By Doug Graves
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Organic dairy farmers are again urging the USDA to clarify its rule for transitioning livestock under the National Organic Program, thus eliminating a loophole they say puts smaller producers at a severe economic disadvantage.
Regulators first issued the “Origin of Livestock” rule in 2015, allowing dairies to transition cows from conventional to organic over a 12-month period, when the animals are raised using only organic farming practices such as eating 100 percent organic feed and managed without antibiotics or added growth hormones.
“That transition was supposed to be a one-time event,” said Kate Mendenhall, director of the national Organic Farmers Association, “but some dairies have a different interpretation of the rule. Rather than raising calves as organic from birth, dairies might use cheaper conventional farming practices during their first year before re-transitioning livestock in the second year.”
The result, Mendenhall said, is cows are essentially cycled in and out of organic production, creating an uneven playing field for the rest of the industry.
“We’re asking for clarity within the rules to make it a one-time transition,” Mendenhall said. “Most farms have been held to the standard that they can do it once and it’s done. They simply cannot leave organic production and come back.”
Congress gave the USDA 180 days to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, thought the agency missed its deadline of June 17. In response, 70 organic farming groups (including the Organic Farmers Association) endorsed a letter that asked lawmakers to step up the pressure.
The group wrote: “Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economics facing organic dairy farmers, as well as jeopardize consumers’ trust in the organic label.”
Oregon Tilth, an organization based in Corvallis that certifies organic farms and ranches in 49 states, also signed the letter. Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director, said he is frustrated with the USDA for dragging its feet in finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.
“The government is just not keeping pace with what the industry wants,” Schreiner said. “Here in the Northwest, organic dairy has provided an opportunity for family-scale dairy farms to stay economically viable. This will help level the playing field, and will help organic dairies everywhere.”
“By allowing dairies to inappropriately use the organic transition multiple times, they can grow their herd much more rapidly and at a much lower cost,” Mendenhall said. “One estimate shows it costs dairies $623 less per animal to raise calves conventionally for one year.”
As a few herds continue to grow larger, Mendenhall said farms have flooded the market with organic milk, causing prices to drop. Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative, paid out an average price of $35.68 per hundred pounds of organic milk in 2016. That fell to $30.10 in 2017, and $29.52 in 2018.
Organic milk makes up five percent of all milk produced in the U.S., according to a 2016 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
California leads the country in the number of certified organic dairy cows with 50,136. Wisconsin, Texas and New York follow California.
According to the USDA, there are 65 organic dairy farms in Tennessee, 61 in Kentucky and 59 in Michigan. Other states within the Farm World readership area with organic dairy farms include Indiana (33), Illinois (20), Ohio (19) and Iowa (2).
“Organic dairy farmers have especially suffered, in part because this rule has allowed inequity to happen,” Mendenhall said. “I know a lot of organic dairy farms that have gone out of business across the country.”