Organic: From Onion Peak Dairy to your refrigerator
BUYING ORGANIC is a lot like wearing designer jeans. Some of us are driven by substance, some by style, still others ‘cause everyone else is doing it. For every foodie-anarchist-dirt-under-the-nails consumer out there, there is at least one image-conscious shopper who has no idea where their food is coming from. We trust labels; life is busy, who has time to research everything they buy? But what does that organic label really mean?
Dairy products are one area where consumers see the highest price difference between conventional and organic. What’s really happening on the ground in organic dairies, and how do those factors affect cows, consumers, farmers and the planet?
Mike and Melinda Grauwen are one of four organic milk producers in Tillamook County, selling their milk to the Organic Valley co-op. The Grauwens own Onion Peak Dairy, with a view of same plus their expansive pastureland in the Nehalem Valley. With 200 cows, Onion Peak isn’t a big operation, and Mike manages with just four employees, help from a daughter or two, and the moral support of several energetic dogs.
“I want to stay small. I still have the ability to be a part of the active work of the farm and connect with my workers and the cows daily.”
Staying small is one reason why Grauwen switched to organic. Farming is a gamble at the best of times, and he believes the way to be successful and make a living as a small farmer is to find a specialty market. Onion Peak transitioned from conventional five years ago, taking one year to make the switch. “It was an expensive year,” he remembers with a rueful smile. “I fed my cows organic feed for a year but got conventional prices for my milk. In hindsight it would have been easier to just get a new herd, but I couldn’t part with the cows. Not really.” The cows had “been in the family” so to speak, for years.
Grauwen is quietly passionate about dairy farming, and has a tremendous amount of knowledge. He breaks the differences between organic and conventional down to this: 1) feed—OG is 30% pasture or more, 70% grain; 2) growth hormones—OG prohibits; 3) antibiotics—OG says no go.
Corn is for tortillas, Grass is for cows
Feed is a key aspect to animal health, the taste of the product, and ultimately the health of the planet. Organic cows must have access to pasture 24 hours a day (though in fact larger dairies regularly violate this) and 30% of their feed must come from grass. The other 70% is mainly corn, which is not a part of their natural diet and which causes many of the health issues that necessitate antibiotics. “Bad” bacteria—like Ecoli 157—proliferate in the gut of primarily grain fed cows. “Cows historically don’t eat grain. If you take away the grain you take away that bacteria. When you look at all cows as a group, it’s definitely true that the less grain you feed the healthier they are,” explains Grauwen. He pastures his cows as much as possible, and feeds well over the 30% grass stipulation.
Corn, organic or not, is a monoculture crop, and is a participant in many evils from world food shortage to the colony collapse of bees. Organic pastureland—free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers—is hardly wilderness, but at least can be part of a viable living system.
Grauwen is passionate about his grass. “It’s why I moved to Tillamook County,” he laughs. “Our primary business here, really, is to grow grass. The grass tells us everything.” And, because his cows were mainly pastured anyway, another reason he switched to organic.
Organic dairying leads to robust soil and grass. Cows can be pastured earlier, longer, and stay healthier. Grass-fed cows=sweeter milk=happy consumers. “I’ve seen my pastures improve over 15 years . . . everything is interconnected . . . you make one step, and then everything kind of rearranges, then you make another step, and things rearrange, and you are changing your management and philosophies and these new things come about.”
Keeping it clean
Dropping antibiotics was the biggest change for Grauwen. Though grass-fed cows tend to be healthier, they still become unwell or sustain injury. In organic rules, sick cows must be removed from the herd and treated in isolation. If she gets well she still must be sold. Not a lot of motivation for farmers to treat sick animals. “It’s one of the flaws within organic,” Grauwen admits. “Costs a lot of money to treat one cow, and she’s lost to you as a milker no matter what.” As long as the animals aren’t in pain or losing weight they are still viable for meat but they cannot be rotated back into the herd.
