Cows Unite for Organic Dairy
04 Dec, 2009
If you happen to read certain milk cartons, you might find “Cows. (We just love ’em.)” And further, “Speaking of cows, we support the goals of those audacious bovines at Cows Unite. You go, girls!” The cartons go on, “Cows Unite!” and direct citizen milk drinkers to visit www.cowsunite.org.
When you visit the website, you find three amazing live-action videos depicting a cow telling her farmer about the rebellion, a monstrous herd of cows staging a breakout from a conventional factory dairy farm, and a cow being interrogated with a lie detector by Dragnet police-types as they try to find out more about the cow rebellion.
The campaign was launched by a familiar name in organic dairy products—Organic Valley—approaching a grim subject with a bit of humor to get the point across. “What we tried to do with that campaign was to take what we consider a very serious topic—grazing and confinement—and present it in a playful and fun way,” Organic Valley chief marketing executive Theresa Marquez told Organic Connections. “And I think that we achieved it.”
Behind the Scenes
The problem being exposed in these humorous spots—and one which Organic Valley is taking great strides in solving—is the treatment of milk cows in today’s factory dairy farms.
When I myself was a child (longer ago than I care to admit), I vividly recall riding through the countryside in the back of my parents’ car, seeing cows grazing on hillsides and in pastures. As time went by and I grew older, it was a sight seen less and less, until today, when it has all but disappeared.
This is because cows in today’s industrial dairy systems are kept closely confined and given cheap corn feed that is laced with antibiotics to prevent the cows from becoming ill in such cramped conditions and spreading disease. Cows are also given growth hormones as well as hormones to cause them to reproduce.
What have also disappeared are the small, family-owned creameries that used to help support the small farmer. “There used to be a sweet little system of small farmers who brought their milk into the local creamery, and the creamery made milk, butter, cream and other products,” Marquez explained. “The whole system is not in existence anymore. Almost all of the small creameries have closed. The small farms have been replaced by big confinement farms that have five, eight or twelve thousand cows. It’s a lot easier to back up a big milk truck with a tap on it and just fill it at one farm and take it away to a giant plant. We’ve moved from this model of truly local product to huge farms and huge production.”
In stark contrast, the biggest farm in the Organic Valley co-op is a thousand cows—and according to Marquez, that one “kind of crept up on us.” Small farms are the company’s focus.
Interestingly, Organic Valley has its roots in a nationwide farming crisis.
“In 1988, the price of milk bottomed out,” Marquez recounted. “Thousands of farmers lost their livelihoods, and a bunch of farmers in Wisconsin looked at each other and said, ‘Well, seems like we’re going out of business. What can we do?’”
At the time, there was no organic milk, so the farmers decided to try producing organic dairy products. The interesting thing was some of them were halfway there. “Out of necessity, a lot of them were already practically organic,” said Marquez. “They couldn’t afford pesticides and a lot of the ‘tools’ used in conventional farming.”
Even though the farmers themselves were very suspicious of cooperatives, having been burned by them in the past, they decided to form one—although it was structured differently. The primary difference was that the cooperative would not change the price of milk unless the farmers were involved. “We do not dictate our pricing to the farmers,” said Marquez. “We, the management, with the farmers, determine what the pay price is. In this way, we’ve been able to hold to a good, strong pay price and keep them alive, farming.” Hence the mission of Organic Valley is multi-fold: to not only bring extremely high quality diary products to the consumer but protect rural communities and farming in the United States.
Thus was formed the first co-op that eventually became Organic Valley. While Organic Valley is the brand name, the organization of co-op farmers who produce the company’s products is called CROPP (an abbreviation for Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools).
“We pool the products in a region,” Marquez said. “Each region elects a representative, and that representative becomes part of our Diary Executives Committee. We have 60 pools around the United States, so we have 60 people who gather every month with the CEO. All our farmers are very, very involved.”
The Organic Valley Model
Strict requirements are maintained for Organic Valley farmers. Cows must be pastured, grass fed, and not given antibiotics, hormones or other chemicals regularly found in factory farms. These requirements are audited by Organic Valley themselves through representatives who regularly visit farms, check for cows in pasture, and inspect the animals for health. The farms are also audited for the National Organic Program by a qualified USDA-accredited certification organization.
The company has a team of veterinarians as well that assist farmers in making the transition to fully organic, healthy cows. Once they make that transition, the cows become quite strong. “A lot of these vets are amazed to see just how healthy organic cows are,” Marquez related. “One of our vets told me a story about running into a farmer he hadn’t seen in a couple years, and having thought the farmer had perhaps been using another vet. ‘No,’ the farmer told him, ‘I haven’t traded vets. I just haven’t needed you!’ You hear that a lot. Organic cows are very healthy.”
In addition to providing much healthier milk, organic cows also emit fewer harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. “If you feed cows a larger percentage of what are called oily grasses—such as flax and alfalfa—they burp less,” Marquez explained. “A huge percentage of methane gas comes from burping, and we have recently discovered that cows eating these grasses burp 50 percent less.”
The cows, in fact, are so healthy that the USDA recently awarded Organic Valley, in conjunction with some other organizations, $1.2 million to conduct a formal three-year study on the health of organic dairy cows compared with non-organic.
Spread the Word
As our readers, you are well aware of the value of products such as those produced by Organic Valley. The best possible advertising these products can receive right now is word of mouth, since the small organic farms cannot compete with the giant manufacturers for advertising and media coverage. So, spread the word! It’s a “grass-roots” movement in more ways than one.