Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Going Organic: Nbay dairy ranchers" - by Tim Tesconi

Published on September 18, 2006

© 2006- The Press Democrat



Karen Taylor, a former schoolteacher in Sacramento,
has returned to her family's dairy ranch on the Marin
Coast to live the rural dream she feared was no longer

Taylor, 33, and husband John Taylor, 36, are among the
growing number of Sonoma-Marin dairy farmers going
green to save the family farm. Ranchers are giving up
using antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides to
produce organic milk -- milk worth twice as much as
conventional milk and a trend that could prove the
salvation of the region's $120 million dairy industry.

The high prices are being driven by consumers who
perceive organic milk as safer and healthier. Dairy
farmers, determined to keep their land, cows and way
of life, are lining up to fill the organic pipeline.

``The only way it works economically for us to come
back home and run the family dairy is to go organic,''
said Taylor, a sixth-generation rancher who yearned to
raise her two children on the 780-acre Point Reyes
Station dairy where she grew up. Taylor is the
daughter of Sharon Doughty, a longtime rancher and
dairy industry leader who is retiring.

``By taking our herd organic we can make more money
with fewer cows and reduce the number of employees,
which means less stress on us and the land,'' said
Taylor, the mother of Camilla, 5, and Billy Joe, 2.

The Taylors are among more than 20 of the 90 dairy
ranchers in Sonoma and Marin counties who have made
the transition to organic milk production or are in
the process of earning organic certification. Many
more North Coast dairies are considering making the
switch as prices for conventional milk stay low
because of a national surplus.

The numbers tell the story.

Producers selling organic milk to Clover Stornetta
Farms get $24 a hundredweight, the unit by which milk
is sold from the farm. Conventional milk is bringing
about $12 a hundredweight.

There are higher costs in producing organic milk but
ranchers said production costs are not double.

``Producing organic milk is a way we can be
profitable. We just can't take these huge drops in the
price of conventional milk. Right now I'm probably
losing $4,000 to $5,000 a month,'' said Doug Beretta,
who is making the transition to organic milk
production on his family's Santa Rosa dairy farm. His
herd and his family's 400-acre ranch will be
organically certified in April.

``I only wish I had made the move to organic milk
sooner,'' said Beretta. Like other ranchers, he
worries about the long-term market for organic milk as
more and more producers make the transition.

The North Coast is ideal for organic milk production
because the cow herds are smaller than the California
average and there's an abundance of pastureland for
grazing. Providing cows access to pasture is one of
the federal requirements for producing organic milk.

``Organic milk is the next viable niche for
Sonoma-Marin dairies and a way for this historic
industry to survive. A good 75 percent of the dairy
ranchers in the two counties are investigating the
organic option,'' said Dayna Ghirardelli, a dairy
program specialist with the UC Cooperative Extension
in Sonoma County.

Ghirardelli knows firsthand about taking a dairy
through the organic certification process. As a member
of the Wilson dairy family she handled the paperwork
required to get organic certification for her family's
Diamond W Ranch in Petaluma.

While the market for conventional milk remains flat,
sales of Clover Stornetta Farm's organic milk are
growing 25 percent a year, said Marcus Benedetti,
president of the Petaluma-based milk processor.

Clover Stornetta already buys organic milk from nine
dairy ranches in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.
Another eight dairies are moving into organic
production to help Clover Stornetta meet the demand
for its line of organic milk distributed to retailers
like Whole Foods.

``Our boss is the consumer and consumers are driving
the demand for organic milk,'' Benedetti said.

At the Whole Foods store in Santa Rosa, a half-gallon
of Clover's organic milk is $3.49, compared to $2.05
for regular milk.

Clover Stornetta Farms and Straus Family Creamery in
Marshall, Marin County, are the leading buyers of
organic milk from Sonoma-Marin dairies. Both milk
processors earn high marks for their producers'
adherence to organic principles.

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based
organization that exposes organic farming abuses,
rates Clover Stornetta and Straus as ``excellent'' in
terms of organic integrity.

Mark Kastel, farm policy analyst for the Cornucopia
Institute, said smaller, family farms like those in
Sonoma and Marin counties are following the USDA's
regulatory standards for organic milk production.

But it's not the same everywhere, said Kastel.
Investigations by his organization have found that
some industrial-scale dairies in the West, ranches
with 2,000 to 10,000 cows, are producing milk in
feedlot conditions without adequately grazing their

``There are a handful of bad actors looking for
loopholes,'' said Kastel.

Dairy farms producing organic milk are monitored by
organic certifiers and randomly audited to make sure
they are buying organic grain and hay and following
other regulations to ensure the purity of the milk.

``The integrity of the dairy rancher is what's going
to keep consumers buying organic milk,'' said Beretta,
who is being certified by the California Certified
Organic Farmers, based in Santa Cruz.

``The organic plan for my dairy was 30 pages,''
Beretta said.

In addition to bottling the organic milk from his own
cows, Albert Straus buys milk from the Wilson family's
Diamond W Dairy and from dairy farmers Kathy and Joe
Tresch of Petaluma. Straus said a third Sonoma County
dairy will soon be producing organic milk for the
Straus label.

``We're steadily growing but growing in a way that
won't swamp the market,'' said Straus, a pioneer in
organic milk production. In 1994, Straus established
the first organic dairy west of Wisconsin, leading the
way for other North Coast dairy farmers.

Three years ago Petaluma dairy rancher George
McClelland and his daughter, Jana McClelland, started
producing organic milk for Clover Stornetta Farms.
Each year they convert more and more of the herd to
organic production. Today there are 520 cows in the
organic herd and 460 cows in the conventional herd.
They plan to be completely organic one day.

``It's a different mind-set. You don't have the
convenience of using drugs and are always looking at
organic treatments for the cows,'' George McClelland
said. ``Now, we look at things like garlic to treat
sick cows.''

McClelland believes his conventional milk is pure and
healthy, too. But as a businessman, he must produce
what consumers want to buy.

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County
Farm Bureau, said the problem with the organic
movement is that it suggests organic farmers are the
only ones who take care of their animals and land by
following a purist set of management and husbandry

``Every producer and grower has a responsibility to
produce and provide the most wholesome and nutritious
food possible,'' said McCorvey.

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