Organic dairy farmers urge USDA to finalize ‘origin of livestock’ rule

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Organic dairy farmers are again urging the USDA to clarify its rule for transitioning livestock under the National Organic Program, eliminating a loophole they say puts smaller producers at a severe economic disadvantage.

Regulators first issued the “Origin of Livestock” rule in 2015, allowing dairies to transition cows from conventional to organic over a 12-month period, when the animals are raised using only organic farming practices — such as eating 100% organic feed and managed without antibiotics or added growth hormones.

Kate Mendenhall, director of the national Organic Farmers Association, said the transition is supposed to be a one-time event. Some dairies, however, have a different interpretation of the rule.

Rather than raising calves as organic from birth, Mendenhall said dairies might use cheaper conventional farming practices during their first year before “re-transitioning” livestock in the second year. The result is cows are essentially cycled in and out of organic production, creating an uneven playing field for the rest of the industry.

“We’re asking for clarity within the rules to make it a one-time transition,” Mendenhall said. “Most farms have been held to the standard that they can do it once and it’s done. They can’t leave (organic production) and come back.”

Congress gave the USDA 180 days to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule, though the agency missed its deadline of June 17. In response, 70 organic farming groups including the Organic Farmers Association wrote a letter asking lawmakers to step up the pressure.

“Organic dairy farmers are suffering and continued delays in implementing this rule will prolong the dire economics facing organic dairy farmers, as well as jeopardize consumers’ trust in the organic label,” the groups wrote.

Oregon Tilth, an organization based in Corvallis that certifies organic farms and ranches in 49 states, also signed the letter. Chris Schreiner, the group’s executive director, said he is frustrated with the USDA for dragging its feet on finalizing the Origin of Livestock rule.

“The government is just not keeping pace with what the industry wants,” Schreiner said. “Certainly here in the Northwest, organic dairy has provided an opportunity for family-scale dairy farms to stay economically viable … This will help level the playing field, and will help dairies here in the Northwest for whom the organic marketplace has been a way to maintain economic viability.”

Organic milk makes up 5% of all milk produced in the U.S., according to a 2016 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. California leads the country in the number of certified organic dairy cows by a wide margin with 50,136, followed by Wisconsin, Texas and New York.

Around the Northwest, Oregon had 21,101 registered organic dairy cows in 2016, while Washington had 9,211 and Idaho had 7,434. The total value of sales across the three states topped $9.8 million.

By allowing dairies to inappropriately use the organic transition multiple times, they can grow their herd much more rapidly and at a much lower cost, Mendenhall said. One estimate shows it costs dairies $623 less per animal to raise calves conventionally for one year.

As a few herds continue to grow larger, Mendenhall said farms have flooded the market with organic milk, causing prices to drop. Organic Valley, the largest U.S. organic cooperative, paid out an average price of $35.68 per hundred pounds of organic milk in 2016. That fell to $30.10 in 2017, and $29.52 in 2018.

“All dairy farmers have been in crisis for a number of years now,” said Mendenhall, who has an organic mixed livestock farm in Iowa. “Organic dairy farmers have especially suffered, in part because this rule has allowed inequity to happen. I know a lot of organic dairy farms that have gone out of business across the country.”

Mendenhall said she worries the Origin of Livestock standards will fall by the wayside unless the USDA acts soon, especially heading into an election year.

“We really don’t want that to happen,” she said.

Business booming at small meat plants, but some producers are in trouble

EUGENE, Ore. — At Mohawk Valley Meats, a small USDA slaughterhouse here, workers in  blood-splattered white smocks raced to package meats on a recent Friday.

Business is booming for small meat processors across the U.S. because of soaring demand for locally raised and processed meat and a glut of slaughter-ready livestock created when big slaughterhouses became hotspots for coronavirus outbreaks and had to shut down.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. In two days, we booked all of 2020. We have kill dates for September of 2021 for pigs that haven’t even been conceived yet,” said Denise Pohrman, the plant manager.

