road to certification
Here are the broad steps to certify a farm under the
National Organic Program (NOP), according to the National
Center for Appropriate Technology’s national sustainable
agriculture information service:
• Choose a suitable certifier. A list of certifiers
and explanation of the NOP standards are located at
(To see descriptive profiles of 65 US certifiers, check
The New Farm
Guide to US Organic Certifiers)
• Submit an application to the certifier
• Review of your organic farm plan by the certifier
• Complete an on-farm inspection
• Go through a final review
Once the certifying agency approves the certification,
a farmer can start marketing his product as being organic.
For more in-depth information on these steps, visit
farmer says organic transition worth the effort
The dairy operation of Ephrata, Pa., farmer John Lapp
became certified organic four years ago. He had complied
with organic regulations for three years before an organic
milk company contracted with him. Market demand was
not as prevalent as it is today.
Lapp, who now contracts with Horizon Organic, said
the biggest concerns of dairy producers when they consider
going organic are usually higher feed costs and the
lengthy time requirement for certification.
For him, the time in transition was just part of a
positive process.“Nobody should let themselves
be troubled with four years,” Lapp said.
He believes the rewards of going organic far outweigh
the rigors of the regulation process. He supports the
standards that call for the elimination of all but organically
approved pesticides used on the land and antibiotics
used on the animals. Society benefits from a better
food product because of these rules, Lapp says. Besides,
he believes conventional dairy farming has peaked out
in deriving benefit from traditional farming practices
such as constant chemical use.
“The ground is so heavily chemicalized,”
he said. “The land no longer works as it should.”
ag officials bullish on organics
Tom Sleight, director of the Division of Marketing
with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer
Services (VDACS) believes Virginia is well-suited to
expand the production of organic meat, milk and eggs.
VDACS also recognizes the need for organic grain and
soybean production to supply the livestock sectors.
As an incentive, VDACS offers dairy farmers a cost-share
program for those looking to transition to organic.
Once they become certified, they are eligible for reimbursement
of 75 percent of their costs or up to $500, whichever
is greater, “at least as long as the funds holdout,”
says Catherine Cash, an organic dairy inspector currently
working with VDACS to assist farmers transition to organic.
In Virginia, she says the average cost of certification
seems to fall within the $350 to $700 range, depending
on the certifier.
From 1996 to 2002, VDACS handled the state’s
organic certification process before the U.S. Department
of Agriculture established the standards under the National
Organic Program (NOP), Sleight says. Since then, the
department’s focus has been marketing.
Donald Ayers, director of VDACS’ Office of Commodity
Services says, “We try to bring buyer and seller
together to develop markets for the organic products,
the same as we do for conventional.”
Sleight says Virginia farmers need somewhere definitive,
such as one agency or organization, to turn to for questions
on organic certification.
“VDACS recognizes the need for prospective organic
farmers to gain advice and counsel on preparing for
certification,” he says, “and VDACS will
work with Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and
the various Virginia organic associations, companies
and certifying organizations on how best to provide
He sees a future for farmers who want to transition.
“We see current growth trends in the organic industry
continuing into the foreseeable future, i.e. seven to
10 years. VDACS is committed to providing marketing
assistance, whether that be with direct marketing, Community
Supported Agriculture organizations, farmers' markets,
restaurateurs, specialty food stores, grocery chains,
wholesalers and/or international customers.”
shows potential and risks in intensive grass-based dairying
Going from conventional nutrition management to a
grass-based feed program can reduce costs but can also
reduce overall profits if a dairyman does not look closely
at control of variable and capital or fixed costs, suggests
Gordon Groover, Extension economist of farm management
with Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.
“When you go from a conventional to a grass-based
herd, production drops,” he says. “The cost
of producing feed to that cow has to drop from that
of a total mixed ration” he says. “You also
have to reduce the capital cost of producing that feed,
milking cows and everything else. If you don’t
reduce total fixed costs, you could become worse off
because you lose milk production.”
Groover recently finished a systems modeling study
comparing several pasture-based systems with varying
levels of confinement feeding using total mixed rations.
While organic dairy farmers moving to organic would
save on capital costs and may benefit from the organic
premiums he says they also would pay higher prices for
organic feed. Feed sourcing becomes especially critical
in the fourth year of transition when all feed has to
be certifiable under organic rules.. “More organic
livestock farms will mean higher prices for organic
feeds,” Groover says.
