NODPA: Growing organic dairy in the Northeastby Tamara Scully

The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance represents an active, vital and long-standing group of dairy farmers – along with industry support professionals – many of whom gathered recently in Canastota, NY for their 19th Annual Field Days. The focus of the event was on strategies for the long-term sustainability of organic dairy farming.

Nathan Weaver, of Grunen Aue Farm in Canastota led the opening discussion on meeting the current and future challenges in the organic and grass-fed dairy sector. The declining pay price for organic milk, which has dropped about 15-30% for most producers over the past year, has been a primary concern. In order to survive without the pricing premiums which have allowed the small organic dairy farmer to thrive, the Northeast’s organic dairy farming sector will have “to have enough margin to exist in today’s dairy financial climate,” Weaver stated.

Weaver outlined two ways for dairy farmers to move forward: better control their costs or add value to their own products and market them directly.

“We still are not at the point where we as a family would consider marketing the milk or the production from the farm,” Weaver said of his own farm’s decision.

Instead, Weaver will focus on better managing his pastures, and enhancing his genetics to take advantage of that grass. The family’s goal is to decrease costs enough to have profit available to spawn new enterprises for the next generation to continue farming.

According to Weaver, increasing soil health and fertility through proper grazing management is the best way of reducing costs and enhancing milk production and quality on the Northeast’s organic dairy farms. It’s also what will set their milk apart not only from the conventional dairy industry, but from large-scale organic dairy production.

Issues and options

The organic dairy sector has been caught up in industrialization, with vertically integrated supply chains, larger and larger farms, and overproduction of milk. With large certified organic mega-dairies popping up primarily in the Midwest, ongoing debate over the interpretation and enforcement of the organic dairy standards by various certifying bodies is at the forefront of the lack of stability in the organic dairy sector.

Another piece of that same puzzle is the USDA’s Origin of Livestock loophole, which has allowed these large dairies to continually bring in new cows without the time and cost of raising them under organic certification from birth. The regulation’s original intent was to allow a one-time only transfer of a conventional herd to certified organic, and not as a continual pathway to certify conventional heifers. A public comment period on a proposed rule to close the loophole and standardize interpretation of the regulations is open through Dec. 2.

With the USDA’s organic regulations allowing the scaling up of certified organic dairies, the quantity of organic milk available has increased, and processors are opting to cut costs by sourcing milk from industrialized operations rather than the small dairy farmers in the Northeast that have – until recently – been the heart of the organic dairy sector. Even those companies who have historically supported the small dairy farmers have recently cancelled contracts, and some have opted to purchase from controversial large-scale Midwestern dairy farms.

The legitimacy of these large dairies has also come under scrutiny for their questionable fulfillment of the National Organic Program’s Pasture Rule, requiring that animals graze for 120 days per year at a minimum, and receive at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from forages during the grazing season. Industrialized organic dairy farming doesn’t look much like the milk carton depictions of happy cows grazing in green, lush pastures with a quaint barn and rolling hills and forested land in the background. But that IS what many small Northeastern grazing dairies look like.

With the integrity of organic dairy being compromised, and the conventional dairy sector floundering, the Northeast’s certified organic dairy farmers are now battling for survival on the frontlines, fighting to distinguish their milk from the rest, and also from the growing market segment of plant-based “milk.”

Distinguished dairy grazing

“The pastoral system is based on what the land provides,” Weaver said, and is a core concept which has been ignored in today’s system of industrialized certified organic dairy farming. The pastoral system produces “a product which cannot ever be duplicated on a mass scale,” and is the key to authenticity in organic dairy.

That is the ultimate reality which keeps the Northeast’s organic dairy farming community optimistic in spite of adversity. The key to the survival of organic dairy farms in the Northeast is the high-quality pasture grazing that is possible in this part of the country, Weaver emphasized. Moving away from growing corn for grain and silage in the Northeast, and recommitting to pasture, will move the Northeast organic dairy segment forward.

“If we learn how to really grow great pasture, it’s what could set us apart as a brighter future,” he said. “Pasturing dairy cows reduces cost, increases milk quality and enhances its taste.”

In addition, grazing livestock is a solution to climate change. Managed grazing of cows reduces the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as pasture removes carbon dioxide from the air. Methane emitted from grazing cows is also sequestered in the soil and eliminates the problems which methane emissions from manure storage facility pose.

“The cow is the integral part of the climate solution. All cows are not the same as far as methane is concerned,” with feedlot beef and confined dairy cows adding to the problem, while cows grazing on pasture can be a part of the solution, Weaver said.

Marketing Northeast organic milk

Presenting this reality to the consumer is just the first step in clearly defining the differences between organic dairy farms where grass-based milk and optimized pasture are the guiding principles and the USDA’s concept of organic dairy, which has allowed industrialized production to undermine the organic label. This differentiation is the key to moving the Northeast’s organic dairy sector forward, and keeping it profitable.

Numerous small, regional milk processors working with groups of small dairy farmers to efficiently route their trucks and handle the fluctuating supply of fluid milk, and to promote the characteristics of the milk from these grass-based farms is needed. National distributors are not going to provide these types of services, Weaver said.

Promoting the health benefits of whole milk, from pastured cows, is another tool that NODPA’s farmers can employ. A switch to seasonal production, and finding processors who know how to work with a seasonal milk supply, can further reduce costs and propel the Northeast’s dairy farmers forward. This also works well with the declining demand for fluid milk, and the growing demand for cheese and other processed dairy products.

With an emphasis on growing healthy pasture through grazing management, and a refocusing on the appropriately-scaled organic dairy farms that historically have been the backbone of the organic dairy industry, NODPA’s dairy farmers can reclaim their markets and regrow their market share.

The Northeast’s organic dairy industry, built on small grass-based dairy farms, can market and produce a truly authentic organic, grass-based milk by taking advantage of the region’s ability to grow great grass if farmers band together and separate their milk from large scale dairy farming, Weaver said. “We’re in it alone. I think we can get it figured out, too.”