MADISON, Wis. -- Organic dairy products are no longer confined to the province of health food stores, cooperatives and the rare retailer, and are moving into the mainstream grocery channels, concluded a panel of experts during the American Cheese Society Conference held here last month.
As a result of increasing demand, suppliers have been able to shed their low-tech, "back-to-the-earth" image, and break through minimal production volume and limited distribution barriers.
According to Odessa Piper, a Madison, Wis., restaurateur who has built her business on organic foodstuffs, and a panel participant, "organics were marginal when I started in the food business."
Now, organic standards and product definitions are being firmly established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eight state departments of agriculture offer certification to organic farms, encouraging dairy producers to embrace organic practices, the panelists noted in discussing the evolution of the category.
The results of these organic industry practices vary according to location and volume: some producers realize healthy profits, while others are content just working for a healthy environment. In the former category looms Horizon Organics, Boulder, Colo., one of the nation's largest cooperative producers of organic dairy products, including fluid milk and yogurt supplied to numerous supermarket chains. And in the latter are farmstead cheesemakers such as ACS member Sara Bolton of the Pure Luck Grade A Goat Dairy of Dripping Spring, Texas, whose organic practices are so labor-intensive that she finds expansion to be a challenge.
Both sides share similarities, however. All organic dairy practices start with herd management and feed control, since antibiotics cannot be used to cure common dairy animal ailments, nor should pesticides be used on any of the grasses or grains fed to organic herds.
"Sanitation is so important to maintaining health," said Bolton of her organic goat herd. "It turns out that being organic is very fuel-intensive."
For example, Bolton uses a propane torch to burn noxious weeds, rather than use herbicides that might taint the goats' grazing pasture.
Larger-scale fluid milk operations, such as Ron Miller's organic dairy farm in Columbus, Wis., are just as fuel intensive but there, yields are more profitable.
An organically raised herd of 300 Holsteins graze on Miller's 1,500 acres, and the fluid milk that he supplies to a dairy producer and distributor, the Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, fetches a price almost four times the usual wholesale price of regular milk.
Organic Valley is supplied by 28 dairy farmers including Miller's. Its brands of milk and half-and-half are distributed throughout Wisconsin, and its cheeses are available nationally. "Our yields aren't any different, but the profitability is greater," Miller said.
Organic dairy products are most popular with older, more affluent consumers, and health-conscious families. Panelists agreed that perhaps the greatest obstacle to more widespread consumer acceptance of organic dairy products continues to be the slightly higher price point.
Still, "most consumers look for quality and flavor first, and whether it is organic is a secondary concern," said Piper.