Let’s cure Absencia Grassosis! Weigh in on organic pasture rule by Dec. 23

We’ve reported before on a disturbing disease that’s been plaguing large-scale organic dairies: Absencia Grassosis. Sounds pretty nasty, doesn’t it? Loosely translated, it means lack of grass. Industrial-organic companies including Aurora (supplier of organic milk to Safeway and other private-label brands) and Horizon (owned by dairy giant Dean Foods) have already fallen ill with it. If it’s allowed to fester and spread, it could seriously hobble the strength of the organic label – because last time I checked, organic consumers expected that their milk came from cows that actually munched on healthy pasture, not just gazed at it from inside a giant feedlot.

Unfortunately, Absencia Grassosis has received scant attention from the agency best positioned to provide the antidote to the disease: the USDA. Charged with safeguarding and enforcing the standards behind the organic label — which include the requirement that organic dairies give their cows access to pasture — USDA has sidestepped its responsibilities for years. While the agency did actually investigate Aurora for non-compliance with the organic standards and found it responsible for 14 separate violations, it didn’t de-certify or even fine the dairy. Instead, it issued a consent agreement whose message was, in essence, “no worries about all those corners you’ve been cutting – just try to avoid them next time.”

One of the USDA’s excuses for such lousy policing was that it claimed it didn’t know what “access to pasture” meant, so it couldn’t enforce it. That changed in October: After more than 85,000 letters [PDF] from organic groups and consumers, USDA published a draft rule spelling it out. And surprisingly, the rule was really strong. So strong, in fact, that it could be torched by Aurora and co. unless we work quickly to get it fixed up and finalized.

The deadline for comments on the “pasture rule” is fast approaching: those of us who care about the integrity of the organic label have to weigh in by Dec. 23rd. But this one’s a little tricky. A circular firing squad of sorts has congregated on this patch of certified organic pasture, with the Big Organic dairy and meat industry aiming at one aspect, certain organic farming groups at another, and one organic watchdog group firing sporadically into the air. It’s pretty easy to slip on all this grassroots spin. So before you head over to the Organic Farming Research Foundation’s website to shoot off an email to the USDA telling them to keep the rule but make a few reasonable changes, here’s some background to chew on.

Search and season

There’s no question that the proposed rule goes overboard in some respects. Example No. 1: it requires cows to be out on pasture all the time during the growing season, which the USDA defines as the time between the last killing frost in the spring and the first killing frost in the fall/winter. Family dairy producers worry that the strict language could prevent them from being able to bring their animals inside during inclement weather (anyone who’s been caught in a Midwestern spring thunderstorm or felt New Hampshire summer hail can probably appreciate the sentiment), while producers in regions where there is no frost fear that they won’t be able to keep their pasture healthy if cows have to be on it 365 days a year.

Long-laboring groups in the organic community, among them the Organic Farming Research Foundation and the National Organic Coalition (whose membership includes family dairy farmers), have endorsed a set of changes that keeps the pasture rule strong but takes out the absurdities. “Growing season” is changed to “grazing season,” defined as at least 120 days but up to 365 days a year, depending on where you are, when cows can reasonably be out on pasture. It doesn’t have to be continuous, so farmers can sustainably manage their land and/or keep their cows from death by lightning strike when they need to.

Sometimes a feedlot is just a feedlot

If you’re getting lulled to sleep by all this talk of grazing seasons, here’s something to jolt you back to life: the proposed rule went further than anyone was expecting and actually banned organic feedlots outright. This is a huge deal. Many organic beef producers finish their cows in feedlots just like the conventional guys do, except that they use organic grain. While that might get you the fatty, tender, exercise-starved steak U.S. consumers are used to, it doesn’t exactly fit the vision of most consumers who buy organic. At least it doesn’t fit mine. In the OFRF/NOC recommendations mentioned above, the feedlot ban stays firmly in the rule.

Predictably, Aurora and other big organic players are fighting the rule. They too argue that it’s overly strict, but I shudder to think of what their proposed changes would look like. After all, Aurora defined “access to pasture” as a drylot pen in the Idaho desert.

