Which way to turn?

The crisis in organic farming has divided advocates on how to protect organic integrity.

Clear milk glass from Pixabay
Clear milk glass from Pixabay

(Part two in a two-part series.)

Mark Kastel, a passionate organic farming watchdog, lays out the crisis that is chipping away at the moral high ground occupied by organic food.

Consumers pay a premium price for federally certified organic farm goods, he says, not just for the selfish reason of protecting their own health from chemical additives, but also because “they believe they’re doing something good for society.”

Mark A. Kastel OrganicEye (via Kastel)
Mark A. Kastel
OrganicEye (via Kastel)

“They believe they’re supporting a more environmentally responsible way of farming. A more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And they believe economic justice for the farmers and for the farm workers is built right into that higher price.”

All that is jeopardized, Kastel warns, when consumers learn things, like, a single milk-processing plant in Colorado, supplied by 5,000- to 15,000- cow factory farms, is shipping certified organic milk all across the country. That milk is faux organic, he argues, and “undercuts real organic farms” in Wisconsin by cheating on the federal organic rules.

“When consumers find out that these cows have short, stressful lives just like cows in factory farms — that doesn’t sound like they’re paying for more humane animal husbandry,” he says. “And when they find out the people milking these cows are mostly hard-working, exploited immigrants living in trailers, they don’t feel good about that either.”

The crux of the problem as Kastel and other critics see it: “The factory-farm milk from the 15,000 cow dairy shares the same green and white organic label as milk coming from a 50-cow family farm in Wisconsin.”

It’s an enforcement issue, critics say. Those oversized dairies — known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs — are failing to meet grazing and other federal standards that Wisconsin dairy farmers routinely follow. Same story with organically certified egg operations that confine their hens in huge barns, despite Federal organic rules mandating access to the outdoors, fresh air and sunlight. (The Washington Post exposed a giant Michigan operation that confined 1.6 million hens at reputedly three birds per square foot.)

brown eggs in bowl
Photo by Andie Cumber from Pexels

This is shocking given the organic movement’s origins in bucolic environmentally attuned family farms. But attacking these factory-style dairies and hen houses, say the organic moderates, undercuts consumer confidence in all products carrying the green and white U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label.

Other voices argue the answer is voluntary add-on certifications such as “Grass Fed,” or “Fair Trade,” or “Real Organic,” or “Regenerative Organic,” or “Animal Welfare Approved,” or “Certified Humane”. That in turn prompts serious objections that so many dueling labels will only sow confusion among consumers. 

What to do? There is no consensus.

A life-or-death battle             

The life-or-death battle over tactics is highlighted in the economic travails of the Organic Valley farmers’ co-op. Despite annual sales exceeding $1 billion, Organic Valley lost money in 2017 and 2018. Speculation is that 2019, when the books are closed, may be another loser.

Organic Valley label
Organic Valley label

This is deeply concerning in the organic farming world.

Founded and headquartered in southwestern Wisconsin, OV is the largest organic farmers coop in the nation with member-owners in 34 states. For 25 years, Organic Valley was a huge boon for its farmers. While other dairy farmers were subject to sometimes-ruinous swings in monthly milk prices they were powerless to control, Organic Valley until recently set and sustained a premium price for organic milk on a yearly basis. 

But flattening consumer demand and the flooding of the market with suspect organic milk from Texas and Colorado drove down all milk prices, prompting painful belt-tightening among OV farmers, and possibly triggering the early retirement of Chief Executive Officer George Siemon in March 2019.

Siemon, a tactical moderate in the strategy debate, firmly adhered to the philosophy of never criticizing any entity involved in the organic market, whether it was Walmart, which sells OV’s milk, or those sketchy industrial dairies that now drive organic milk sales.

Harriet Behar
Harriet Behar

“George always felt if it carried the organic seal, then we always support it,” says Harriet Behar, a prominent Gays Mills farmer who grew vegetables for Organic Valley for 30 years.

Siemon offers no apologies. 

“The USDA organic seal is our integrity. It’s our legacy. It’s our brand,” Siemon told me after he stepped down as OV CEO. “To me, anytime we’re out making that brand name look bad, we’re harming the whole of organics. I don’t regret saying that one bit. That’s just obvious.” 

But Behar, who until December chaired the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA on organic policy, says the co-op’s silence about the bad actors has hurt its farmers. The co-op should have been touting the fact, she says, that its internal standards for organic operation exceeded what the federal program requires for the organic label.

“Organic Valley goes above and beyond,” says Behar, who also works as an organic inspector. “They have veterinarians, soil agronomists, dairy nutritionists, field people who go out to all their farms. They have higher internal standards than the federal organic rules. Yet they don’t promote that to their customers.” 

The Big Box takeover

Behar is not alone in feeling Organic Valley screwed up. Other observers say the co-op tried to get too big, overbuilt its headquarters and other facilities, and erred in selling milk to price-cutting Big Box stores for their private labels.

