cows in field

I am an organic dairy farmer and I want to tell my story

Liz Bawden, New York organic dairy farmer and President of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance

A consumer reads “Why Your Organic Milk May Not Be Organic” on the front page of their newspaper. That might be the end consumer for the milk from my farm. And that person is sitting in front of a bowl of cornflakes wondering if she has been scammed all this time. Just a little doubt that the organic seal may not mean what she thought it meant. That is real damage to my farm and family income. And I want to tell my story to that consumer; I want to tell her about our pastures, and soil fertility ideas, and how we know each cow by name, and how we source organic seeds, feed, and herbal remedies. Because she needs to know that there is value and integrity in the organic product we provide.
The large company that is the focus of the story, Aurora Dairy, and the State of Colorado were in hot water a decade ago when the USDA ruled that they were in “willful violation” of the organic standards, which require that cows have meaningful access to pasture. Organic farmers fought hard back then to develop a pasture policy that (we thought) would spell out the details that would bring every farm into line on the pasture issue and following the same standards. But the elephant in the room has always been that some farms were not brought into line. Mostly large farms in the West, in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, California; there were always aerial photos coming across the internet that showed these dry-lot dairies with nary a pasture visible. We left this with the USDA enforcement staff, assured that the “age of enforcement” had come with additional staff and an expanded budget.

This story will most certainly irritate Aurora Dairy and other similar operations, embarrass the USDA, and raise questions about high-level political pressures directed at the USDA enforcement. And it will certainly fan the flames of new lawsuits directed at these mega-dairies that refuse to pasture their cows, and those organizations that certify them.

But that consumer will still be asking me and my family if they can trust our integrity and that of over 2000 organic dairy farmers. To add further hurt our buyer has reduced what we get paid for our milk as those large dairies have flooded the market at low prices. Even without the USDA we would still follow the organic regulations because it’s the right way to farm. I can’t guarantee that the milk in your carton comes from a family farm that has values and not from one owned by a group of investors in Boston, but check the plant code on the top of the containers to make sure it’s not 08-29 (Aurora Dairy), choose name-brand over generic or store brand organic dairy products (as they have a reputation to preserve). And despite the faults, remember that the organic certification system is the best on the market.