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Updated: August 6, 2019

Mills: 'Origin of livestock' rule needed to maintain organic dairy markets

cows on pasture File Photo A total of 89 organic dairy farms, including 14 in Maine, will lose their market for milk with the end of the Horizon contract.

State officials are calling on the federal government to finalize proposed “origin of livestock” standards for organic dairy farms.

Because of a lack of clarity in current regulation, some farms outside of Maine have been allowed by their organic certifiers to transition non-organic livestock into their herds at a lower cost, instead of organically raising substitute cattle, according to a news release. 

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Commissioner Amanda Beal are calling on U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue to finalize the proposed rules in order to maintain important markets for Maine organic dairy farmers.

Demand for organic dairy products is increasing, Mills and Beal wrote to Purdue. Over 25% of Maine’s commercial dairy farms sell to organic processors. 

But organic dairy farmers pay higher costs. On average, Maine organic dairy farmers spend $600 to $1,300 more per calf than farmers who raise calves conventionally. 

“They follow strict rules and guidelines and are greatly concerned that a few bad actors in other parts of the country are taking advantage of the organic system by diverging from organic standards,” Mills and Beal wrote. “The proposed rules would help clarify the standards regarding the transition of conventional dairy cows to organic and the management of breeder stock on organic livestock farms.”

In response to the letter, Maine dairy groups voiced their support.

“Dairy farmers across the country are struggling with low milk prices and higher costs, and while organic dairy was once immune to these price fluctuations, that is no longer the case,” Annie Watson, president of the Maine Organic Milk Producers, said in the release. “The USDA must do what is right to uphold the integrity of the organic program and maintain consumer trust. Small family farms are the backbone of our rural communities and it is more important now, than ever, to do whatever we can to protect this way of life on which so many of us depend.” 

Julie-Marie Bickford, executive director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, added: “Because of a few farms in other parts of the U.S. that have stretched their interpretation of ‘organic’ to achieve higher profit margins, Maine farms that have adhered to the intent have been pushed out of the marketplace."

Although the organic milk market is on the rise, commercial milk operations in Maine dropped 22% from 2012 to 2017, according to the release.

Maine’s dairy farm industry is comprised of 231 dairy farms. Most are family-owned and, generally, break-even operations. Rising production costs, coupled with volatile milk prices, make it challenging to balance the books.

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