An estimated 150-200 organic dairy farmers and their supporters from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa held a "demonstration" at the La Crosse County Fair on Thursday. Their goal was to convince Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to take immediate and aggressive enforcement action against a handful of "factory farms" allegedly saturating the market with illegal organic milk.
Secretary Vilsack’s comments indicate that the farmers may have been successful in their mission.
“We are focusing on rules that will level the playing field so that small and medium size producers have a fair shot,” said Vilsack, sparking applause from the crowd. “We are, as you are, asking questions about how producers can make so little and how others who are in the chain can make so much.”
One farmer shouted a question to the Agriculture Secretary, asking when the USDA will take action against organic lawbreakers.
“I commit to you that we will enforce the rules,” Vilsack responded.
Under the Bush administration the USDA was accused of "looking the other way" as large corporate agribusinesses invested in organics while allegedly violating federal standards. In the dairy sector there are now estimated to be 20 large industrial dairies, each milking 1,500-7,000 cows, producing as much as 40% of the nation’s organic milk supply. A glut of factory farm milk has flooded the organic dairy sector squeezing the incomes of family farmers as dairy processors cut payments and demand production cutbacks.
Mark Kastel, rally organizer with The Cornucopia Institute, told Secretary Vilsack that, “We’d like you to re-open the Aurora investigation.”
Aurora, operator of five factory farms in Colorado and Texas and the organic milk store-brand supplier for Wal-Mart, Target, Safeway, Costco and other national chains, was found to have “willfully” violated numerous organic regulations by USDA investigators in 2007. The company received mild sanctions from USDA political appointees who rejected staff recommendations calling for revocation of Aurora’s organic certification.
Cornucopia has questioned the legality of the USDA’s agreement with Aurora allowing the nation’s largest corporate organic dairy operator to remain in business. The Bush administration permitted Aurora to retain over 10,000 conventional cows illegally brought onto their operations.
Darlene Coehoorn, a dairy farmer from Oshkosh, Wis., and president of the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, noted that she milked her own cows before coming to the rally.
“Keep the dream alive,” she said between tears, asking for the ability to pass her farm down to the next generation. “Independent family farms are becoming an endangered species.”
Bruce Drinkman, a fourth generation dairy farmer from Glenwood City, Wis., told how his wife had to cash in their IRA this past spring so they could continue operating their farm.
“We deserve better,” Drinkman said. “We have to stand together and we have to do it now.”
In addition to Vilsack, Wisconsin’s Governor Jim Doyle visited the event at the fairgrounds in West Salem, and was well received, as did as the state’s Secretary of Agriculture and other local, state and federal officials.
“It used to be fun,” said Jim Goodman, of Wonewoc, Wis., a dairy farmer who has been certified organic for 10 years. “See our plight and listen to us. We aren’t asking a lot – make organic mean organic.”
One of the strongest supporters of the development of organic food and agriculture has been the nation’s 270 natural food cooperatives. Michelle Schry, the manager at People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse, Wis., came to the rally to show their solidarity with struggling family dairy farmers.
“Whatever we can do to support you, we will do,” Schry told the crowd. “We want that (organic) label to be protected as much as you do.”
Pat Skogen said she was a schoolteacher before she decided to “go broke as a dairy farmer.” She mentioned how crazy it was that farmers are being forced to apply for food stamps from the USDA to feed their families because their incomes have crashed.
“We need help,” added the Loganville, Wis., farmer, calling for a national farm policy that would recognize farmland as a national resource.
One representative of a dairy processor spoke at the rally. Steve Pechacek, of Organic Choice, said they used to have 19 buyers for their organic milk and dairy products produced by their farmer owners when they started operations four years ago.
“Today we have two,” Pechacek observed, referencing the corporate consolidation taking place. He noted the problems caused by factory farms abusing organic rules and called for enforcement. “We can’t wait another four years, this has to work right now,” he said.
With all the negative fallout for organic dairy farmers, rally organizers reminded consumers that, according to Cornucopia Institute Research and the scorecard that can be found on their Web site, 90% of all name-brand organic products are produced with high integrity by family farmers.
"These factory farms are a bad aberration,” Kastel said. "We encourage organic consumers to do a little bit of homework and make sure the brands they buy are supporting the families that are working so hard to produce legitimate organic milk."
In addition to The Cornucopia Institute, the emergency organic dairy farmer rally was co-sponsored by Family Farm Defenders, Center for Rural Affairs, Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Church’s Center for Land and People, National Family Farm Coalition and the Interfaith Program Action Council.
Those attending the rally brought organic food products for donation to a local food pantry and passed the hat for additional donations. Kastel said they collected 50 pounds of non-perishable foods for donation as well as $125 that is being donated. A symbolic milk dump took place using some of the surplus as organic fertilizer and to feed hogs at the county fair.
“We small farmers are being discriminated against,” said John Kinsman, a dairy farmer from LaValle, Wis. He asked where the openness and transparency was that was promised by the new Administration. “Our urban counterparts are not aware of what is happening because the price has not changed in the grocery stores.”
Pete Hardin, publisher of the influential dairy newsletter The Milkweed, also spoke at the rally. Hardin blamed much of the crash in the entire dairy sector on imported dairy proteins coming into the United States.
Rally organizers and participants strongly illustrated their solidarity with their neighbors milking conventional cows.
"It would be profoundly positive for organic dairy if conventional producers were receiving a fair price for their milk," Kastel said. The price gap at retail, between conventional and organic fluid milk, is the largest in the history of the industry based on the crash of prices paid to conventional producers.
"We are quite heartened by the respectful appearance of Secretary Vilsack," Kastel said. "His response was ‘spot-on’ in terms of committing to a crack down on organic scofflaws and reforming the carryover-management at the USDA's organic program."
Rally participants said their most important message was to instill "a sense of immediacy" with the Secretary in terms of addressing the stepped-up enforcement actions that he has promised.