But in perhaps the strangest twist to the grassy saga, the Cornucopia Institute – which all along has led the attack against the abuse of the organic label by large dairy companies – has been sending mixed messages about the rule. It issued an alarmist action alert when the rule was published, declaring that “the proposed rule could shut down organic family farmers” because it was overly prescriptive. For a while, it looked like it might oppose the rule outright. It appears that the institute has now endorsed the recommendations submitted by NOC and others, but with one critical difference: It opposes banning feedlots for grain-finished organic beef.

Well, I have some beef with that. Cornucopia argues that banning feedlots now would “radically change the industry and could force some operators out of business.” Perhaps. But it’s a change that consumers and the organic industry should support if we want to preserve the integrity — and value, to the farmers, the animals, and the land — of the organic label. Folks pay a premium for organic meat and dairy because they want healthier products from animals that haven’t been subject to the same conditions as factory livestock, not because they’re OK with feedlots as long as they run on non-GMO corn.

As the saying goes, if we don’t stand together, we don’t stand at all – and the rule gets thrown out. The conspiracist in me thinks that may be just what the USDA was hoping for.

You can add your voice for the call to finalize this strong rule, along with a few reasonable changes such as the aforementioned “grazing season” tweak, by following the instructions on OFRF’s website before December 23rd. It’s the best gift we could give organic farmers and consumers this holiday season.

10 Responsesto “Let’s cure Absencia Grassosis! Weigh in on organic pasture rule by Dec. 23”

  1. Mark kastel says:

    Dear Eleanor,
    I’m wondering if you would contact me via our website (URL below).
    There has been a concerted effort to discredit The Cornucopia Institute, over the years, as the most aggressive watchdog condemning the practices of large corporate agribusiness and their investments in organic production.  The information you have received is misleading and/or inaccurate.
    Cornucopia has never been opposed to the new rulemaking (although we have suggested that the current law is perfectly enforceable and the USDA has chosen not to enforce it — their years-long charade, resulting in this new rule, was just a delaying tactic — resulting in factory farms producing “organic” milk blooming from 2 in 2000 to approximate 16 now.
    We have never suggested that confining beef cattle in organics should become a permanent part of the rules.  Rather, we set it is so important that it should be considered, by the entire organic community, as a separate rulemaking process.
    Unlike the new proposed rules that would rein in factory farm abuses in the dairy sector the organic community has not geared up for rulemaking to address abuses on beef feedlots.  If we go off half cocked now the large industrial concerns (backed by lobby groups like Farm Bureau) that are lining up against this rule might very well prevail and we could end up with something locked into the law that would even be worse than what we have today (feedlot production as the standard organic default for beef).
    I would encourage readers to this important blog (we read it all the time) to visit the cornucopia website for full instructions how to engage in the current rulemaking process (comments due December 23) …. click on the “projects tab”: http://www.cornucopia.org
    Sincerely yours,
    Mark A. Kastel
    Senior Farm Policy Analyst
    Cornucopia, Wisconsin

  2. Elanor says:

    Mark, thank you for your comments on the post. I have long admired Cornucopia’s work to go after factory farm dairies that undermine and discredit the organic standards that so many have worked so hard to build up. I remain a fan of the institute and the work that you do.

    That said, reasonable minds can disagree, and we’re doing so now. I feel differently about the inclusion of the feedlot ban in this rule than you do, though I certainly appreciate your perspective on it. And please note that I did not say that you opposed the new rules; I simply repeated the language of your action alert, which sent a message – whether intended or not – that the institute had serious concerns about the rule and viewed it negatively. I have not “received information” about your work on this, only scoped the website and dug up past action alerts from my inbox. I was confused by communications that led with the assertion the rule was bad for family farmers and then, deep in a second action alert, tacked back and suggested supporting the reforms. My post reports this confusion.

    I’m glad that so many organic groups, yours included, are coming together to back some of the same reforms, but there is a difference of opinion on where and when the feedlot ban should take place. In my opinion, the organic standards do not meet the needs of consumers, animals, or the land if they allow feedlots, and if the ban is not included now, it will likely never be.

  3. Tracy says:

    Hey Elanor,
    Thanks for providing your astute analysis and helpful breakdown of this rulemaking effort.  I’d also like to give a lot of credit to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) and the Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers (FOOD Farmers).  They put a lot of hard work into parsing the issues and helping OFRF’s corner of the organic universe understand how all of the nuances impact farmers.
    Take care,

  4. Elanor –

    A coalition of small organic dairy farms in Northern California opposes the regulations as currently proposed, including Straus Family Creamery, Clover Organic Dairies, Cowgirl Creamery, Wallaby and 32 organic dairy farms throughout Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties. These farms account for nearly 100% of the local organic milk on the grocery shelves in the Bay Area.

