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.