Ron Miller, for one, feels the co-op should have called out violators and pushed for stronger enforcement of organic rules. “If these farms are not grazing their cows, they’re not following the rules. How can they be certified?” he asks.

Miller is general manager of R&G Miller & Sons, an Organic Valley farm that milks 365 cows near Columbus. “Once those big dairies came online, that’s when our problems started,” he says. “It’s supply and demand. If there’s oversupply our price drops.”

When I asked Miller about Siemon’s argument that criticizing another organic purveyor would damage the brand for all organic farmers, he paused to consider it. “I suppose that’s true to a point. But we can’t just sit back. Organic Valley has been a pioneer in the organic dairy industry. They’ve put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it. 

“To have these bigger farms just come in and produce so much milk by not following the rules… Well, you’re doing yourself more harm.”

Holstein cows in a barn at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station's north campus near Stratford, Wis., Wednesday afternoon, July 11, 2018. Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS
Holstein cows in a barn at the Marshfield Agricultural Research Station’s north campus near Stratford, Wis., Wednesday afternoon, July 11, 2018.
Photo by Michael P. King/UW-Madison CALS

In 2015, when I interviewed Siemon for The Progressive magazine, he unabashedly praised Walmart, saying that selling OV-branded milk through the mass-marketer was “like going through a master’s program in business. They force you to be damn good business people, or you’re not in there.”

He added to make his point even clearer: “Our mission is to serve farmers and consumers — not to stomp on Big Boxes.”

Four years later, when I sat down with Travis Forgues, Organic Valley’s vice president for farmer affairs, a change in tone was noticeable. Forgues matter-of-factly blamed the Big Boxes for disrupting and ultimately weakening the organic milk market. 

The rush of Sam’s Club, Kroger and Costco into organics had knocked OV from its decades-old “slow and steady” strategy of growth, he explained, by bidding up the farmer’s pay-price at a time of shortage only to see sales stall, supply swell, and prices fall into the basement.

Note the average size of an Organic Valley dairy farm is only 75 cows, according to Forgues, and fewer than ten of the co-op’s member-owners have more than 500 cows. This is a whole ‘nother world measured against giant dairy operations with 5,000, 10,000 or even more cows. “Large farms need to be following the rules. Period,” says Forgues, sounding a note that Siemon avoided.

Pete Hardin, editor of an iconoclastic dairy-industry chronicle called The Milkweed, describes the contrasting farming approaches as the industrial model of dairy farming versus the family-farm model. I had called him because I was looking for a good explanation of how scale drives economic advantage in farming.

Hardin told me that the Texas dairies have been shipping and selling their suspect organic milk to processors as far north as Rochester, Minnesota, and as far east as the suburbs of Syracuse, New York.

“What you’ve got is these Texas big boys filling tankers with milk, putting it on the road and effectively delivering that milk to these plants at far less cost than what the processors have been paying local dairy farmers in Minnesota and New York.”

“It’s brutal price undercutting,” he says.

Activist triumph

Creation of the USDA’s National Organic Program — and the contested rules that guide it — was a rare moment in federal policy-making. Grass roots advocacy actually overcame an industry’s powerbrokers in Washington. 

Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act as part of the omnibus Farm Bill of 1990. But it took 12 long years to hammer out the details of how “organic” would be defined in the field and regulated under the new National Organic Program (NOP). In 1997, a grass-roots revolt exploded and successfully blocked draft standards that would have allowed sewage sludge, genetically altered seeds and irradiation in organic production.

Full dairy case in store
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

When the standards were finally adopted and the NOP launched in 2002, organic philosophy was seemingly hardwired into the rules: “Organic agriculture is an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

Standardizing organic labeling nationwide empowered what Kastel, the organic watchdog, calls “marketplace activism:” Consumers put their bucks behind their values every time they bought a carton of milk or a pound of hamburger. Organic sales skyrocketed, reaching $47.9 billion in 2018 and drawing heavy investment from corporate food companies, who saw the organic label as a lucrative niche.

But problems were also baked into the National Organic Program. Notably the cost-saving decision to use independent third-party inspectors to judge organic adherence, as opposed to the NOP training and employing its own staff. Erratic and compromised enforcement lies at the heart of the Texas mega-dairy controversy (as well as the organic grain scandal I cited in part one of this series. The notion that organic-certified dairies with thousands of cows are meeting the NOP requirements for grazing in fields, among other feed criteria, is far-fetched.

“You’re actually limited in herd size by the distance a cow can travel,” says UW-Madison dairy scientist Mark Stephenson. “If a cow has to come into a milking parlor twice a day, she can only walk so many miles and still be able to consume enough food to produce the milk. About a thousand cows are as much as you can do in a large farm. Many of these organic farms that are meant to be pasture grazers are well above that level.”        

