THE NATION'S LARGEST organic dairy providers have taken initiatives designed to reassure consumers and the retailers they sell to, during a time when the entire industry faces tougher scrutiny and, potentially, additional regulation.
Some of the changes are physical, such as Aurora Organic Dairy's reconfiguration of an entire farm to reduce herd size and increase pastureland.
Other changes are more philosophical. Horizon Organic has published a document detailing nine “belief statements” pertaining not just to animal welfare, but to the entire farm ecosystem.
“We felt like it was time to share with people how we manage our company-owned farms, to put out a document that would really show every aspect of what we're doing and our thinking about it,” said Kelly Shea, Horizon's vice president of industry relations and organic stewardship. “When you take your practices and put them down on paper so that they can be shared with a wider group, it really forces you to be clear.”
By now, just about every supermarket dairy executive is aware of the sustained attacks both Horizon and Aurora have endured from small-farm advocates. Horizon, which began circulating its Standards of Care treatise in March, uses the nine points to focus on operations at its two company-owned farms, although Shea anticipates the ideals will be adopted by all of the farms that supply the processor, the vast majority of which are smaller, family-owned endeavors.
Aurora Organic is taking a different approach with its largest farm, in Colorado. Here, the vertically integrated facility is undergoing changes on the farm side that reduce the number of cows by almost 75%, from 4,000 to 1,200. Sheds and paddocks formerly used for the extra animals are being plowed into additional pasture. The $3 million project will also enhance the use of biofuels and implement other environmentally friendly measures, according to Clark Driftmier, senior vice president of the private-label-only processor.
“We're right in the middle of it,” he said of the massive changeover. “The bulldozers are already on the property. We've already reduced the size of the herd 25%, with another significant reduction to go before it's done, hopefully by summer. A bunch of the land is already seeded for pasture.”
Another encouraging development for the dairy has been the interest shown by neighboring farms in transitioning to organic production. Driftmier said nearly a dozen properties around the processor's new “greenfield” 800-acre farm and processing plant in Kersey, Colo., have approached the company about supplying it with organic feed, forage or pastureland.
“When an organic operation like our goes into an area, there is definitely a catalyst effect to convince people to convert to organic,” he said, adding that at least 120 family farmers are already assisting operations at all three of Aurora's farms — the two in Colorado, as well as one in western Texas.
“We think that over the next three to five years, up to an additional 350 more farms will become organic to help supply us and to participate in the organic opportunity,” Driftmier said. “And most of them are family farms.”
Family farms make up 80% of Horizon Organic's fluid milk supply, scattered around the country. Of the two corporate farms, the Idaho operation was certified organic in 1995, and the other in Maryland in 1998.
“We've got 363 organic farms on the truck as of last count, and another 230 making the transition,” said Shea. “So as we, on our own dairies, evolve our practices and learn more, we can share that with farmers who are transitioning to organic.”
Aurora's Driftmier agreed, saying that as the company grows, so does its influence over other farmers.
“As we build our company, we're helping convert conventional agricultural land. We're also helping to support 120 family farmers we're currently working with,” he said.
Watching all this activity is Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based small-farm advocacy group that has repeatedly criticized Aurora's and Horizon's corporate farm plans as unsustainable and in violation of organic standards. The group's complaints prompted the USDA to investigate alleged access-to-pasture violations, and some food co-ops to stop selling products from the processors. The federal probe, while ongoing, has yet to turn up transgressions of any sort.
“It's too early to critique any changes that these giant farms are making,” said Kastel. “Even with their split herds they will still be twice as large, or larger, than any legitimate pasture-based farm operating in the United States.”
Cornucopia, too, has faced its share of criticism. Its scorecard of dairies, issued last year, attracted headlines around the country when the organization declared that nearly 20% of name-brand organic milk received a “substandard” rating. The group singled out the largest dairies, such as Horizon and Aurora, for practices it said go against organic tradition. Photos posted on Cornucopia's website depicted what Kastel described as confinement conditions, a lack of pastureland and other shortcomings. He continues to be among the most outspoken critics of both dairies.
“These folks don't like us. They don't like us empowering consumers and wholesale buyers with the true, less candy-coated, less greenwashed reality of how they are doing business and how they are placing ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage,” he said. “The story of how these giant corporations moved to take over the organic dairy industry is not the romantic story of organic farming that consumers think they are paying a premium for.”
One of the hot-button issues is a cow's access to pasture. The current regulations are purposely vague — an acknowledgement of the different climates and regions in which dairy cows are raised. Herds in central Maine, for instance, can't be expected to get as much outdoor time as those in Oregon, where temperatures are more moderate. The USDA is working on regulatory language that would add a number of minimum specifics to the pasture provision, and the new proposed rules are due out shortly. In the meantime, however, the nation's large dairies are taking steps they feel go beyond what the National Organic Standards Board has recommended, and the USDA might implement.
“Our animals are essentially able to go outside 24/7, 365 days a year, because we have climates where, even in the winter, it is sunny and clear,” said Driftmier, referring to Aurora's two Colorado dairies, nestled in the more temperate eastern foothills of the Rockies, as well as its western Texas farm, which is increasing its pastureland from 800 to 2,800 acres. “In the organic rules, access to the outdoors is just as important as pasture access. And in that realm, the climate we're in is really conducive to good performance on the outside access part of the rule.”
The downsizing of the herd in Platteville and the addition of pastureland there is testament to Aurora's intentions to stay ahead of any mandated regulations, he said.
At Horizon, Shea said the Standards of Care document doesn't just articulate what the dairy has done, but will serve as a foundation on which to build as the entire organic dairy industry learns better practices.
“We've shared it with a lot of people, from the farm and agriculture side to the policy side, and we're getting great feedback on it,” she said. “Not everything in there is currently codified in the organic regulations, or fully articulated. We sent a copy to the USDA, because we wanted to let them know what we're saying and what we're doing.”