WASHINGTON, DC: Family farmers from around the country, who produce organic
milk, are petitioning president Obama, and the White Houses Office of
Management and Budget (OMB), for the swift adoption of new strict rulemaking
that will rein in the abuses of a handful of factory farms they claim are
violating both the spirit and letter of the federal organic law.
The pending rewrite of the organic livestock standards, with an emphasis on
assuring compliance with provisions that require that ruminants, like dairy
cows, be grazed, is currently under review at OMB, where the administration is
being heavily lobbied by industrial farming interests to water down the rules.
To meet the explosive growth in the organic industry, over the last five years,
a number of large industrial dairies, milking as many as 7200 cows, have
exploited the stellar reputation that organic dairy products have earned in the
eyes of consumers who are looking for safer and more nutritious food for their
With the flattening of demand for organic food, these giant dairies have
flooded the market with cheap milk that is now crushing the family farmers who
have built this industry, said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The
Cornucopia Institute. These CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) are
anathema to organic consumers investing in a more environmentally sensitive
approach to food production and humane animal husbandry. Ironically, one of the
reasons they are willing to pay extra for organic milk is they think that the
farmers who produce it are being fairly treated.
The current surplus of organic milk, caused by factory farms, has forced prices
down for family farmers. Sadly, there have been reports around the country of a
number of suicides of both conventional and organic dairy producers. Some
organic farmers are now facing foreclosure, a stark contrast to the economic
promise of organics over the past two decades of growth.
Organic farmers are particularly resentful of two corporate players that heavily
lobbied the USDA during both the Bush and Obama administrations, attempting to
weaken regulatory language that requires dairy cows to be managed in a way that
promotes their natural instinctive behaviors, including grazing on open pastures
rather than spending most of their lives confined in barns and dirt feedlots.
The largest villain, in the eyes of dairy farmers, is Aurora Dairy. The $100
million corporation owns five factory farms, managing thousands of cows each,
in arid regions of Texas and Colorado. Owning its own manufacturing plant,
Aurora packages and ships milk for sale as storebrand products at Wal-Mart and a
number of leading supermarket chains. Auroras factory farm milk reaches every
corner of this country, undercutting ethical farmers and their marketing
Although the president of Aurora Dairy, Mark Retzloff, has heavily contributed
to the Democratic Party, President Obama, and Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor
who is now USDA Secretary, we trust that the current administration will focus
on the suspect practices of his company rather than their past financial and
political support, Kastel stated.
In what has been described as the largest scandal in the history of the organic
industry, in 2007, the USDA found that Aurora had willfully violated 14 tenets
of the federal organic law including confining their animals, instead of
grazing, and bringing illegal conventional cows into their factory farm
The Bush administration let Aurora off without a cent in fines, instead placing
the company on a one-year probation. Since then, 19 class-action lawsuits by
consumers, charging Aurora with consumer fraud, has been working its way through
the federal court system.
More disturbing to many organic consumers and farmers alike, especially in
California, is the revelation that a previously respected and popular organic
brand, Straus Dairy, has actively partnered with Aurora in attempting to scuttle
enforcement of the pasture requirements for organic cattle under evaluation by
Albert Straus has repeatedly stated in public, and now is petitioning the Obama
administration, claiming that its impossible in his environment, north of San
Francisco, to comply with the new proposed federal requirements for pasturing
his cattle, said certified organic dairy producer John Mattos, who farms about
10 miles further north of the Straus operation in Sonoma County. Mattos is a
member-owner of Organic Valley, a cooperative of family farmers that competes
Mattos purposely chose to milk Jerseys, and Jersey crossbreeds, instead of the
more productive and more common Holsteins, because they thrive when grazing in
more marginal areas. I graze 5 1/2 months a year, my cows are outside year
round, I have no problems with the proposed standards, Mattos affirmed.
There were no cows out on pasture at the Straus dairy when it was observed by
Kastel when he visited the Straus operation, and other area dairy farms, in
It is grossly unfair that just a handful of dairies, for selfish reasons, are
trying to derail strict enforcement, said Bob Camozzi, an organic farmer who
also ships his milk to Clover Stornetta, another local North Coast California
Our farmers are committed to maximizing pasture consumption by our cattle due
to the economic benefits, the profoundly positive impact it has on the health of
the animals and the superior nutrients that are contained in pasture-based
organic milk, Camozzi explained.
Meeting with and lobbying the OMB in Washington, along with Aurora, is not the
first time Albert Straus has angered other members of the organic dairy
community by speaking against strict enforcement of organic dairy regulations.
Albert has portrayed his brand as coming from his small family farm. But as his
brand succeeded and grew in the marketplace, he apparently added too many cows
to be grazed on the available land he owns and then he further grew his
operation by buying from other area farmers, said Tony Azevedo, a San Joaquin
Valley dairyman and president of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.
Its a shame that he chooses not to pasture on a regular basis.
It would be a national scandal, as some of us face losing our farms due to the
industrial dairy scofflaws, if the Obama administration sides with the bad
actors in our industry, affirmed Bruce Drinkman, an organic dairy farmer from
Glenwood City, Wisconsin, who milks 55 cows. We are in dire financial straits
because of the same kind of unethical competition from factory farms that put so
many of our conventional neighbors out of business. We need the President and
the USDA on our side!
On January 8, Albert Straus, along with a representative of Aurora Dairy, met
with OMB staff, along with USDA personnel, in Washington (confirmation of this
meeting is noted on the OMBs webpage at:
In addition to Straus and Aurora, OMB staff met with a handful of other
representatives from the organic industry, including the National Organic
Coalition, the Organic Trade Association and lobbyists representing the
WhiteWave division of Dean Foods (Horizon).
For a better understanding of the issue you can read the detailed backgrounder,
prepared by The Cornucopia Institute, that was submitted during our meeting with
the OMB Friday, January 22, 2010:
Over 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products are produced with high
integrity. A brand scorecard, intended to empower consumers and wholesale
buyers, can be viewed at:
The Cornucopia Institute