The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to close a loophole in the National Organic Program, a long-awaited step that advocates say will strengthen faith in the organic dairy label and level the playing field for farmers across the country.
“We should be celebrating this,” said Nicole Dehne, certification director of Vermont Organic Farmers. “We have been advocating for this change for many, many years. This is basically the interpretation that we have been asking our farmers in Vermont to follow.”
Most organic dairy farmers in Vermont are likely already following the standard, but other farms across the country are not. That dynamic has put Vermont farmers, and others in the region, at a disadvantage. While the rule may not apply directly to local farmers, they may stand to benefit from its implementation.
The loophole, intended to allow conventional farmers to make a one-time transition to organic, has permitted farmers to consistently raise livestock conventionally and transition them to organic later, which is cheaper.
The USDA’s origin of livestock rule, announced Tuesday, closes that loophole. While it still allows farmers to make one-time transitions to organic, it prohibits them from “sourcing any transitioned animals,” according to a news release from the USDA.
“Once a dairy is certified organic, animals must be managed as organic from the last third of gestation,” department officials wrote. “Variances may be requested by small businesses for specific scenarios.”
Dehne said one ripple effect of the rule could affect Vermont farmers negatively: Cows that were once raised conventionally — even if it was a long time ago — can no longer be sold on the organic market. That wasn’t the case in the past, she said, but the measure was needed to close the loophole.
The rule has been processing for years, but the matter became more urgent when Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, an international food company, pulled out of the Northeast, leaving 89 of the region’s organic dairy farmers without buyers for their milk. The move underlined the recent strain on small, remote farmers in the industry.
Vermont officials, members of regional task forces related to Horizon’s departure, members of the state’s congressional delegation and the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets have been urging U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to finalize it.
Vermont’s small organic dairy farmers have been struggling to keep pace with market trends that have increasingly encouraged them to “get big or get out.” Organic dairy prices have fallen dramatically within the last decade.
Recently, Organic Valley announced it would accept many of the farmers Danone planned to leave behind. Many in the industry celebrated the news, but warned change was still needed at the national level.
Tuesday’s announcement marks a piece of that change. Locally, it prompted some cheer from farmers, organic advocates and officials.
“I think we should celebrate whenever there is a rule change that's going to improve or maintain integrity in the organic system,” Dehne said. “I would say this is one of those cases.”
In a written statement, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., thanked the USDA for making the change.
“We must remain vigilant in protecting organic standards,” he said. “This will help ensure that large producers are not abusing a loophole to give themselves an unfair advantage.”
Anson Tebbetts, Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture secretary, said the federal decision brings “clarity, but also brings fairness to the standard.”
Dave Chapman, co-director of the Real Organic Project — an organization that has granted around 850 qualifying farms in the United States and Canada a supplementary certification for following strict organic standards — was cautiously optimistic. Chapman also operates Long Wind Farm in East Thetford, where he grows organic tomatoes.
“It looks good,” he said. “They passed what appears to be a good regulation.”
Chapman and others warned, however, that a rule is only as good as its enforcement. Large farms across the country have been able to gain organic certifications while skirting another organic standard, called the pasture rule, which requires that livestock spend a certain amount of time in the pasture.
“Once it's all finalized, and the dust settles on this, of course, enforcement will have to be part of the equation,” Tebbetts said.
Leahy included language in a recent omnibus spending package that encourages the USDA to build out the National Organic Program with the resources needed to enforce the standards.
“The organic consumer market has, unfortunately but predictably, attracted those who prefer to erode the standards rather than meet them — those who would bend the rules to fit their industrial-scale approach to agriculture in pursuit of short-term profits.” Leahy said in remarks Tuesday at the Organic Trade Association’s Organic Week Conference, held in Washington, D.C.
“For years, we have fought against organic import fraud, and loopholes in the origin of livestock, and animal welfare standards, and for adequate enforcement of the pasture rule. We cannot let up,” Leahy said.
Chapman, with the Real Organic Project, said he hopes the USDA enforces the new rule.
“If they do, things will get a little bit better for real organic farms,” he said.
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