    The proposed rule changes are a “one-size fits all” approach to an industry that is regionally diverse in climate, water usage and herd-size. While the rules are intended to clamp down on giant factory farms that have been abusing the spirit and letter of federal organic law by primarily confining their cattle to feedlots, they would make it virtually impossible for the Northern California small organic family farms to comply.

    Producers and consumers alike support farming practices that ensure a healthy cow. No one is opposed to measures that support the welfare of farm animals. The proposed new regulations do not benefit the livestock, and in fact will negatively impact their welfare by imposing this one-size fits all set of standards.

    The USDA’s solution ignores significant regional variations in climate, rainfall, availability of water and a number of other factors that directly affect a dairy farmer’s ability to care for the soil, water and the well-being of the animals. What may be responsible management in Vermont or Wisconsin would be foolhardy in Northern California where land and herd management is a delicate balancing act between the rainy and dry seasons in our very unusual micro- climate.

    In Northern California, our cows graze not only for the nutrition that pasture provides but also for exercise and fresh air. They rotate from pasture to pasture and graze year-round as soil and weather conditions allow – typically from April until the rains start in November. The local pasture grass is sweet and full of beta-carotene, which gives our dairy products a rich, unique flavor for which our region has become world-famous. Pasture grazing is supplemented by organic hay, locally grown silage, and grains high in healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), which, when combined with pasture, give the herd a very nutritious and balanced diet.

    The proposed rules, however, would dictate the minimum number of days that cows graze and how much of their total food supply would come from grass. For non-farmers, that might sound rather reasonable. It may also sound fine to farmers who have an abundance of water with which they can irrigate their pastures and grow grass as they please, but that’s simply not a reality here in the Bay Area. A better requirement would be a maximum number of animals per acre of grazing pasture.

    The USDA also calls for “sacrificial pastures” – forcing cows onto wet, unsafe pastures during the rainy winter season where manure can contaminate local waterways.  Placing cattle on muddy pastures is also a risk to the animal’s health and can permanently destroy the pasture itself. This provision would undermine decades of hard work by environmentalist and farmers to establish practices that address both ecological and animal welfare issues. Ironically, the regulations would be at odds with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board’s regulations protecting water quality in our streams, lakes and bays from potential manure run-off.
    Finally, the proposed regulations contain numerous restrictions reflecting regional bias inappropriate for our region, such as nearly eliminating the use of barns and corrals to house and feed the cows.

    Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties are the “milkshed” for the San Francisco Bay Area, and are a national example of a successful sustainable and local agricultural system for the twelfth largest U.S. metropolitan area. The unintended consequence of the new regulations would be to put out of business the majority of all family-scale livestock farmers in Northern California who have the strongest commitment to the welfare of their animals, severely impacting the health and economic vitality of the region.

    We encourage all consumers to take a look at the issues at hand, and send their comments to the USDA. We’ve posted more information and a petition at http://www.strausfamilycreamery.com.


    Albert Straus
    Owner, Straus Family Creamery

  5. Elanor says:

    Hi Albert,
    Thanks very much for your comments and for all of your good work. My understanding is that the revisions to the rule that have been proposed by FOOD Farmers, NOC, OFRF and others – the revisions linked to in the action alert in my post – would help to alleviate some of the concerns you’ve mentioned here. For example, by changing the wording from growing season to grazing season and by defining grazing season as 120+ days that do not have to be continuous, dairy farmers could sustainably manage their pasture while allowing cows ample time on grass. I’d be interested to know if and why the revisions proposed by these groups do not alleviate your concerns. I know that we all want a strong organic standard that works for family farmers across the country, so I hope we can find ways to come together around a common proposal for revising the rules.
    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  6. Hi Elanor,
    Our two main differences with FOOD Farmers and the other groups are:
    Sacrificial pastures – in our region, this won’t work for a number of reasons, including direct conflicts with state regulations on water quality, pollution, siltation and erosion;
    30% minimum dry matter – essentially, this is a randomly created number, apparently based on the experience of some farmers. In practice, it’s neither measurable nor certifiable, and in many cases, not attainable without irrigation water, which for the most part doesn’t exist in our region.
    Albert Straus
    Straus Family Creamery

  7. Sam Fromartz says:

    Elanor gave a fine summary of this rule, but unlike her, I take issue with the ban on grain finishing. I came to this after talking to livestock farmers and certifiers — they thought organic livestock farmers would be cut out of a market if they went to 100% grass, or even 30% grass, as the reg would require even during a finishing phase. These are not farmers who sell direct to consumers. Rather, they are farmers who are too distant from markets or who rely on wholesale channels to sell their animals who will be affected. Essentially organic meat will decline in grocery stores, or be supplanted by organic meat from Australia where 100% grass-fed + organic is common and the economics make more sense. I quoted Albert in my story but take issue with his beef (so to speak) on the 30% nutritional requirement from pasture. Many farmers, certifiers I talk to say it is doable, but the precise way the NOP laid out measuring it was a bit screwy. The supporters include those in WODPA – the western organic dairy producers association which includes farmers in CA, OR, WA and other Western states.  More at: http://www.chewswise.com/chews/2008/12/have-your-say-organic-grazing-rule-comment-deadline-dec-23.html

  8. Jackie says:

    Couldn’t the NOP rule be simplified, putting a limit on the number of cattle per acre of land?  If you have only 25 acres of pasture, then you can have no more than X head of cattle.  This would effectively level the playing field between big organic and family farm organic.  If a corporation (or family farmer for that matter) wants to get big, than they can’t be organic.  Period.  There is no way to house massive numbers of animals, organic or not, without perverting the laws of nature.  I believe Albert said something of this above, but it got lost in his long (and very insightful) comment.

  9. Jackie says:

    By the way, why do my comments come out with symbols scattered throughout?

  10. Heather says:

    It is great to see this conversation continuing here. The proposed rules are clearly a bit tricky, and we have our disagreements on them as well. As a member of the National Organic Coalition, we (the Center for Food Safety) agree that a few portions of the proposed rules are a bit too prescriptive, but we ultimately support the rules. We also heard (as mentioned in previous comments here) from some producers that not grain-finishing beef would lead to a loss in the organic beef market, but the rule does not propose an end to grain-finishing, it simply proposes that grain-finishing need not be done on a feedlot, which we absolutely agree with. We supported a change in the language that would exempt producers from the 30% DMI requirement during the finishing period (not to exceed 120 days), but would not exempt these animals from pasture requirements. One of the primary concerns we heard about finishing beyond current consumer flavor and texture expectations, is that consumers expect organic beef to receive the same top grades (e.g., Prime, Choice) from USDA that conventional grain-fed beef receives, but many grass-fed animals do not receive top grades because the grading system is skewed towards grain-finished (corn fed, lack of exercize) qualities (e.g., marbling, “cherry red” color). While we agree that, if true, this is something that needs to be addressed, we did not feel that the proposed pasture rule was the right place to do it.

    Albert Straus mentioned the proposal for “sacrificial pasture” in his comment, and this too was a contentious issue with many producers we spoke with. Albert raises an important point in that not every pasture system will work everywhere. However, sacrificial pasture is not inherently bad anywhere any more than it is inherently good everywhere. Ultimately, sacrificial pasture has been, and will continue to be, used successfully by many producers across the nation. We support the use of sacrificial pasture to protect animal welfare and soil and water quality when and where it is appropriate, but we did not support its mandatory inclusion for many of the reasons that Albert highlighted. We were also concerned that mandatory inclusion of sacrificial pasture could give undue advantage to large producers who have greater access to land mass than small, family farmers.

    While a one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate for every aspect of pasture management, as organic meat and dairy production continues to grow (in both good and perhaps not-so-good ways), there has to be some uniform, certifiable floor to which all producers can be held or we will continue to see the abuses of the system we have become far too familiar with over the last few years–abuses that undermine the integrity of organic as a whole, even though the vast majority of organic producers would never even consider operating in the way these few, now notorious companies operated. Granted there are standards for pasture already in place, but we’ve seen how many cows can fit through its gaping loop holes, and it is high time we close them. Is it a perfect rule? No. Could changes be made to better it? Of course. But scrapping the rules altogether would be a real shame. At the end of the day, aside from a few needed changes, we think the proposed rules are appropriately strong and hold producers to the high standards people expect from the organic label.