cows in field

From the NODPA Desk, November/December, 2019

By Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

This year’s NODPA Field Days was very successful and well attended, and there is an excellent article in this issue which gives a great report that captures all the details. What is difficult to capture is the sense of community and respect for each and every participant no matter their personal beliefs and culture. While the organic milk market is very definitely a commodity increasingly controlled by international conglomerates, the organic dairy community is still one of respect and appreciation for each other.

Although it was very clear that producers are still feeling the pain of the unprecedented large drop in pay price, many are now looking for the way forward and how to diversify into different profit centers. Each family’s solution is slightly different but there was much sharing of lessons learned in how to survive with a pay price that is lower, in many cases, than the costs of production with no immediate expectation of an increase. As many producers diversify and move into areas of production and marketing where they have limited experience, the main caution is always to protect their core assets, family life and agricultural property. For example: if its raw milk, satisfy the regulations and get protection from losing the farm if you are sued; selling meat direct from the farm, make sure you have all the paperwork in place plus the highest standard of cleanliness; selling poultry, make sure you are making a profit and ensuring there is no cross contamination; direct marketing in farmers markets, CSA’s and elsewhere, check your profit margins to makes sure you are charging enough for the extra time and transport; and above all, remember that working harder does not always make more money and it definitely can adversely affects your family life.

Climate change has at last become a hot topic in the US Presidential elections and hopefully for a new administration. Organic farming, as very eloquently stated by Harriet Behar in her speech as departing Chair of the NOSB, is a clear way to address sequestering carbon. Organic certification should be seen as the gold standard for environmentally friendly farming methods but its integrity has been questioned because of poor enforcement of regulations. The integrity of the organic seal relies on strong enforcement of standards that are consistently applied to all operations. Certifiers are the front line of that certification and their important role is to apply the standards consistently with the support of the NOP. NOP is in the process of improving its accreditor role and holds certifiers accountable for their implementation of regulation. NGO’s and advocacy groups’ mission is to work in the system to change regulation or for NOP to issue Guidance documents. As we address regulatory and policy change that highlights the role that organic production plays in mitigating the human effect of climate change, we need to ensure that the conditions in the market place are fair and equal for all operations. Regenerative organic certification adds the all-important social and economic justice issues. As there are fewer and fewer buyers of organic milk at the farm gate, producers have fewer opportunities and leverage to ensure a fair price for their products. The Department of Justice has already recognized the lack of competition between organic dairy buyers in New England, with the ruling that Stonyfield had to be sold before they would approve the merger of Danone and WhiteWave. Conventional dairy producers are also continuing the fight to maintain their leverage in determining pay price. A group of more than 115 Northeastern farmers have brought a suit against DFA after opting out of a prior lawsuit against the cooperative that resulted in a $50-million settlement in 2016. The lawsuit alleges that DFA and its marketing arm, Dairy Marketing Services (DMS), violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by conspiring to monopsonize the fluid milk market. Specifically, farmers allege that DFA and other cooperatives upheld an agreement not to poach one another’s farmer-members; shared information about how much they were paying farmers for raw milk in order to discourage competition, resulting in lower prices; and ensured that those low prices were maintained across the market by entering into supply agreements with top dairy processors, including Dean Foods, H.P Hood, Kraft, and others. While the issue of poaching each other’s farmer suppliers is not so relevant in the organic market, the dominance of DMS on the supply-side of selling organic milk is. Supply agreements with processors that ensure the pay price offered by milk buyers are very similar if not identical show how little competition there is for purchasing organic milk. A sustainable farming operation is dependent on a fair pay price, consistent subsidies or subsidized insurance. If organic production systems are to benefit the US environment their needs to be regulatory and political action that addresses this issue rather than relying on cheap imports.

Hopefully many of you will receive this newsletter before the closing date for submitting comments to the NOP on the Proposed Origin of Livestock Rule. The deadline for submitting comment is midnight on Sunday, December 1st. We encourage you to submit individual comments, especially to show how you, as an organic dairy farm family have been negatively affected by the lack of clarity and enforcement around OOL since 2015. To comment you can use the site at NODPA and many other organizations will be submitting comments, so any comments you make can be short and very personal, just a few minutes of your time. The integrity of organic dairy is at stake to ensure that consumers can be confident that the organic dairy products they are consuming have all the benefits of a high level of Animal Welfare, the cows producing the milk have been organic since before birth, and they are part of the solution to Global Warming rather than part of the problem.

Wishing you all the best for the holiday season and for a more prosperous 2020.