What are you seeking when you shell out extra cash for organic milk?

Some folks aim to avoid the synthetic growth hormones and genetically modified, pesticide-treated feed U.S. dairy cows typically find in their rations. As currently written, USDA organic rules deliver that.

But what about access to pasture? Cows evolved as grass eaters; forcing them to feed on grain for a significant period of their lives is a relatively recent experiment. USDA code requires dairy farmers to give their cows "access to pasture," but doesn’t spell out precisely what that means.

In one way, that’s good. In truly ecological agriculture, farmers try to farm in sync with their bioregions. The growing season for grass varies in different regions; organic code should allow for that.

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Yet the ambiguity has led to abuses. As the Wisconsin-based watchdog Cornucopia Institute has shown (PDF), some corporate-owned dairies have used that ambiguity to roll out large-scale, feedlot style "organic" dairy farms with no grass in sight — ever.

Now the USDA is working to flesh out its "access to pasture" code. The trick is to find language that works for organic farmers across regions, without leaving a gaping loophole for corporate operators. Surprisingly, the agency has come out with proposed rules that are too strong — and now some family-scale farms are worried that they could be put out of business.

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A much-respected California organic milk producer called Strauss Organic has sounded the alarm, claiming that:

[T]he proposed rules offer a "one-size fits all" solution to an industry that is regionally diverse in climate, water usage and herd-size, and would make it virtually impossible for the Northern California small organic family farms to comply.

Meanwhile, the National Organic Coalition has come out with a suggested rewrite (PDF) that would (hopefully) fix the problems with the new rules.

The USDA is accepting comment on the rules here; the comment period ends Tuesday, Dec. 23.