Groover’s research showed that 100- and 200-cow
pasture-based seasonal dairying was the most profitable
of all systems, while intensive pasture-based year-round
systems are least profitable. Farms that would supplement
pasture-based nutrition with up to 25 percent of ration
dry matter with a partial mixed ration were more profitable,
in general, than the same sized, confinement dairy farm
||August 16, 2005:
The US organic dairy industry wrestles with an unusual dilemma for
American agriculture — how to keep up with the growing consumer
demand for its high-priced product.
With demand outpacing supply month after month, representatives
of organic dairy companies and cooperatives have taken to the road
to sign up more dairy producers ready to transition to organic management.
They look for clusters of farms to create a support network for
the farmers and make milk pickup efficient.
The Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia, lying on both sides of
I-81 in the west central part of the state, is one of those hot
spots. Farmers and others were welcomed to an information session
last month in Stuarts Draft on organic dairying production and marketing.
Sponsored by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumers
Services (VDACS) in Richmond, Va., the event featured presentations
by competing organic heavyweights: Horizon Organic, the leading
U.S. organic foods corporation of Boulder, Colo., and Organic Valley,
an organic marketing cooperative of La Farge, Wis.
“The dairy part is new for us in that these two companies
here today have come to Virginia looking for additional suppliers
of organic milk, or additional milk producers to [convert to] produce
organic milk,” said Donald Ayers, director of VDACS’
Office of Commodity Services.
Ayers told the dairy farmers that VDACS was not there to make recommendations,
but to help them with the marketing their milk. Part of that assistance
meant introducing them to two dairy companies, who both desperately
need organic dairy farmers in the Southeast. Horizon Organic now
hauls milk from Pennsylvania, Idaho and the Midwest to fulfill its
demand in the Southeast.
“We’re doing that because we don’t have a milk
supply here,” said Jule Taylor, director of milk supply for
Horizon Organic. The Horizon milk is hauled to its processing plant
in Mt. Crawford, Va., a few miles up the interstate from where the
dairy farmers were attending the workshop.
“There is an opportunity out there today,” Taylor said,
but she cautioned. “Organic is not for everybody. This is
one option for you.”
Horizon Organic offers certified dairy farmers a base price of
$22 per hundredweight, said Cindy Masterman, producer relations
manager. Farmers receive a bonus if they sign up within six months,
and they receive $1 per hundredweight extra during the final 12
months of the four-year certifying process. She says Horizon Organic
also offers two-year contracts with automatic one-year renewals.
Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative, offers its certified
organic dairy farmers a base component of $18.70 with a regional
premium of $3.20 for a $21.90 total base, said Peter Miller, east
region pool coordinator for Organic Valley. The co-op also offers
transitioning dairy farmers a $2 per hundredweight premium payment.
He says Organic Valley works with farmers on an agreement basis.
The basic agreement is for farmers to give the company a 180-day
notice in writing in case they decide to go to another organic marketplace.
If they need to leave organic farming, Organic Valley prefers a
two-month notice. If their farmers leave organic dairying, the company
stops accepting their cows’ milk.
These base prices and premiums perk up the ears of Virginia’s
dairy farmers, who have recently received prices of about $14 per
hundredweight, and about $2 more offered by the Virginia Milk Commission,
said Alan Grove, Extension agent in Rockingham County, Va.
Price and stability drive the movement to organics. “I’ve
been in dairying since I was a kid,” Grove said. “It
used to be you had a steady price. In the last five to ten years,
we’ve seen more price fluctuations” due to supply and
demand variability in the conventional milk marketplace.
Steady base payments versus price fluctuations may sound good to
dairy farmers who struggle with budgeting from one year to the next.
“These organic companies will give [certified organic dairy
farmers] a guaranteed minimum price for a specific time period,”
Grove said. “They know in the next 12 to 24 months what their
milk is worth. The regular dairy farmer has a general idea what
the price will be, but there are no guarantees.”
Farms in transition
Interest is developing in Virginia to try organic dairy farming,
said Tom Sleight, director of VDACS’ Division of Marketing.
It is growing from a small organic livestock base. The single certified
organic dairy farm in the state is in Marshall, Va., said Catherine
Cash, an organic dairy inspector and currently working with VDACS
to assist farmers with transitioning from conventional to organic
dairying. “Sooner or later, it will be happening here [in
Rockingham and Augusta counties],” she said.
Eight Shenandoah Valley dairy farms are currently exploring organics
or in transition. “Three or four of those farms should be
certified organic by September of next year,” Grove said.
