Organic dairy farmers in Vermont say inconsistent enforcement of industry standards have allowed large-scale producers to market milk that is not truly organic. The farmers are asking Congress for help to close regulatory loopholes they say have given some large farms an unfair advantage in the market.
On Stony Pond Farm, in Fairfield, young Jersey heifers do their young heifer thing: looking cute, as they chew their cuds or graze in the shin-high grass.
Last week, farmer Tyler Webb gave a tour of the operation, which he runs with his wife Melanie. These animals were born here, and raised on pasture grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers — just as the organic standards require, Webb said.
That’s a big investment in time and money: "It could take really to get a calf to a point where she’s bred and becomes a cow, or even to get to about this point, it would cost the farmer about $1,000," Webb said.
But there's a payoff in the form of a milk check that, despite some declines, is fatter than ones paid to conventional farmers. Webb said the price he earns from the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley co-op allows his family to invest in his growing operation and, by extension, in the local community.
"I would guess ... all of my farming friends and colleagues here would agree – that if a farmer earns a dollar or someone gives a farmer a dollar, we're going to spend $1.25 of that here in our local economy," he said.
Organic standards cover many facets of the farm operation, from feed to pasture to the use of medication like antibiotics. Yet organic advocates say some farmers in the West and Midwest are exploiting two loopholes.
One is a rule that requires animals to graze at least 120 days on pasture, and says producers must protect soil and water quality. The other is called the “origin of livestock” rule, which says that a farmer's herd must be raised organically once the animals are transitioned to organic methods.
The intent of the origin rule can be evaded, however, when farms cull their herds rapidly, and they replace their livestock with those raised using conventional feed and medical treatment, which costs much less. Adam Warthesen, who heads government relations for Organic Valley, said these large operations can save $600 to $1,000 for each cow.
"And if you're on an operation that’s culling quickly, you can see you have quite a bit of cost advantage," Warthesen said.
The pasture standard is also ignored, organic advocates say. They point to one 15,000-cow farm in Colorado that supplies the organic milk sold under Walmart’s house brand. A 2017 investigation by the Washington Post showed that this farm is a virtual feedlot, with just a few hundred cows outside at a time.
By contrast, all the Jerseys on Stony Pond Farm are on pasture until November under a rotational grazing plan that allows the cows’ manure to feed the soil and the grass to quickly regenerate. Webb said it's part of a system that keeps the animals and the soil healthy.
“Managing like a functioning working landscape — and that was our goal," he said. "And developing this partnership, this relationship that ruminants and herbivores have with grasslands, is really quite powerful."
So the Vermont organic farmers and their co-op want Congress to press for stricter or more consistent enforcement of the standards before Vermont farms are squeezed even more by these large farm operations.
The Organic Valley co-op arranged the tour of the Webb farm in Fairfield last week to highlight the issue. They invited media, other organic co-ops, and state and federal officials to see what small-scale organic farming looks like and stands for.
John Cleary, the New England coordinator for Organic Valley, noted during the tour that organic remains a relative bright spot in the struggling dairy industry because consumers will pay more for what they trust is a quality product.
“On the organic side, there still is, you know, quite an opportunity for farmers to grow, looking toward the future,” Cleary said. “But a lot of it hinges on keeping the standards strong.”
Around this point in Cleary's presentation, Sen. Patrick Leahy — a longtime supporter of organic farming — interrupted: “If you don’t let some of the big corporate farms steal the standards,” Leahy said to applause.
It’s clear Leahy, who authored the 1990 law that established the federal organic program, doesn’t need much convincing.
“We have the law, we have to enforce the law," Leahy said, "and we should not be writing regulations that allow huge loopholes.”
But here's the problem: While the organic standards are established by federal law, local and state organizations actually do the certifying of organic farms — and the certifiers are not always consistent in how they interpret the standards, said Adam Warthesen of Organic Valley.
For example, according to Warthesen, on the origin of livestock rule some certifiers allow frequently culling of herds with stock that were not always raised according to organic methods.
“You have a whole set of certifiers that have two different interpretations of what the federal regulations provide. Congress needs to provide clarity,” Warthesen said. “In Vermont, almost all those farmers, and everyone that we know, follows sort of the interpretation that we as Organic Valley understand: Once you’ve transitioned, then all your animals shall be organic from last third of gestation then on. A difference from that would put all our Vermont farmers at a competitive disadvantage.”
Leahy told the crowd gathered at Stony Pond Farm that he’ll use upcoming budget negotiations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to press their case.