Many small processors say they are “thriving.” But some plant managers, including Pohrman of the Mohawk plant, say despite their gratefulness for increased business, they are concerned that their smaller-scale, already-existing customers have been swept aside by larger producers.

With some bigger slaughterhouses closed or slowing their production because of COVID-19 problems, many ranchers have turned to smaller processors. Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said even ranchers from the Midwest have sent truckloads of hogs to Oregon slaughterhouses.

Faced with new customers, processors say they have had to make tough decisions.

Some processors have dropped small-scale producers and accepted new, larger-scale customers — to make extra income, prevent wasteful livestock deaths and satisfy the nation’s demand for meat.

Other processors have remained loyal to their small producers, hoping to maintain long-term customers and keep them afloat.

“I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, but we have created victims in the aftermath,” said Pohrman of Mohawk Valley Meats.

Pohrman said she packed her calendar with new customers when calls flooded in and now regrets it because 20 to 40 regular customers call daily begging her to harvest their livestock. She said she will no longer accept new customers.

Many small-scale producers, she said, have already paid for slots at farmers markets for the year but will run out of meat before their next butcher dates.

Deck Family Farm in Junction City, Ore., which produces pasture-raised pork, lamb, beef and chicken, has worked with Mohawk Valley Meats 15 years but had its slaughter schedule “totally disrupted,” according to the farm’s poultry manager.

“I lay awake at night and don’t sleep,” said Pohrman. “I’ve apologized more than 10 times this week for allowing myself to become overbooked.”

Pohrman said her new customers, who are reacting to the crisis, are likely just temporary, while her existing customers will likely be with her long-term.

Bill Hoyt, a cattle rancher near Cottage Grove, Ore., and board member of the Oregon Beef Council, said he sympathizes with Pohrman’s dilemma but wonders if she’s making a mistake by turning away other producers.

“Denise (Pohrman) wants to help everyone and can’t say no to the little guy,” he said. “She’s got a heart as big as the plant. But the world has bigger needs right now.”

Thistlethwaite, of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said if small producers didn’t have slaughter dates lined up months in advance, that’s their problem.

“If you haven’t figured out by now when your animals are ready for harvest, then you have no business trying to be a midscale producer until you professionalize your relationships,” she said.

One Oregon meat plant owner who chose to remain anonymous agreed, saying many small growers call a week ahead expecting to get a slaughter spot.

Thistlethwaite said many small producers don’t know they have other options.

She encourages small producers to consider custom-exempt slaughter, enabling them to sell animal portions directly to consumers.

The USDA labels many small processors as “custom exempt,” meaning they are exempt from continuous federal inspections. Producers can sell portions of an animal — usually quarter, half or whole to customers. This is called selling live animals “on the hoof” as “locker meat.”

The other option, said Thistlethwaite, is “retail-exempt processing.” Retail establishments, such as grocery stores, may process and sell meat at the store. Limited meat can also be sold wholesale to hotels, restaurants or institutions. The animals must be slaughtered under USDA inspection but can be processed under Oregon Department of Agriculture inspection.

The catch is the producer must have a relationship with a butcher or know how to butcher. For that reason, said Thistlethwaite, this may not be an immediate solution.

Pohrman of the Mohawk plant said these exemptions fail to help producers selling to farmers markets, which require meat be both harvested and processed under USDA inspection.

In the past week, Pohrman has sent letters to the ODA, Gov. Kate Brown and others requesting an emergency exemption to help these producers.

Thistlethwaite said although big plant closures have caused disruptions, that’s not the driving force behind small processors’ sudden popularity. The bigger driver, she said, is demand. Consumers are eager for local food during the pandemic.

This craving comes after a long period of decline. Big meatpacking facilities have made meat relatively cheap in the U.S. and pushed smaller slaughterhouses out of business.

