Skeptical yet hopeful, about 100 organic dairy producers and supporters banded together in West Salem, WI, on July 16 to ask Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to enforce current organic dairy laws and keep big-business organic dairies from shutting down family farms.

“We have farmers who just want to make an honest wage,” said Mark Kastel, farm policy analyst with Cornucopia Institute. Cornucopia Institute is an organic farming watchdog charging that large corporate organic dairies aren’t following current USDA organic rules and that the Bush Administration’s USDA didn’t enforce its standards.

Vilsack met with the farmers – who were holding a symbolic milk dumping event – just before he spoke at a scheduled Rural Tour forum at the La Crosse Interstate Fair last week. He assured them that changes were being made in USDA’s organics program. “We are focusing on rules that level the playing field so that small and medium-sized producers have a shot,” Vilsack said. For more on his comments, see “Organic Dairymen Ask For Fair Prices,” in the July 21 issue of eHay Weekly.

Before and after Vilsack’s short appearance, dairy producers and supporters made videotaped statements to be sent to Vilsack, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and the White House. Some of those comments follow:

“The big processors talk record profits; what do we have to show for it? We give seven days of hard work and if we’re lucky, we scrape together pennies for groceries,” said Bruce Drinkman, a Glenwood City, WI, dairyman with a 50-cow herd who cashed in his IRA this year to keep the farm afloat.

“I urge Secretary Vilsack to do what he can to get a handle on this now. Not tomorrow, not next month, but today,” Drinkman said.

Jim Goodman, Hillsboro, WI, has been a certified organic dairyman for 10 years. “When big business wasn’t involved, we sold to our customers and everyone seemed to do well. But then people decided they could make money and they could make more money if they could bend the rules. Today we come here for this very symbolic action because we know that dumping a few gallons of milk isn’t really going to change our price. But we’re trying to get people’s attention. All we’re asking for is to see our plight and listen to us.

“We’re not asking Secretary Vilsack to do a lot for us. We know it’s not his fault; he inherited a mess. But all we’re asking is that he enforce the rules. All we’re asking for him to do is make organic mean organic. So when people buy a carton of organic milk and see a picture of a cow standing in the grass on the label, they know that, at some point, the milk came from cows that actually stood in the grass and ate it. They didn’t come from a feedlot,” Goodman said.

Carrying her young granddaughter, Darlene Coehoorn, Oshkosh, WI, talked tearfully about keeping the dream alive. “When I became a dairy farmer, I inherited the dream from my husband, who inherited it from his father before him and his father when he crossed on the boat and came here for that dream. And that dream was farming and passing on that farm to the next generation.

“We are seeing that dream pass away and independent family farmers are becoming an endangered species,” she said. “I am here today to ask you to help pass the dream on to the next generation and the generations to follow. We need organic rules implemented and enforced now.

“The stimulus package should have gone to farmers,” Coehoorn added. “With small family farmers, that money turns over seven times in their communities before it dissipates. You can’t get more stimulus than that. A fair price on the farm doesn’t stay there. It keeps the rural community thriving and reviving. It’s the security of our country.”

Seven years ago, Organic Choice Milk Procurement, Mondovi, WI, had more than 19 markets available to it, plus a three-week waiting list of buyers, said Steve Pahachek. “Today we have two processors buying from us. There is going to be a symbolic milk dumping today and in my eyes, there’s a lot more being dumped. It is literally the blood, sweat and tears of the farmers who are here today.

“After World War II in 1948, the government installed parity for five years in the country. It’s the only time in the history of this country that it had a balanced budget. The farmers got paid what they needed. The processors did all right. Stores did all right. And the consumers did all right. It worked back then. Why can’t it work now?” Pahachek asked.

“We stand with you,” said Michelle Schry, general manager of People's Food Co-op, La Crosse. “I’m here to deliver one message, primarily, and that’s from the 4,000 member-owners of People’s Co-op, the people who buy your products. We want you to know that your plight is our plight and that, whatever we can do to support you, we will do.

“Organic is a label that food co-ops embraced because we felt we finally had something that would guarantee that we could tell our customers exactly how that product had been produced. We want that label to be protected as much as you do. Consumers deserve to know what it is they are buying. So we urge Secretary Vilsack and the folks at USDA to enforce the rules as they are and to clarify the rules that need to be clarified. Because farmers and consumers need to work together and create a food system where we all understand what it is that we are getting.”