Farmers at Organic Valley Assert Control to Maintain High Ethics Standards at Co-op

Farmers at Organic Valley Assert Control to Maintain High Ethics Standards at Co-op

LA FARGE, WI: After years of being financially squeezed, dairy farmers have developed a healthy skepticism toward the businesses that buy their milk. Even at farmer-owned cooperatives the incomes paid to dairy producers have failed to keep pace with inflation, while the clout of co-op managers, and the size of their paychecks, have continued to grow. Earlier this year, the farmer-owners at Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic cooperative, worried that their worst fears were coming to fruition. The Cornucopia Institute, the nation’s leading organic-industry watchdog and a longtime critic of factory farms, discovered that Organic Valley was quietly buying milk from a giant Texas operation milking 3500-4000 cows. “I was terribly disturbed to learn that some of our milk was coming from an investor-owned corporate dairy,” said Darlene Coehoorn, president of the Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and long-time Organic Valley member. “Since our relationship with consumers is based on trust, I thought that buying milk from this factory farm could potentially be catastrophic to our marketplace reputation.” According to a University of Illinois research report, the investor group that controls the 50,000-acre Natural Prairie Dairy operation in Delhart, Texas, is prepared to replicate the project based on marketplace demand. Recent reports indicate they have already grown their herd to upward of 5000 milk cows in the semi-arid region of west Texas. When challenged by their farmer-owners about why the co-op was buying milk from the Texas mega-farm, Organic Valley’s management defended the situation. They called the purchasing arrangement “temporary.” Managers said they had checked it out and found that unlike many other factory farms, the operation was at least doing some level of grazing as opposed to strictly confining cattle to a feedlot. “What I find to be objectionable, along with many other Organic Valley farmer-owners, is the fact that some giant dairy, that doesn’t even qualify for membership in our co-op, can get by with the bare minimum of meeting federal organics standards, or worse, but family producers like myself are expected to uphold the high standards set forth by Organic Valley,” said Coehoorn. Along with her husband, Dan, they milk 50 cows on their dairy farm in Rosendale, WI. “What bothered some farmers most was that this giant operation was gaming the system the same way that we found at the 8000-head Horizon dairy owned by Dean Foods,” said Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. Cornucopia had come down hard on Dean Foods for selling-off all their baby calves at birth and then replacing them in their dairy herd with year-old heifers that had been raised on conventional, genetically engineered feed and managed with antibiotics and other drugs banned in organics. This same practice is employed by management at Natural Prairie in Texas. “We have held Organic Valley in high regard,” said Kastel. “But once we discovered that Organic Valley was cutting some of the same corners as Dean Foods, we have the ethical responsibility to treat both organizations the same way,” Kastel added. Cornucopia initially sought to negotiate with Organic Valley management, trying to persuade them that their “family farm” and “farmer-owned” cooperative brand, advertised widely to consumers, was at risk due to their association with milk from the Natural Prairie industrial-scale dairy. But the negotiations failed until Cornucopia brought the situation to the attention of key farmer-owners with management oversight. “The difference between Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor with over $12 billion in annual sales, and Organic Valley is that Organic Valley is democratically controlled by the farmers themselves who actually own the outfit,” noted Kastel. “Once the farmers got involved things started to change.” During an emotionally charged meeting in May, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon announced to the Dairy Executive Committee, representatives elected by the co-op’s approximately over 900 dairy farmers, that the Cooperative would cease buying milk from the Texas dairy effective June 1. “We have seen all too many farmer-owned dairy cooperatives do what is financially expedient to the detriment of their producer-members,” said John Bunting, industry observer and contributing editor to the dairy monthly The Milkweed. “It’s certainly heartening to see farmers step up and go toe-to-toe with management to maintain control.” The Milkweed’s investigative research, and discoveries of improprieties by management at the nation’s largest conventional dairy cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, was prominently featured in a recent New York Times and Wall Street Journal stories. The controversy surrounding giant factory farms has escalated over the past few years, with The Cornucopia Institute filing a series of formal legal complaints with the USDA. Dean Foods’ largest supplier, a 10,000-cow feedlot in Pixley, California, was shut down, and Aurora Dairy, with five massive operations in Texas and Colorado, was the subject of enforcement sanctions by the USDA in 2007. Aurora is now defending itself in court as the target of 19 federal consumer fraud lawsuits. “The good news is that, because of their decision to cease buying milk from this factory farm, Organic Valley will remain one of the highly rated dairies in the organic industry,” Kastel stated. Cornucopia’s national analysis of all industry participants indicated that over 90% of all namebrand organic dairy products were produced with milk from family farms of high integrity. “Factory farms in organics are a terrible aberration,” observed Kastel. “Cornucopia’s scorecard, on our web site (www.cornucopia.org), helps consumers find and support the true heroes in the organic dairy business. We are pleased that Organic Valley will remain one of them.” Many co-op members who have learned of the situation, such as Kevin Engelbert, who, along with his family, milks 120 cows in New York, are completely supportive of the efforts by other farmer-owners to keep Organic Valley true to its original mission. Engelbert states: “The farmers who own the co-op are the ultimate watchdogs. We have and will continue to protect the reputation of Organic Valley. Consumers should continue to enjoy our products in confidence, knowing that they are supporting authentic, true family farms that protect the environment, treat animals humanely, and follow not just the letter of the National Organic Rule, but also its intent.” Tony Azevedo, of Stevinson California, another long-time Organic Valley member, and president of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, said: “This incident should be very reassuring to our many loyal Organic Valley customers. Unlike most business we are not strictly governed by the bottom line.” Posted 6.19.08

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