Adapting to the new realities of organic dairyby Troy Bishopp

CANASTOTA, NY — Dairy meetings that ponder the future of a life devoted to taking care of the nation’s matriarch cows and providing the world with nutritious food are becoming head-scratchers in achieving economic viability. At the recent Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) Annual Meeting and Field Day, organic farmers are not exempt from addressing a myriad of factors that are threatening their livelihoods.

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance is the largest grass roots organization of organic dairy producers. The mission of NODPA is to enable organic dairy family farmers, situated across an extensive area, to have informed discussion about matters critical to the well-being of the organic dairy industry as a whole, with particular emphasis on establishing a fair and sustainable price for their product at the wholesale level; promoting ethical, ecological and economically sustainable farming practices; developing networks with producers and processors of other organic commodities to strengthen the infrastructure within the industry and establishing open dialogue with organic dairy processors and retailers in order to better influence producer pay price and to contribute to marketing efforts.

NODPA Executive Director, Ed Maltby presented a solemn message about the state of organic dairy. He cited from USDA-NASS Census figures, that in 2001 there were 41,851 organic dairy cows but that has increased to over 280,000 head. “Where did all these cows come from?” he asked the audience. “The inconsistent application by some certifiers to enforce the origin of livestock and access to pasture regulations has allowed vertically-integrated large scale operations to ramp up cow numbers and production that distorts the market and hurts all organic farms,” he said.

Maltby added, “The average Texas organic dairy produced 80 million pounds while the average Wisconsin organic dairy produces 810,000 pounds. We should decertify those large-scale herds because they have never met the organic regulatory requirements. This would be a big step forward in solving the milk surplus and increasing the integrity of organic milk. There is no need to change the regulations, just apply them consistently. The cozy relationship between mega-dairies and retailers has led to direct contracts and the flourishing of their own organic store brands, which has become the number one seller in America for most retailers.”

Other downward pressures on price included competition from non-dairy beverages, lack of processing facilities, poor reading of the market by buyers, spot market buying tactics and national organic milk companies losing market share to store brands.

Just as conventional milk prices have taken a beating, Maltby referenced organic milk prices are 25% lower or $5/cwt. under the breakeven price for most farms. “Farmers have tightened their belts until there are no notches left in the belt and any cut in costs are now coming from family living expenses, plus imports of organic beef are undercutting domestic organic cull cow prices down to conventional prices.”

What does the near future hold? Maltby sees some hope, as supply is coming back into balance but that doesn’t mean pay increase. One hundred percent grass-fed dairy milk is increasing market share. Full-fat milk, cream and butter sales are on the rise. Regulations and enforcement of organic rules and legislator involvement in pay price reform is a positive. “We also have a great story to tell with our regenerative practices on the land and our milk actually tastes like something,” emphasized Maltby.

Solutions for survival was the topic for a creative panel of organic farmers which included: Annie and Ryan Murray, of Murraydale Farms in Truxton, NY; Anne Phillips, of Triple 3 Livestock in Marathon, NY; Forrest Stricker of Spring Creek Farms in Wernersville, PA; Roman Stoltzfoos of Spring Wood Dairy in Kinzers, PA; and Vaughn Sherman of Jerry Dell Farm in Dryden, NY.

“The first thing to do is study and know your costs so you can make good business decisions,” said Stricker. Among the survival strategies discussed were reducing feed costs by utilizing summer annuals, improving grazing management and soil health, diversifying into other livestock enterprises, sell breeding, making investments in infrastructure that increased efficiency, asking landlords for reduced rent, maximizing high milk components and quality milk incentives, milking once a day, marketing and selling your own products off the farm, get off-farm employment and create a camping destination on the farm.

In addition to this keynote event, farmers from around the country gathered to network about practical organic animal health solutions, policy and educational initiatives while enjoying two pasture walks and farm tours within the Peterboro Amish Church Community.

To learn more visit NODPA’s website: