Fagundes Brothers Dairy: Allowed to continue to operate by the USDA and the nation’s largest organic certifier, CCOF, after formal legal complaint filed by author.

Hard-working Dairy Farmers Circling the Drain

If you are a stockholder in Tyson, Perdue, Campbell’s, General Mills, Smucker’s, or Danone, chances are you have profited handsomely as these firms have gobbled up brands and market share to control much of the organic food industry.

But if you are getting your hands dirty and cracking a sweat to produce organic food that meets the definition that consumers hold dear — not the working definition endorsed by the corporate lobbyists and USDA — things might not look so good.

Based on data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), in 2019 just nine giant dairies in Texas (note that I do not call them “farms”) together produced 1.5 times more organic milk than the 530 dairy farms in Wisconsin (some milking as many as 600 cows, clearly not all small).

Nine Texas dairies producing 1.5 times more milk than 530 Wisconsin dairy farms! What’s wrong with this picture?

Those Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) milking thousands of cows in desert-like conditions do not meet the spirit or the letter of the law. If you have any questions about that, don’t ask the USDA. Ask me. I’ve been there. I have the evidence.

Flash forward to 2021 and the most recent NASS data: There are now 13 dairies in Texas certified as organic. They are currently producing 2.8 times more milk than the 407 remaining family farms in Wisconsin. Almost 3 times more milk than those 407 family farms. Just 13 livestock factories blessed by the USDA and a select few of their accredited agribusiness-friendly certifiers.

During that two-year interval, 123 family farms went out of business in Wisconsin, along with hundreds more in states like New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. These folks have lost their livelihoods, sometimes their homes and farms, and suicides in the dairy community have occurred all too often. 

Furthermore, consumers are losing access to authentic organic milk that meets their expectations for more environmentally sound agricultural practices and a more humane animal husbandry model. And they’re being betrayed, because they think the extra cost for organic milk provides economic-justice for farmers.

Just as importantly, over the last few years, literally thousands of conventional family-scale dairy farms have gone out of business around the country. Why? During that period of time there was no market for farm milk. No dairy processor/marketer was taking on new shippers (farmer-suppliers). The CAFOs have flooded the pipeline, usurping the market and driving down pricing (at least for the farmers, not commonly for consumers).

Family farm? CAFO? The USDA says they’re both “organic.” So what’s the difference?

Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative and major player marketing milk from family farms, has over 1,800 farm members with an average herd size of 80 cows. These 13 Texas CAFOs are each milking thousands, some 10,000 cows or more. One organic CAFO is regulated by the state of Colorado to manage 22,000 head. I wish I was making this up! 

When I polled organic dairy farmers, getting an impressive 30 percent response rate, they were moving their cattle in and out of pasture and milking them twice a day, averaging one cow per acre. 

How does the certification of those giant organic dairy CAFOs work? 

Well, in terms of USDA certification, it’s all a secret. Everything that happens on farms is considered by the regulatory agency to be “confidential business information.” Really? Farms and cows entirely made up of proprietary trade secrets? Authentic organic farmers are transparent and proud of their practices and commonly share knowledge with their peers.

Because CAFOs must file manure or nutrient management plans with the respective states where they are located, I have been able to access information for most of them through freedom of information requests. 

One cow per acre? Try 5-10 cows per acre! And oftentimes in desert-like conditions in Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, and elsewhere in California and the Southwest.

In technical terms, we at OrganicEye call that an awful stretch.

But stay tuned, there’s more. Those nutrient management plans specify how each crop field and pasture is managed. On most of these dairies, stored feed is cut from what is called “pasture.” Unlike organic family dairies, where the pastures are typically exclusively used to feed the cows directly, we don’t know what percentage of the feed on CAFO pastures is harvested for winter use. But let’s pretend it’s 50 percent. That would equate to an effective stocking level of 10-20 cows per acre!

In technical terms, we call that a cynical joke.

And the bad joke gets even worse. As dairy farmers know, it’s challenging enough to move herds of dozens of cows into a milking facility and then back to pasture twice each day. These mega dairies claim they are moving thousands of cows and milking them three times a day, with the highest producing segment of the herd sometimes getting milked four times a day. And that’s enough to satisfy the friendly certifiers — on paper.

Do they think seasoned organic stakeholders just fell off the turnip truck?

Legitimate organic dairy producers understand that it’s a joke. How come the professionals at select certifiers and the USDA just don’t get it? 

And how is this working out for the certifiers involved? Very profitably, thank you. The giant dairies get to choose their own certifiers and pay them handsomely for certification. Yes, that’s an inherent conflict of interest. If USDA oversight was working as designed by Congress, that would be mitigated. But audits by the agency’s own Office of Inspector General and the American National Standards Institute have concluded they have failed to do their job.

Furthermore, the governing body that Congress set up to oversee organic rulemaking and enforcement, the National Organic Standards Board, has turned into a stage for organic regulatory theater since the USDA stripped their power to make a difference and stacked 80 percent of the board seats with individuals affiliated with the industry’s powerful lobby group, the Organic Trade Association.

It’s not only dairy farmers that are being crushed as organic becomes controlled by corporate agribusiness and factory farm operators. As the industry has grown, almost all organic eggs are now coming from giant confinement operations licensed to manage, in some cases, over a million birds each. Sealed hydroponic greenhouses, where plants are grown in a fertilizer solution rather than rich nutrient-dense soil, as required by law, produce a large percentage of our fresh organic tomatoes, peppers, and greens. 

How can we save the promise that true, nutrient-dense organic food offers the citizenry and create a just food system designed to reward creative and dedicated family-scale farmers?

At OrganicEye, we have given up on appealing exclusively to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack. During his tenure at the agency during both the Obama and Biden administrations, he’s handed the leadership of the National Organic Program over to corporate agribusiness operatives. As a former Biotechnology Governor of the Year from Iowa, he’s paid nothing but lip service to enforcing the true principles of organic agriculture.

So we have shifted our tactics and are encouraging organic stakeholders to contact President Biden and ask him to intervene. By law, organic animals deserve respectful treatment. Organic plants should, legally, be grown in soil to provide the safest and most nutritious food to eaters. And authentic organic farmers should have a level playing field in the marketplace. We’re not asking for any more than what Congress intended in 1990 when they passed the Organic Foods Production Act. Mr. President, please mandate that your USDA follow both the spirit and letter of the law.

Mark Kastel is Executive Director of OrganicEye, a farm policy research group based in La Farge, Wisconsin and best known as an organic industry watchdog.