After Elections, The Organic Mud Still Flies

Published on: 10:28AM Dec 03, 2008

Threats, promises, intimidation, name-calling, accusations, mudslinging.  The 2008 elections?  Aren’t those over?  Yes, but the fight over defining what “organic dairy production” means continues, and the mud is still – literally – flying in that battle.


This recent article by a newspaper in California’s Sonoma County, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, aptly sums up the latest salvo in the ongoing struggle to define, through regulations and marketing claims, the proper way to manage organic cattle.


After years of pressure from what I term the organic Taliban – persons who have a very precise and exacting view of organic production, and are willing to fight tooth and nail to see their vision brought to fruition – the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently proposed some specific requirements for the type of access that organic dairy cattle must have to pasture.  Current organic regulations only stipulate that cattle must have “access to pasture,” but that stipulation is admittedly vague. 


Now, the USDA is recommending that the organic regs specify that cows must be out on pasture at least 120 days per year, and that 30% of their feed intake comes from pasture-grown forage.  Those requirements hardly seem harsh; over a year, that’s only one day of access out of three, meaning that “access to pasture” is still going to be interpreted that the majority of the time, organic cattle won’t need to have access to pasture.  That’s more ironic than organic.


Even so, as the California article indicates, even some current organic farmers aren’t entirely enthused by the USDA proposal.  In the wine country of Sonoma County, where the climate may be ideal for growing Chardonnay, it seems that there’s concern that the pastures in question may get muddy if cows are forced to graze on them too frequently in damp, intemperate months. 


And that’s also the concern of farmers in places like Vermont and Wisconsin, where a significant percentage of dairy farms have converted to organic production.  It’s 25 degrees and snowing today in Marshfield, WI.  What bovine (or human, for that matter) wants to be told to stand outside in a sub-freezing snowstorm for the next five months of winter, simply to comply with arbitrary expectations about what’s best for them? 


But that’s where this decade-long process of coming up with strict organic regulations has led us.  In an effort to keep large-scale dairies from profiting from the demand for organic milk, the hard-liners have pushed for regulations that will make it difficult for farms of all sizes, in all climates, to comply (this article from Bloomberg’s Cindy Skrzycki also is a good summary of the issues at stake).


The other irony here is that none of this will ensure a more nutritious or safer product.  The argument over pasture access and forage is really kabuki theater about whose farm is purer than the rest, even if it conveys no real benefit to the milk itself. 


Most dairy cows today, conventional or organic, get forage like hay and grass in their rations.  And most cows couldn’t get enough nutrition if they were to only graze and not supplement their diets with higher-quality, more nutrient-dense feed, regardless of the time of year.  In the summer months, if it hasn’t rained recently, pasture access does livestock little good if the forage is burnt to a crisp.  And of course, there’s nothing appetizing or nutritious to eat on just about any pastures, anywhere, from the months of December through March, at least.  If it’s not muddy today in Sonoma, it’s frozen solid in Wisconsin. 


Just as I wrote about raw milk earlier this spring, much of this line of debate on organic pasture access is entirely emotional, and not really grounded in facts.  USDA has the unenviable job of trying to make sense of all this mud.