Captive regulators

“Regulatory capture” is the problem, says Kastel, who recently co-founded the investigative outfit OrganicEye after a long stint leading the Cornucopia Institute. By that he means the tendency of regulatory agencies to be dominated or influenced by interest groups they’re supposed to oversee for the public good. 

That point is seconded by Dave Chapman, a Vermont tomato grower who runs the Real Organic Project. His group is gaining traction to establish a tougher add-on label that would be available to farms already certified as USDA Organic. 

The NOP’s founding vision, he says bluntly, has been betrayed by industrial food producers who have gained the favor of the agriculture department officials running the organic program.

headshot Dave Chapman
Dave Chapman / Executive Director
Real Organic Project

“You know what happens when you put five corporate bosses in a room with their lawyers and lobbyists?” Chapman asks, “They say ‘How can we get around the rules?’ It’s never: ‘How we can do a better job of farming?'” 

That battle has played out not just over industrial milk and eggs but also now over the organic certification of berries and vegetables grown in a nutrient-treated, soil-less medium such as vermiculite, peat, coconut coir, or just water. 

“We don’t say that hydroponics is a terrible thing,” Behar tells me. “We say it should not carry the organic label. It’s like putting a plant on an IV.”

But berry sales are expanding fast, a once seasonal delight morphed into a global staple. The innovative California brand Driscoll’s, which contracts with 750 independent berry growers in nearly two dozen countries, has pioneered what it calls a containerized growing system.

In a surprise, Behar’s advisory committee voted 8-to-7 in fall 2017 to allow Driscoll’s to remain in the organic program. This was a watershed moment. It even prompted protests in several cities and reversed a 2010 committee vote to deny organic certification to hydroponics and related technologies. (Pointedly, NOP administrators rejected the recommendation.) 

Movement veterans like Chapman, Kastel and Behar were disbelieving. Soil-less farming was now part of an organic program built around enhancing soil fertility to produce healthy food. It made no sense. 

“There’s not even a pretext of being pro-organic at the USDA anymore,” says Kastel. “It’s all about pro-organic marketing. It’s about selling food that’s labeled organic. And not about the values that build this $50 billion industry.”

Chapman’s take is simply scathing.

When people buy organic milk they want to support a farm like you have in Wisconsin where the cows go out and eat grass,” he says. “Not some goddamn CAFO where the cows spend their lives in a detention camp, eat fraudulently imported organic grain and live lives of misery.”

Restoring integrity to organics        

If only there were a clear path to organic integrity. There’s not.

headshot of Ed Maltby
Ed Maltby

Ed Maltby, who runs the Northeast Dairy Producers Alliance, wants to double down on the National Organic Program, saying: “After 20 or so years of enforcement, the standards have the strength of the law.” He warns that the plethora of alternative labels will only cause “confusion, a loss of credibility, and weariness in consumers.” And he sees the first signs of the NOP improving enforcement. (The USDA tells me that new rules strengthening both organic fraud protection and inspection requirements for organic producers are under pre-enactment review.)Behar’s hope is at some point the unequivocally tough standards embraced in the Real Organic Project are folded into the federal program. This would mean no hydroponics. No potted berry plants sitting on acres of plastic sheeting fed by a slurry of organic-approved fertility inputs. But in today’s environment—this change is hard to imagine. (The Trump administration, for example, moved quickly to strike down a meat-industry-opposed NOP rule that would have set higher standards for the treatment of animals whose meat is sold as organic.)

Of course, if Chapman’s Real Organic Project stays voluntary and independent, a recalcitrant USDA is not a threat to its agenda. Chapman feels after the NOP’s disheartening embrace of hydroponics, there’s no winning with the feds. “I think organic add-on labels will be critical to our future.” 

But Kastel points out that the fact the federal government stands behind the NOP is what set the stage for thousands of family farmers to find an economic niche to practice sustainable agriculture. He’s not ready to walk away from that.

“Too many people have worked too hard to build the organic label into something of true economic value,” the watchdog says. “I’ll be damned if we hand it over to the corporate players to exploit without a fight.”

About the Organic Valley co-op

  • Founded in 1988
  • Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) is the  co-op’s official name
  • Organic Valley is the brand name
  • Headquarters is in LaFarge, WI
  • Employs around 900 people, about 800 work in Organic Valley facilities in Wisconsin
  • Nearly 2,000 family farms in 34 states, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are co-op member-owners.
  • The co-op represents 13.8% of all U.S. certified organic farms
  • 538 of the farms are in Wisconsin
  • 85% of the dairy farms have fewer than 100 cows
  • Average farm size is 273 acres
  • About 40% of owner-members are Amish or Mennonite farmers
  • Organic Valley markets its products in all 50 states and exports to 25 nations
  • Sales reached $1.1 billion in 2018 but the co-op lost money

SOURCE: Organic Valley