Milk has been one of the leading success stories in organic agriculture. While conventional milk prices have stagnated for decades, farmers producing organic milk have received over fifty percent more for their product. Such premiums have allowed family-scale dairies to remain in business in a difficult market.
Consumers of organic milk have paid more for the product, often happily. Many take comfort from U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that prevent organic farmers from using feeds with inorganic chemicals and genetically-modified organisms. Pesticide residues, such as Lindane, have been found in conventional milk. The organic regulations also prohibit the use of synthetic growth hormones, which boost milk production 10 or 15%. According to an opinion piece posted by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), "Evidence has accumulated indicating that rBGH [recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone] may promote cancer in humans who drink milk from rBGH treated cows," a claim denied by the hormone's manufacturer and proponents.
As for what is in organic milk, studies show some has more vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, all beneficial to human health. That the cows graze green pastures between trips to the milking stalls is important to consumers who value humane farming practices, and is largely responsible for the greater nutrients in organic milk.
This system, founded on decades of hard work and devotion, is at a crossroads. In April, watchdog organization the Cornucopia Institute reported that much organic milk in grocery refrigerators comes from factory-scale dairies, each with many thousands of cows. The OCA has called for a nationwide boycott of factory farm organic milk, leading consumers to reconsider what is truly organic and sustainable when they are buying milk.
Federal regulation of organic milk is at the heart of the controversy. As they stand now, the regulations require "access to the outdoors" and "access to pasture for ruminants," including dairy cows. Temporary confinement of organic cows is permitted only for specific reasons, including "the animal's stage of production."
According to the Cornucopia Institute's report, two factory farm dairy companies are flaunting, if not violating, these regulations. Cows producing milk are being confined continuously, presumably under the "stage of production" exception for temporary confinement. Only cows that are not lactating get regular pasture time, and some of the dairies are located in arid parts of Idaho and Colorado, where lush pasture is not abundant. When cows reach the end of their productive lives, they are often replaced with calves from farms that use inorganic, genetically engineered feeds that contain slaughterhouse byproducts.
One of the companies targeted by Cornucopia's report, Horizon Organic (owned by Dean Foods), gets over half of its milk from family-scale farmers, leading many farmers and consumers to oppose the OCA boycott. The other, Aurora, sells its milk to grocery stores and wholesalers for marketing under private labels. Both companies say they are in full compliance with federal regulations and support pasture requirements for organic dairy cows.
That a factory farm confining thousands of animals and getting replacement animals from inorganic farms can even be in compliance with organic regulations concerns many farmers, producers, and consumers. In June, natural foods producer Eden Foods (which makes soy milk but not dairy milk) issued a press release explaining that it does not participate in the federal organic program because the regulations are not stringent enough:
"In a back room deal [in October 2005] the Organic Trade Association lobbied Congress to legalize the adulteration of organic food with basically any toxic additive a manufacturer may want to use.... As a result, food bearing the "USDA Organic' seal no longer needs to be natural food."
The controversy has retailers and consumers reevaluating their priorities when it comes to milk.
"We don't think organic is the holy grail," says C.E. Pugh, general manager of La Monta-ita Co-op, which operates groceries in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Gallup. "Local is the new organic. We find greater value in building a sustainable foodshed system."
Pugh explains that if retailers and buyers don't support local farmers, the farmers will be driven out of business by national and international organic operations, which hit local farmers with three "whammies": depressed prices caused by economies of scale, a shrinking wholesale market that prefers the ease of dealing with large-scale producers, and the increasing cost of distributing foods long distances.
In addition to a private label milk from one of the organic factory farm producers, La Monta-ita's refrigerators contain milk from Organic Valley and Rasband Dairy. The latter is a local dairy near Albuquerque that produces a pasteurized milk that is not organic. It is also not homogenized, giving it a "creamy, old-fashioned appeal," according to Pugh.
That Rasband Dairy is not organic does not mean La Monta-ita is unconcerned with production practices. Rasband Dairy certifies in writing that it does not inject its animals with growth hormones or give them non-therapeutic antibiotics. In 2001, the American Medical Association called for an end to the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock agriculture, which is resulting in the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Other cow's milk produced in New Mexico includes the Creamland, Nature's Dairy, and Mickey's Drive-In Dairy labels, none of which are organic, according to Alf Reeb, who is Director of the Dairy Division of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.
Goat milk from Sweetwoods Dairy is another local option for consumers. Best known for its red-ribboned goat cheeses, plain and flavored, Sweetwoods in Peña Blanca also sells goat milk at the Santa Fe Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays from seven a.m. to noon.
What does sustainable agriculture mean to a 100-goat dairy on five acres?
"It means caring for the land," says owner Patrice Harrison-Inglis, "but it also means can we keep doing it? Can the farmers be supported by it?"
Low demand for pasteurized goat milk led Sweetwoods to restrict its business to raw milk, which is still licensed and inspected by the state.
"Raw milk is higher in quality on all parameters for which you can test, including enzymes and proteins," says Harrison-Inglis.
Asked about Sweetwoods' farming practices, Harrison-Inglis says the goats eat a mixture of corn, oats, and barley that is not organic. A few years ago, the Albuquerque mill that supplies feed for Sweetwoods quoted $38/bag for organic feed, compared to $7.50/bag for conventional feed. Like an organic operation, Sweetwoods does not give its goats non-therapeutic antibiotics, but Harrison-Inglis bristles at the topic.
"No milk, conventional or organic, is allowed to pass inspection if it contains antibiotic residues," she says. "Animals receiving antibiotics must be taken off the production line. A lot of people come to me to avoid antibiotics, but it is an unfounded fear, and I don't want people to make decisions based on fear."
Consumers for whom organic milk is important can turn to the Cornucopia Institute for a dairy scorecard. In 2005, the Institute sent surveys to dozens of organic dairy marketers seeking information on ownership structure, animal health policies, milk production practices, and other factors. Using the responses and publicly available information, the Institute ranked the marketers using a five-tiered system from outstanding (five cows) down to substandard (one cow).
Organic Valley received four cows. It is a farmer-owned cooperative that operates one of its production plants in southern Colorado, making it an almost local source for northern New Mexico, according to C.E. Pugh. The plant's proximity to markets allows it just to pasteurize the milk instead of ultra-pasteurizing it, which destroys more nutrients that normal pasteurization.
Organic Valley is available widely in northern New Mexico at Albertson's, Vitamin Cottage, Wild Oats, and Whole Foods, in addition to La Monta-ita Co-op, El Dorado Supermarket in Santa Fe, and Cid's Food Market in Taos. Other organic brands covered by the dairy scorecard and available locally include Horizon and the private label milk sold by Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Wild Oats.
The Cornucopia Institute's report and dairy scorecard are available on its website at www.cornucopia.org. The Organic Consumers Association website is www.organicconsumers.org. The USDA organic regulations appear at www.ams.usda.gov/nop/NOP/NOPhome.html.