractors too much.

BRADY: If this is the ideal, some organic movement farmers point to industrial scale farms as examples of all that is bad. For instance, a 4,000-cow dairy near Twin Falls, Idaho - it's owned by the largest organic milk company, Horizon. At that dairy cows get most of their food from a trough.

Mr. MARK KASTEL (Co-founder, Cornucopia Institute): These folks are gaming the system.

BRADY: Mark Kastel co-founded the Cornucopia Institute, which is an advocate for smaller organic farmers and a critic of many large dairies.

Mr. KASTEL: They are exploiting the trust that the organic label has earned in the eyes of the consumer, and they are exploiting the reputation that the family farmers who built this industry deserve.

BRADY: NPR asked to tour Horizon's Idaho dairy but the company refused. Jewel Taylor is the general manager for milk supply operations.

Ms. JEWEL TAYLOR (General Manager, Horizon Dairy): It was not set up for tours, for bio-security, for a number of things and safety of visitors. It is a working farm and a working dairy.

BRADY: Taylor says Horizon may offer tours after it remodels the dairy. It's planning to add more pasture. It may have to once the USDA releases new rules later this year. According to one proposal, cows would have access to pasture for at least a third of the year, and during that time, a third of a cow's feed would be grass.

Ms. TAYLOR: I'm very proud of the heritage of our Idaho farm. It was the, one of the very first organic dairies in the Western United States. It was developed more than 10 years ago, and as the regulations have evolved, we are evolving that dairy.

BRADY: Taylor says Horizon is doing good things for the environment. By successfully marketing organic milk, it's prompting farmers all over the country to convert to organic production, and at least half of Horizon's milk does come from small, family-run farms. But that's not good enough for the activist at the Organic Consumers Association. They've launched a boycott of Horizon.

(Soundbite of grocery store)

BRADY: Amy Wyatt is pushing a shopping cart back to the dairy section of the Boulder Co-Op Market where she's a manager. She stops, looks for Horizon products, and pulls them off the shelves.

Ms. AMY WYATT (Manager, Boulder Co-Op Market): I'm starting with some cheeses.

BRADY: A few other co-ops have joined the boycott. Some of the Horizon shelf space has been turned over to its main competitor, Organic Valley. But even that company's CEO, George Siemon, doesn't want to make Horizon out to be the enemy.

Mr. GEORGE SIEMON (CEO, Organic Valley): I don't think Horizon should be in the class of violators that deserves boycotting.

BRADY: Siemon says boycotts are for polluters or companies that violate human rights. There's one voice we haven't heard from yet in this story, the people who buy organic milk. What do they want? In the dairy section of a Denver Target store, the vast majority of people choose to buy conventional milk, but a few head for the small section of Horizon Organic offerings.

Ms. JENNY TALLMADGE(ph) (Consumer): I'm Jenny Tallmadge, and I live in Denver, Colorado.

BRADY: So you buy organic milk.


BRADY: Okay, why?

Ms. TALLMADGE: Just to stay away from the hormones and additives that they put in the milk, to keep it natural.

BRADY: Only a few of the people here even mention how the milk is produced, and none mentioned the pasture issue. A recent survey conducted for the USDA shows access to pasture is farther down the list of consumer concerns. Advocates for smaller-scale farms say that's because most organic milk buyers assume that all cows live on pasture. They say consumers should know that's not always true. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

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