Organic Sense

Pasture at Last!

by George L. Siemon  on March 05, 2010

As you have hopefully heard, USDA announced the final pasture recommendation for organic livestock production. The new pasture standard for organic dairy requires significant pasture for the grazing season (30% of the total dry matter minimum) and mirrors CROPP Cooperative’s already implemented standard. The USDA, with this announcement, has addressed stalled-out development of organic standards. Currently, we see great leadership from our friends, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, and National Organic Program Director Miles McEvoy.

USDA’s announcement is a breath of fresh air after almost 10 years of debate, scandal, lawsuits, foot-dragging, and hundreds of thousands of comments. The difficulty seen in developing this simple standard provides a lesson in how not to behave as a community. Organic regulations development prior to 2005 occurred in a unified organic community. We worked together to find solutions to the many details of developing a full organic program. Subsequently, several issues, including pasture, brought polarization within the organic community and led to the dysfunctional process we suffered through.

I have always been very proud of the unique role of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). However, without a cooperative USDA it is not productive. I was on the (NOSB) in 2000 when we made the first recommendation of pasture as a foundation requirement for organic ruminant production. In comparison, Organic Valley adopted our first pasture standard in 1995! We will continue our leadership in organic standard development.

USDA has requested further input on the viability of their pasture requirement for grain-finishing ruminants, recognizing their recommendation may need improvement. CROPP Cooperative’s beef pool will contribute comments. Another issue to develop is defining the grazing season for each region. Our Pasture committee, with input from coop members, will take the lead on this for CROPP. Hopefully, our leadership may help the USDA. You may view our press release on pasture with the call for cooperation in safeguarding the organic label as well as our recent testimony for pasture and our policy.

Pasture is grass farming that requires careful management of humans, animals, plants, soil, sun and water – a deep subject for me. The obvious beginning is how instinctual and natural it is for a ruminant to graze. Next is the incredible benefit to the land that grass-based agriculture represents. My introduction to organics in the 70’s was heavily influenced by the writings of Louis Bromfield from the 1940’s. Bromfield was an advocate for many roots of modern organic agriculture but the greatest being the benefits of grass farming. I encourage you to search out Bromfield’s books

Another important aspect of pasture is the ratio of animals to land. A pasture-based livestock operation needs to match the acres of pasture to the number of cows for acceptable pasture access. European livestock organic standards require operations to produce a minimum of 50% of their own feed, assuring a relationship of animals to land. Ideally, farms produce as much feed as possible. While there are valid reasons to purchase organic feed from off the farm, it is exciting to see members of CROPP Cooperative growing more and more of their own feed as they refine their organic farm plan.

For some, the pasture issue was a front for opposing large scale organic livestock operations. At Organic Valley, most of our dairy farms have fewer than 250 cows, and our average herd size is 76, but we do have a few well-managed farms with more than 500 cows.  (You can see details on our farms' herd sizes in our transparency section.) I would guess that operations from 1000-3000 cows will be able to satisfy the new pasture requirement if the pieces are perfectly laid out. Organic Valley sees scale as more about social issues than about a scientific understanding that big is bad, environmentally. For us it is about family farms. We believe that farms should be kept to a size that represents sustainability for each unique situation. Our brands, Organic Valley and Organic Prairie, enhance the organic label with additional value of family-farm ownership.

Constant refinement – an important value within the organic system – is much different than rigid USDA processes; therefore, conflict with the bureaucracy of government is no surprise. Organic has always been ahead of the institutions, out there on our own, and we always are glad to see the universities and regulators catching up as they can.

Difficulty lies in determining which standards should be regulated by federal rule, and which standards should be a product of consumer choice in supporting one brand over another. Organics, by root definition, is in a state of continual improvement. Each farm has unique challenges and we are always improving the art of organic farming and processing. Additionally, we are conscious of new concerns affected by food choices. Concerns such as humane, GMO pollution, fair trade, food miles, carbon footprint, food safety and many other factors are entering our conversations. Federal regulations cannot keep up with the changing consumer, which is why brands are important.

Roger Blobaum once told the story about talking to an older Iowa farmer, excitedly telling him all about organic agriculture like it was a new idea. The farmer responded that the concepts behind organic farming were those of his traditional farming methods, and that 'he must be so far behind that he is ahead!' The truth is we have taken organic farming to a new level of capability by combining the traditional wisdom of agriculture with modern science and methods. Rotational pasture is a great example and is a natural part of organic livestock.

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