More Farm Bill Investment in Organic Milk Would Benefit Consumers

The organic dairy sector provides more economic opportunity and generates more jobs in rural communities than conventional dairies, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The first-of-its-kind study, "Cream of the Crop: The Economic Benefits of Organic Dairy Farms," calculated the economic value of organic milk production.

"Over the past 30 years, dairy farmers have had a choice: either get big or get out. Dairy farmers either had to dramatically expand and become large industrial operations or they went out of business," said Jeffrey O'Hara, agricultural economist for the Food and Environment Program at UCS and author of the report. "However, organic dairy production offers farmers another option – one that is better for the environment, produces a healthier product, and leads to greater levels of economic activity."

Based on 2008-2011 financial data from Minnesota and Vermont, the report evaluates the economic impact of organic dairy farms in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, two regions where organic dairy farms are prominent. The report concluded that organic dairies contribute significantly the state economies and create jobs. Wisconsin – third largest organic dairy state behind California and Texas – is home to 397 organic dairy farms.

Nationally, consumer demand for organic milk has jumped dramatically over the last decade, driven largely by ample evidence that it is more nutritious and less damaging to the environment than milk produced in crowded, polluting CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Organic dairy farming is now a $750 million industry, and annual U.S. organic milk sales increased 12 percent in 2010, 13 percent in 2011, and 5 percent in the first seven months of 2012. In Wisconsin, organic dairy sales amounted to $82 million in 2011.

Rick and Valerie Adamski, owners of Full Circle Farm in Seymour, Wisconsin, know how to make organic dairy farming both profitable and sustainable. To make their 160 acre, 90-cow organic dairy self-sustaining, the Adamskis began their transition to certified organic methods in 1998.

"Organic farming requires us to be more in tune with our land and animals," said Valerie, who breeds the cows, while Rick walks the farm daily, monitoring the crops and cows. "The often said mantra that ‘a farmer's footsteps are the best fertilizer' certainly holds true for us."

The Adamski's are also proactive about engaging young farmers. They started a milkshare agreement, in which they split all inputs, labor and revenue with 27-year-old Andy Jaworski, who milks with the Adamskis while also growing organic grains and raising heifers on his own family's farm. The Adamskis would like to see federal policies provide more support for young and beginning farmers.

Despite organic dairy farms' benefits and rising consumer demand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (UDSA) farm programs and taxpayer subsidies favor big CAFOs. The Farm Bill, which reauthorizes USDA farm programs every five years, currently provides relatively little support for the organic dairy sector. However, this modest federal support is vital to organic dairy farmers who already contribute to and stabilize regional economies, and it also provides support for farmers who want to transition to organic farming.

With the election decided, Congress has the opportunity to increase support for the organic dairy sector in the lame duck session. O'Hara's report outlines four primary policy recommendations:

• USDA should revise the federal milk marketing orders, which establish the minimum prices dairy processors must pay to farmers. The antiquated minimum-pricing order policies were written in the 1930's and fail to account for the ways that organic milk production differs from conventional dairy farming.
• Congress and USDA should offer a subsidized insurance program that is customized to the needs of organic dairy farmers. Insurance programs proposed in Farm Bill deliberations are only designed to support conventional dairies.
• Congress should increase funding for organic agriculture programs.
• Congress should fund and the USDA should implement programs that support regional food system development, such as rural development grants.

"More and more consumers across the country are choosing organic milk, but Washington hasn't gotten the message," said O'Hara. "Investing in organic dairy production would pay off in multiple ways by keeping small farm businesses afloat, promoting local economic growth, reducing farm pollution, and meeting growing consumer demand."

Read more about Valerie and Rick Adamski and get the inside scoop from other organic dairy farmers in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast.