Organic dairies are changing, and not because of the pandemic

Farmers plant fields of corn and hay to feed their dairy cows, Southern Otisco Valley. Photo by Evan Visconti

By Evan Visconti

Organic dairy farmers compete hard for a niche market during COVID-19 while conventional farmers struggle to find enough buyers.

“The pandemic crashed the market for conventional dairy because half of their sales went to schools and restaurants,” said Janice Degni, a Cornell Extension field prep specialist. “Organic milk is holding out because it is mainly sold in retail stores.”

The organic farmers interviewed in this story did not witness any dumping of milk. Schools and restaurants were never part of their market. Still, the organic dairy industry is going through a challenging period because of the drastic increase over the last decade in the number of organic dairy cows.

Before the year 2015, organic dairy was reserved for small farms looking to make a living. “The market was doubling every year for organic milk, but then too many farms joined in and the market plateaued,” said Degni.

Several largescale dairy farms in the southwest were certified organic and started producing thousands of pounds of organic dairy. “They were producing milk at such a low cost that they could ship it all the way to New York and sell it for cheaper than local farms could afford to,” said Degni.

Kirk Arnold, owner of Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, N.Y., said he is doubtful that those farms are truly abiding by organic regulations. “Even though we’re in Central New York, our organic milk price is being significantly affected by the big Southwestern dairies with multi-thousand cows that are supposedly organic,” he said. “I just don’t believe they’re meeting a lot of the pasture requirements that say they are.”

“A lot of the better organic contracts are not being renewed, and if you want to extend your contract, you have to sign back up at a different pay price,” said Arnold.  “That puts some farms in a tough spot.”

When Fay Benson started the first organic dairy farm in Central New York in 1997, he was able to pay off all of his debt in less than 10 years. “That’s a hard thing to do on a farm,” said Benson. The organic market has grown dramatically since then, but organic dairy farmers today are still reaping the benefits of a more stable market.

Benson decided to go organic because of the changes he saw happening in conventional dairy. The Monsanto Company, an agriculture biotechnology corporation, began selling the growth hormone called bovine somatotropin, known as BST.

“They said it’s a way to make your farm more efficient, but I didn’t want to give my cows hormone shots to make them produce more milk,” said Benson. “I knew I couldn’t compete against the big guys already, and this new growth hormone would have been the nail in my coffin.”

Benson and other farmers noticed that consumers were not happy with a growth hormone in their milk. If farmers could produce a clean product with no additives or chemicals, they could start a new market for a more expensive but cleaner product: organic dairy.

Most organic dairy farms in Central New York today have between 30 and 80 milking cows, according to Degni. Organic dairy farms can afford to run smaller operations than conventional dairy farms because they receive on average $10 more per hundredweight of milk they produce.

They are also protected from volatility because organic farms have a yearlong contract price for their milk. “In the conventional market, each month you get a different price for your milk and you never knew what you’re going to get,” said Benson. “Having a set price for a year at a time makes paying the bills a lot easier.”

Although organic dairy farms receive more money for the milk they produce, the cost of production tends to be higher. Organic grain is four to five times more expensive than conventional grain, according to Benson. The cows also need more land for grazing, which results in higher land taxes.

Organic farms cannot use pesticides, antibiotics or hormones, so they tend to have lower crop yields and decreased milk production per cow, according to Dave Van Erden, owner of East View Farms in Fabius, N.Y. “All of your inputs are more expensive and the cows don’t produce as much milk,” said Van Erden.

But slightly lower yields are worthwhile when you’re producing a product that is 100 percent natural, according to organic farmers. “I don’t even like pasteurized milk,” said Arnold. “I’ve grown up on raw milk and I’ll always drink it that way. Any farm that is producing milk should be willing to drink their own milk as raw milk,” he said. “That’s the kind of cleanliness practices that every farmer should have.”

Many consumers are willing to pay a higher price for cleaner milk. “Initially we saw a lot of mothers buying it who had young children,” said Benson. “They viewed it as removing antibiotics, pesticides and hormones from their kid’s diet.”

On top of a cleaner product, some consumers like supporting a more natural lifestyle for dairy cows. They get to graze in open pastures as they would in their natural setting.

For Benson, the biggest benefit to going organic was supporting a healthy ecosystem around his farm. “I saw it as an environmental boon to be organic because the air, land and water on my property received no herbicides, no synthetics fertilizers and no antibiotics being put into the environment,” said Benson.

Fertilizer runoff from fields easily crosses into Tully Lake, which is experiencing algae blooms and increased underwater plant growth. Photo by Evan Visconti

Chemical agriculture is a popular way to increase crop yields and lower production costs, but “we haven’t yet seen all of the results of using chemical agriculture,” said Arnold. “The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a pretty good indicator that we’re doing something wrong.”

According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, there was a 6,952 square mile hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico resulting from farm and city runoff flowing out of the Mississippi River. The chemical runoff stimulates “massive algal growth” during the spring and summer, which results in depleted oxygen levels that are insufficient for most marine life, according to the NOAA.

Algae and weeds growing in Tully Lake blend into a corn field that farmers spray with fertilizers. Photo by Evan Visconti

Over time, crops develop a resistance to herbicides which forces farmers to “mix up a cocktail of multiple herbicides,” said Arnold. The same theory can be applied to the use of antibiotics – the more you use them, the more likely you’re going to create a “super bug” and reduce the overall effectiveness of antibiotics when you really need them, according to Arnold.

“Herbicides like roundup don’t just kill weeds,” Arnold said. “They kill all of the living organisms in your soil that promote healthy plant growth.”

Fields and open pastures fill the landscape surrounding freshwater lakes in Central New York. Photo by Evan Visconti
About Evan Visconti 4 Articles
Evan Visconti earned his bachelor's degree from Loyola University Maryland before attending graduate school at Emerson College. Evan is passionate about the natural environment and plans on becoming an environmental beat reporter for a newspaper or magazine.