By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
Lawmakers from across the Northeast are urging U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to strengthen enforcement and close loopholes in the National Organic Program that put regional farms at a disadvantage.
A bicameral, bipartisan letter from lawmakers, sent to Vilsack on Wednesday, said that the industry is vital to the region and that small and medium organic farms “serve as anchor businesses to many of our local rural economies.”
“For years, however, organic dairy farmers in our region have been put at a significant competitive disadvantage that is now threatening their livelihood and shaking consumer confidence in the organic label,” the letter said.
Recently, Danone, a Paris-based global food company and the owner of Horizon Organic, announced it would pull out of the Northeast United States starting next August, leaving 89 organic farmers without buyers for their milk. The news sent shockwaves through the dairy industry, which was already teetering because rising production costs have outpaced consumer prices.
In Vermont, 28 farmers received letters saying that their Danone contracts would be terminated on Aug. 31, 2022.
“Danone appears to be consolidating their supply to prioritize more concentrated producers for transportation economies and abandoning smaller and more dispersed family farms,” the letter from lawmakers said.
U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who helped develop the national organic rules when he chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, led the effort, along with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.
“Nearly every lawmaker who represents the farmers impacted by Horizon’s withdrawal from the region” signed the letter, according to a statement from Leahy’s office.
Organic farmers earn a premium for their product, which makes it possible for them to operate on a small scale. Due to the loopholes, larger farms have also been able to earn that premium, making it more difficult for northeastern organic farms to compete and prompting the same “get big or get out” dynamic that’s occurred in conventional farming.
Farms in the Northeast can’t typically reach the large scales of farms farther west because of the mountainous, forested landscape and limited availability of land where they are situated.
“We ask that the U.S. Department of Agriculture use whatever funding sources and programs necessary to support organic farmers in our region during this period of market upheaval,” the letter said.
Currently, a loophole in the national rules allows young livestock that are raised conventionally to be transitioned to organic later in life. While the rule was designed to allow conventional farmers to make a one-time transition to organic processes, some farmers have been raising livestock conventionally on a regular basis.
The Origin of Livestock Rule, initiated in 2015, would allow farmers to make that transition only once.
“The USDA’s ongoing delay in finalizing this rule, which continues to enjoy widespread support within the sector, has contributed to the oversupply of organic milk in the market, placed the integrity of the organic label at risk, and kept farmers in our states at a severe financial disadvantage,” the letter said.
Lawmakers also urged Vilsack to more strongly enforce the pasture rule, which requires organic farmers to allow livestock a certain amount of grazing time. Larger farms that milk more than 10,000 cows in shifts, for example, are less likely to follow that rule.
Finally, signees asked the USDA to “use any tools at your disposal” to help farmers whose contracts with Danone will be terminated next August.
“This includes targeted and increased support through USDA’s Pandemic Assistance for Producers program, targeted investments in processing capacity and transportation efficiencies for businesses that can contract with these farmers, as well as temporary price supports to allow these farmers to transition to new markets,” the letter said.
Along with Vermont’s congressional delegation, lawmakers who signed the letter included Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; Sen. Angus King, I-Maine; Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H.; Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.; Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H.; Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H.; and Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine.
Some organic farmers are also looking to join farmer-owned cooperatives like Organic Valley, which has 119 farms in Vermont. Because it’s owned by its members, Organic Valley can’t drop farms as easily as Horizon has. Organic Valley pays about $30 for 100 pounds of milk, down about $4 down from the peak, but still twice as much as farmers get for conventional milk.
But Hans Eisenbeis, a spokesman for Organic Valley, told VPR earlier this month that the co-op has had to delay taking on new farms, and set production quotas in order to keep the milk supply in check. He said many potential new farmers are on hold while the co-op tries to balance supply, caused in part by large-scale organic farms increasing the supply.
“In 2017, the oversupply situation got to be such that we had to say [to farmers] you can’t produce excess milk because we can’t find a home for it in organic,” he told VPR.