One farm in Grove’s coverage area may become certified sooner,
based on the farmer’s cultural practices. “I never gave
a thought to organic,” said Steve Hord, a Middlebrook, Va.,
dairyman raising about 60 cows -- 45 in the milking herd and the
rest dry cows. “I’ve been going to organic without realizing
“I never gave a thought to organic.
I’ve been going to organic without realizing it.”
He started establishing his pasture about 15 years ago. He has
put up adequate fencing and installed water lines through a cost-share
program with federal and state funds. About three years ago, his
cows began grazing mostly on pasture and were fed grain and hay
over winter. As the pasture matures in spring, he takes the cows
off the grain, depending on weather and pasture conditions.
Hord, who is working on his certification paperwork, believes certifiers
can approve his pastureland as organic by this fall and his cows
by about mid-2006. He also believes, if his operation could become
certified by the end of this year, the extra milk premium will offset
the higher costs of organic feed.
Transitioning as a group
By early 2007, Augusta County, Va., dairy farmer James Wenger
expects a certifier to approve his operation as organic. He and
about five Rockingham County, Va., dairies expect to become certified
at about the same time. They committed to the move several years
ago. Back then, interested companies said they would buy the milk
only if they could cost-effectively haul at least 40,000 pounds
of milk from one region.
Wenger farms with his two sons, Nathan and David, and his wife,
Lynn, on the land where he grew up. They milk about 84 cows. By
following organic practices, Wenger believes his herd is healthier,
and his cows last longer, because they are not under as much stress.
By following organic practices, Wenger believes
his herd is healthier, and his cows last longer, because they
are not under as much stress.
“We’re not pushing them as bad, and they are walking
and getting exercise,” he said. “We’re milking
about 14,000 pounds of milk, and everybody else is milking about
He sees his vet less often due to lower animal stress and better
health, and he culls harder. Wenger no longer tolerates unproductive
and unhealthy cows. “If a cow gives us a problem, we let her
go,” Wenger said. “We sell her and get rid of the problem.”
To offset the higher costs of going organic, Wenger cut his fertilizer
and equipment costs. He stopped growing corn to keep from replacing
his worn-out equipment. He pocketed the money he would have spent
on buying the heavy metal, as well as his labor to plant and harvest
the corn. The decision freed up his time to concentrate on his management
needs to obtain certification.
He figures high and low corn prices from year to year will average
out to favor buying over growing his own. Once he becomes certified,
Wenger says the premium milk prices will more than pay for the organic
feed he must give his cows. Local feed suppliers have expressed
interest in supplying him with organic feed, as well.
Horizon Organic and Organic Valley are courting Wenger to buy his
certified milk when it comes. Wenger is still weighing his decision.
Plus – minus for organic dairy
From her experience as an organic inspector, VDAC’s Cash
says organic dairy farming has its risks and rewards. Some of the
rewards for a successful pasture-based operation include:
- healthier cows
- healthier soils
- fewer veterinarian bills
- lower cost for fertilizers and chemicals
- more money for the farmer’s product
- less overhead in machinery
- a healthier work environment
- possible extra income selling organic calves
- fewer issues dealing with excess manure
Some of the negatives are:
- more expensive organic feed
- probable decrease in milk production during a farmer’s
learning curve in grazing and organic feeds management
- four-year transition period with no full premiums until certified
- the need for precise and extensive recordkeeping
In considering whether to invest in transition, Extension Agent
Grove advises farmers to first ask themselves if their operation
fits the decision. What will transition cost, in terms of learning
new management and in dollars? Do I have access to enough land for
grazing? Will landowners I rent from agree to this transition? Will
I need to haul organic feed in from the Midwest or can I work with
a local supplier?
Grove urges farmers to figure on paper whether transition will
be profitable in their situation. He advises them to talk with out-of-state
organic dairy producers to learn what their costs are. (See sidebar:
Farmers wonder where the demand for organic milk will be in five
to 10 years. Is the health-conscious movement just a fad? Horizon’s
Masterman doesn’t believe so. She said the personal health
focus of Americans is here to stay and predicted organic demand
will continue for years to come.
If the supply of organic milk in the Southeast eventually does
catch up with demand, will the higher premiums level off or fall
as fast as the rise in interest? Neither Taylor nor Miller could
give an iron-clad answer. Miller said it will depend on how much
the marketplace can bear.
Both said the two companies that they represent want to pay for
high-quality organic milk. After the meeting, both continued their
quest to find farmers willing to promise their Virginia milk to
help meet surging regional markets.