From 1990 to 2016, the U.S. meatpacking industry lost more than 1,800 slaughterhouses. The “Big Four” companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — came to dominate 85% of the industry.

Hoyt of the Oregon Beef Council said the nation’s meat infrastructure resembles an hourglass: on one end, producers and feedlots, on the other, consumers, with processors in the slender neck. Now, the neck is jammed.

“I think there’s a real need for more small processors,” he said.

But creating a local meat system isn’t simple. Industry experts say building and running a meat plant is expensive, regulations are complex and competition is tough.

Even so, Thistlethwaite said she hopes the pandemic will result in more consumers supporting local producers and processors.

“I suspect after this initial hoarding phase, the demand is going to slack off considerably, especially since we’re about to enter a massive recession,” she said. “But if people want local meat to last, I hope nobody expects any quick fixes. Consumer interest can’t just be a blip on the screen. That’s not the kind of long-term commitment farmers need.”

U-pick farms reopening with safety features

HARRISBURG, Ore. — Customers flocked to Detering Orchards’ U-pick strawberry patch Saturday for the season’s opening.

Sunday, dozens more people picked until plants were bare and the farm was forced to temporarily close its patch, said Detering Orchards’ retail manager Cindy Dixon.

“I think we may see more people this year than ever. It seems like people are becoming a little more aware of where their food is coming from during this time,” said Ella Jones, office manager for Detering Orchards, near Harrisburg, Ore.

Across Oregon, farmers featuring on-farm picking, known as U-pick, are welcoming or gearing up to welcome visitors. Strawberry patches began opening in late May.

Blueberry patches and cherry orchards are set to open mid-to-late June. Experts predict 2020 will be a successful year for U-pick farms, but because of COVID-19, farms are changing safety practices.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture, or ODA, has issued guidance for U-pick farms. Experts at the Oregon State University Extension Service say the additional practices will look different on each farm.

To limit fruit handling, some farms, such as Kiger Island Blues, a Corvallis blueberry farm, plan to sell by the bucket instead of weighing picked fruit. Many farm owners say they plan disinfect tables, gate handles and other surfaces.

Some farms will discourage cash in favor of debit or credit cards, but that is not feasible for some smaller-scale producers. Most U-pick operations will allow customers to bring their own pre-sanitized containers, but some farms will offer optional buckets for purchase rolled into the overall price.

Andrea Davis, co-owner of Kings Valley Gardens, a small blueberry U-pick farm in Benton County, Ore., said she will offer containers for $1 to $1.50.

Most farms will encourage, but not require, guests to wear masks.

Christina Fordyce of Fordyce Farm in Marion County said the farm will assign customers to pick two rows apart, offer a handwashing station, encourage people to pick what they touch and discourage eating while picking.

Keeping pickers spaced apart may be harder on smaller farms, which may choose to do reservation-only, said Melissa Fery, a small farms coordinator for OSU Extension.

Davis of Kings Valley Gardens, the small-scale grower, said she will do a reservation system only if necessary because many of her customers have traditionally been drop-ins. She plans to use flags and signs to promote social distancing.

Because each operation will vary in hours and policies, Fery said she encourages customers to call in advance.

Some industry experts predict 2020 may be a big year for U-pick farms because more consumers during COVID-19 are seeking food security and local sources.

“I speculate the U-pick model will be really popular this year,” said Fery.

Audrey Comerford, agritourism coordinator at OSU, said she also expects to see more U-pick customers statewide this year.

“People are still uncomfortable about how many people touched or washed their food. This is the shortest possible supply chain,” said Comerford.

U-pick farms, she said, also offer an outdoor activity for people feeling cooped up.

“I’m happy I’ll be able to provide a fun outing,” said Davis, the blueberry grower.

Dixon of Detering Orchards said customers were “so happy” to pick strawberries this weekend.

“This is a crazy time, but when people were picking, they looked really peaceful,” she said.