Hormones are the biggest turn-off for consumers. Even though conventional milk producers can claim to be BST free, there is little enforcement of hormone use within the industry. The hormone isn’t easily detectable without expensive tests. Of course, it can therefore be in use in an organic setting too, especially the mega-cow factory dairies that supply the likes of the Horizon and many store brands. But the small organic farmer has much to lose by taking such a risk, and most small dairyfolk have a commitment to the ethics and standards of organic practice.
Certification is one big expense for farmers and a powerful cue consumers look to when making a buying choice. But it doesn’t guarantee quality or ethical practice.
If a farmer doesn’t get certified, he doesn’t have to pay the certifier. Thus the certifier is inherently invested in deciding the farm passes muster. Certifiers typically aren’t farmers, and when they come to a site they spend “10 minutes looking at the farm and 2 hours on the records. They aren’t farmers… only farmers can really come onto another farm and see what’s wrong,” Grauwen states.
Certifiers and processors are dependent on the big factory farms that provide a large quantity of product and pay top dollar for certification. The engine of the organic dairy industry is the factory farm—they help write the rules, sweeten the cash flow and keep the price down for end users—so there is no incentive to get rid of them.
“I think the bottom line is that consumers need to make their own assurances. They think they are getting so much more for their money buying organic, and in many cases they are, but there’s a lot of misinformation and holes in the system,” Grauwen admits.
Organic Valley is the best brand available to denizens of the North Coast. Unless you have a clandestine local milk source (most commercial dairies, OG or not, are contracted only to sell to their co-ops), the OV label will at least give consumers some chance for local organic milk. Onion Peak milk is picked up every other day and trucked to McMinnville. Cornucopia Institute (www.cornucopia.org) is a non-profit watchdog for the dairy industry and rates Organic Valley with 4 out of 5 cows for quality.
At the end of the day
Despite the vagaries of farming, Grauwen clearly wouldn’t have life any other way. Descended from a Dutch dairy family, he grew up milking cows, and is the only child in his family who stuck with farming. Of his own family, one daughter stays on the farm and helps raise calves and milk. Being outside, doing diverse and physical work, seeing the changes in his land and animals—this is what Grauwen ruminates on, standing in the winter rain. “It’s good work, if you are cut out for it. Not easy, but . . .” he gestures to the land around him. “Look at all the life here. It’s a complex ecosystem, and we’re a part of it.”
Some Like it Raw
Raw milk enthusiasts are serious about their milk. Like other raw foodists, these folks claim that pasteurized dairy products are a spurious knock –off of the pure goodness cows have to offer. And they aren’t afraid of the potential health risks, because they know their farmers.
While raw milk is legal for sale in Oregon under certain regulations, farmers with more than 10 cows and who are contracted to sell to a co-op can get in big trouble for selling even a gallon of raw. The risks aren’t worth it, but often folks with one or two cows don’t have the means to keep their milk sterile. Still, a network of cow sharing and milk delivery car pools exists in Oregon and Washington. Farmers cannot advertise or deliver their raw product, so a kind of black market feeling pervades the raw milk scene. Cowsharing is one way around the delivery issue, and works kind of like a CSA where customers buy a share in a cow.
The Weston T. Price Foundation is one of the biggest proponents for raw milk. “Pasteurization destroys enzymes, diminishes vitamin content, denatures fragile milk proteins, destroys vitamins C, B12 and B6, kills beneficial bacteria, promotes pathogens and is associated with allergies, increased tooth decay, colic in infants, growth problems in children, osteoporosis, arthritis, heart disease and cancer.” (from their raw milk project website, www.realmilk.com)
Weigh that with the info put forth by the ag industry: dozens of infectious diseases have been linked to the consumption of raw milk, including salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis and one of the more deadly strains of E. coli that can cause kidney failure and sometimes death.The E. coli toxin basically destroys the internal organs from the inside out. Hmmmm . . .
Will you go raw?