“That is the fundamental cause of the problem. I can go down the list of every major problem we're confronting and it's because we give a priority to economic efficiency, “productivity”, profitability and we end up compromising our relationships with each other, our social values. We end up destroying the natural resources, degrading the soil, and we do all of that in the name of economic progress.
“That's not progress.”
Dear Real Organic friends,
Vermont is known as the Green State. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of “green” does that mean?
Once famous for having more cows than people, it appears that Danone is only interested in our money, not in our milk.
As news of the Danone exit from New England sinks in, we are left to wonder what went wrong?
Not so long ago, organic farming was seen as the salvation of small dairy farms. The organic market was the perfect home for smaller farms that still based the nutrition of their animals on pasture. This was in stark contrast to the massive industrial CAFOs that have come to be the norm in American livestock farming. Organic eaters still cared how the animals were raised, how they were fed. In the “conventional” market, price was the only criteria for success, and low price was assured by USDA (and Cargill, and Monsanto) support of corn and soy. Many smaller farms went through the 3-year conversion to become organic producers. It was possible to make a living and pay your bills. At the same time, there was a growing understanding in the marketplace that wanted milk from cows raised on pasture.
Organic dairy was just the way nature planned it. Healthy cows eating grass, not grain. CAFOs feed grain, not grass. Now the CAFOs are dominating the market and setting the low price.
So what happened? I’m just trying to understand this.
By concentrating the animals in restricted areas, they are mosly fed from the huge American corn surplus that is always searching for a market. What can we do with all this damn corn that we are paying our farmers to grow? In Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan has laid out how the farmers lose while the corporations win in this bad bargain.
Feed the corn to cows! No need to walk the cows to far away pastures twice a day. No need for miles of fencing. This has guaranteed that CAFOs are the low-cost way to produce meat, milk, and eggs.
And yet, it seems to be cheaper to buy “certified organic” corn and soy from another country, put it in a big ship, and transport it to a certified organic mega-dairy. Or maybe it isn't easier to grow that corn organically. Maybe it is just easier to get it certified as organic?
“It's just so unfortunate that when the industry saw organic farmers actually making money, then the big guys came in to get a piece of that pie, which is what has created this total glut of milk.”
– Caitlin Frame, The Milkhouse Dairy Farm & Creamery
Now many of the small organic dairies that were thriving ten years ago are being driven out of business.
And at the very same time that the organic dairies are being pushed out, the organic market for their milk has exploded. Total organic sales in 2010 were $24 billion. In 2020 they were $62 billion. Surely this means that greater demand led to better prices for farmers and the growth of organic acreage?
Not so. Organic acreage remains at 1% as the majority of “certified organic” grains sold in the US are grown in other countries. Virtually all of that imported corn and soy goes to CAFO animal feed rather than to bread and pasta. While the small farms that grow cows on grass are often failing in the marketplace, the mega-dairies are expanding.
“I'm sure that you can keep the cows in a feedlot and feed them feed that's been produced without pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. But to us, pasture is such a critical part of raising cattle and chickens and pigs that making organic just about what you're excluding from the production system instead of what you're including just doesn't really jive with us.”
– Andy Frame, The Milkhouse Dairy Farm & Creamery
As organic farmer Hugh Kent has said, when we permit a CAFO or a hydro to get certified, we don’t just “expand the market” or make a “bigger tent” by offering a cheaper alternative. We mandate such practices, as the soil and pasture-based farms can’t compete unless they adopt the same fauxganic practices. The cheaters set the price in the marketplace.
CAFOs and hydros are both kryptonite to the real organic movement.
CAFO milk is nutritionally inferior to the milk coming from those small organic farms in Vermont. And we are losing that choice in the marketplace. The truth is that the same dairies that were thriving ten years ago are now deemed “too inefficient to survive.” And they are being steadily replaced by “efficient” CAFOs that produce inferior milk.
Who wins? Big corporations. It sounds like a cliche, but it is true.
Who loses? The small grass-based organic dairies are losing. The real organic American grain farmers are losing. The eaters who want organic food are losing. The neighbors and communities around the small farms going out of business are losing. And the neighbors of the mega-dairies are losing. Everyone who lives on the planet loses, no matter what they buy in the store.
We all lose.
Dave & Linley
The Milkhouse Know Your Farmer video tells the story of a small Maine dairy that lost its contract with Horizon a few years ago for selling some of their milk from their farm. It is a classic Real Organic video because it shows both the problem and one small farm's solution. It also has the most joyous moment in all our recordings as we see the cows leaving the barn in the Spring.
A correction to last week’s letter.
Some of the organic dairy farms in Maine and New Hampshire will continue to sell to Horizon. ALL of the 27 farms in Vermont are being dropped. 2 farms in New Hampshire, 14 in Maine, and 46 farms in New York are being dropped. That is 89 total. 50 new farms are getting contracts, mostly in New York.
We are told that Vermont is too far from the New York processing plant to buy milk from.
But Vermont is not too far to haul milk TO from the same processing plant.
Horizon will still sell milk to most Vermont stores. But they will not buy any milk from Vermont. It seems Vermont is just a market, like a colonized country.
Vermont's Senator Leahy is the co-sponsor of the Organic Food Production Act. He is considered the Father of the National Organic Program. Vermont is one of the centers of the organic movement. We have a higher ratio of farmers to citizens of any state. Our certification program is renowned for its integrity.
How could this happen? And why do we allow it?
- Dave and Linley
The podcast we share this week is with John Ikerd. Dr. Ikerd retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Missouri and has since written six books on sustainable agriculture. John grew up on a small dairy farm in Missouri and has witnessed the demise of rural communities throughout America due to our agricultural policies.
In this interview, he explains the monopolistic mentality of industrial agriculture and the intentional choice to overproduce to drive out the small farmer. We hope you'll take the time to listen to his call for a more democratic path forward.
Visit our podcast series for the most interesting stories you can find. Together, these speakers dive deeply into the problems and solutions of our time, searching for the next steps.
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