cows in field

From the NODPA Desk July/August 2021

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

NODPA Field Days and Annual Meeting are in Maine on September 30th and October 1st this year. We are hoping as many producers as possible can make it and also attend the producer-only meeting on that Friday morning. We have some ideas about the future of NODPA and also where we go from here for future advocacy on pay price, regulations and policy. The demand for organic milk has changed in the last four years and is settling into a similar pattern as conventional milk, which benefits large scale, low cost production.

Small to mid-size organic operations, which make up the majority of organic dairy farms, do not have the protection of the Federal Milk Marketing Order (FMMO) or government subsidies that reflect the increased cost of production over conventional milk. While still being part of the FMMO, organic producers only have the protections and pay-price transparency tied to the conventional market. The main objectives of FMMOs are to (1) promote orderly marketing conditions in fluid milk markets, (2) improve the income situation of dairy farmers, (3) supervise the terms of trade in milk markets in such a manner as to achieve more equality of bargaining between milk producers and milk processors, and (4) assure consumers of adequate supplies of good quality milk at reasonable prices. We do not have that within the supply monopsony of the organic milk market. The effects of the lack of choice in marketing of milk, the lack of negotiating power and leverage, and the arbitrary nature of fixing pay price has been firmly established by milk buyers in the last five years. Every new attempt to market organic milk at scale has hit against the wall of the consolidation of organic dairy. Is the fate of small to mid-size organic dairy operations to rest on payments for their environmental benefits, for the economic contribution to the rural economy or their retention of working farmland? These are all questions that need to frame our future policy and advocacy role.

Consistent enforcement of organic regulation is the single biggest tool that producers have to maintain their businesses, which requires commitment from the National Organic Program (NOP) and all certifiers. No favor for any reason; be it a reason with good intent or one to benefit the producer and certifier financially. Too many times I have heard certifiers or inspectors say we turned a blind eye to infringements of regulations because we support producers. NODPA submitted its comments on the Origin of Livestock (OOL) Proposed Rule along with many other organizations who supported positions that can be enforced by regulation. In going through the process of writing comments and working with as many different organizations as possible to coordinate a coherent position on future regulation, it is ironic that there is no economic reason for small to mid-size dairies to transition from conventional to organic production. The intent of the exemption is, and has been to allow conventional dairies the ability to transition to organic production without losing valuable genetics and herd based health immunities as you transition the land necessary to maintain the herd. If you are transitioning and can find a buyer at this time, the operation would need to budget for loses as pay price is below the cost of production.

There are also those that support being able to sell transitioned animals as organic for dairy. This is a position that totally undermines organic integrity. If that is allowed there will be no need for regulation or enforcement as this will open up a massive loophole that will allow large dairies to expand their milking cow numbers almost at will in response to increased demand for supply. It may benefit some producers who can obtain a better price for their dairy replacement; will undoubtedly be cheaper for the organic operations that buy transitioned animals; easier for certifiers to verify herd record keeping; guarantees a low pay price for processors and saves the NOP time, money and personnel to educate producers and certifiers about the requirements of the regulation.

Given that the OOL has been interpreted in many different ways since the start of the NOP twenty years ago, it is incumbent on the NOP and certifiers to immediately enforce that a transitioned animal now being documented as unable to be sold for organic meat add that they cannot be sold for organic dairy production. This will send a clear message to existing organic producers, those that might want to transition to organic dairy, and to organic consumers, that NOP and the organic industry want to maintain organic integrity rather than just increase organic sales and more profits for organic processors and retailers. Hopefully, it will send the same message to milk buyers and processors: that they cannot bend the regulations to suit market demand.

The new administration has initiated many requests for comments and input on a whole host of issues with the promise of money to support their implementation. We all know that there is a massive difference between the promise of money and the actuality of receiving it in Washington DC. But, it would be irresponsible not to take the opportunity to present the organic alternative to Big Ag and consolidated organic businesses. NODPA does this through their membership and active participation in organizations whose mission is to take the organic principles to Congress. Working within the National Organic Coalition, the newly formed Organic Farmers Association and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition we can give organic dairy producers a louder voice in the policy and regulatory arena. Not as loud and well-funded as the Organic Trade Association but still able to promote innovative, fair and equitable policies that promote organic integrity with strong, enforceable, and continuously improved standards based on the intent of the Organic Foods Production Act, not just on increased dollar sales of organic product.

Last year, one of the very many things that we missed was the opportunity to get together with good company, good food, some learning and plenty of socializing. Hoping to see as many of you as possible at the 21st Annual NODPA Field Days in Maine at the end of September.