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1007 PD: Pioneering an organic dairy enterprise

Brandon Covey Published on 27 September 2007

Large dairies often make easy targets for protestors and activists. Similarly, organic dairies often come under fire. So what about a large dairy that’s also organic? While most people don’t normally think of “large” and “organic” in the same sentence, a few have combined the two.

One such business is Aurora Organic Dairy.

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If you hadn’t heard of them before, you’ve probably noticed some recent buzz in the national media regarding a USDA investigation involving Aurora that was brought on after The Cornucopia Institute, a grass roots organization that promotes family-scale farming, filed complaints against the company.

Aurora Organic’s Senior Vice President Clark Driftmier says that Aurora Organic and the USDA reached an agreement which supersedes the allegations.

“After the USDA did their investigation, they essentially recommended changes that were identical to the ones we’d been planning for several years; that’s why we were able to reach an agreement, and the changes will be complete by the middle of October,” Driftmier says.

With many years of experience in both the dairy and organic industries, Aurora became a certified organic company in August 2003 after seeing growth and opportunity in that sector. (Dairy is currently the second largest category in organic, next to produce.) They also saw an opportunity to market their private label as their principal business. This made them a vertically integrated company, using 100 percent of their own supply.

“We are responsible for the whole system, from cow to carton,” Driftmier says. “That gives us a lot of control and accountability. It also helps us provide better service and quality, as the milk gets to the shelf quicker than with a pooling process.”

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To become certified, the company completed the USDA’s required year-long transition period. Driftmier says the transition period was a very expensive time, as animals were eating organic feed, but the milk was still sold conventionally. Aurora’s land and pastures also required a three-year transition period (or records proving they had been fallow for that time). In addition, Aurora had to get its milk plant certified to process organic dairy products.

“So there’s a lot of different moving parts that all had to work together with a lot of pre-planning,” Driftmier says.

He admits that organic and conventional producers can sometimes be negative toward one another.

“We are not. Our policy is that agriculture is good. We don’t try to paint the world as black and white, good and evil,” Driftmier says.

Like all organic dairies, Driftmier says Aurora operates without any synthetic pesticides or herbicides. To control weeds, farm operators use a variation of hand cultivation, disking and flaming. He says it is also crucial to select the right seed for pasture (depending on the farm’s location) that will form a dense stand and crowd out weeds.

For Aurora’s fly control, preventative maintenance is key. The company uses parasitic wasps, which Driftmier says are expensive but effective.

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Manure is managed following approved methods and used as fertilizer or to make compost. Sick cows are treated using approved organic methods. If an animal becomes chronically sick, it is removed from the property, treated with antibiotics and sold to a conventional dairy.

“Again, preventative maintenance is key, as well as early sick cow recognition,” Driftmier says. “You don’t have the toolbox of remedies, like antibiotics, that you have on a conventional dairy.”

Over the last four years, Aurora has grown from one farm to five, with three operations in Colorado and two in Texas. In addition to locating land to build an organic dairy, Driftmier says one of the challenges was to find retailers to buy the company’s milk. Another obstacle has been finding feed and hay, since supply of organic hay remains tight.

“You can’t just call someone up and say, ‘Send me 10 truckloads tomorrow,’” he says.

Driftmier’s advice to anyone thinking about going organic: Make sure you’re well-financed in order to get through the necessary transition periods, certifications and audits, and be prepared to handle a tremendous amount of record keeping and paperwork. He says to make sure you have enough pasture to comply with the USDA’s new pasture rules – Cows must consume a minimum average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake during the growing season for no less than 120 days per year. He also recommends producers be willing to commit to embracing new ideas by attending seminars and sharing ideas.

He says:

“Organic dairying is a pioneering enterprise; you have to be a bit of a risk-taker. Everybody in agriculture needs to continually challenge any status quo, any assumptions about how things are done and be open to all sorts of new ways to make agriculture more profitable and viable.

“We don’t want to say that it’s the only way to go or even the best way to go, but if people can get over being threatened, organic growing techniques can have several benefits. Plus, many consumers are willing to pay more for organic milk and feel good about giving it to their families, so it is clearly offering them something that they feel is valuable. It taps into their desire to make a positive change in their lives.

“Since I’ve been involved in the industry, the difficulties preventing organic from growing have always been the same: The price is too high relative to conventional, and there’s a lack of availability and awareness.

“We need to increase availability in places like convenience stores and build awareness so that more consumers seek out organic products. The major marketers need to initiate broad-scale advertising for the first time, and we need to create exciting new products.”

Driftmier says he sees a promising future for organic farming, with growth in both supply and demand. “The Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns has said he wants to move agriculture from a commodity-based business model to a more value-added one,” Driftmier says. “I think that’s exactly what organic dairying is helping to do.” PD

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