Got Organic Milk? The Natural Dairy Business is Going Mainstream

Milk, cheese, butter, ice cream…all Bessie’s bounty, for sure. But if you want to go organic, it means a trip to the health food store, right? Wrong. If you’ve steered your shopping cart down a dairy aisle lately, you’ve noticed that certified-organic milk products are now as common as, well, cows.

Despite the fact that retail prices for organic dairy products are often significantly higher than those of their conventional counterparts, and that organic dairy was almost unheard of just five years ago, sales are on fire. According to a recent Data Monitor Information report on organics, in 1999 the U.S. organic dairy industry enjoyed $598 million in sales, enough to capture more than nine percent of the overall organic market. Sales are projected to hit $2 billion by 2003.

The reason for this trend? “People are concerned about having hormones and antibiotics in their milk,” says Aisha Ikramuddin of Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, which publishes the “Mothers’ Milk List,” a running tally of certified-organic and hormone-free dairy products and dairies. “The FDA is saying [conventional] milk is safe,” says Ikramuddin, “but consumers aren’t so sure.”

Reasonable Doubt

The doubt is due to a genetically engineered drug called rBGH, or bovine growth hormone. Administered to an estimated 30 percent of conventional dairy cows, the hormone has been shown to increase milk production by up to 15 percent. Manufactured by Monsanto Corporation, it has been outlawed in Europe and Canada but has been used in the United States since its approval by the FDA in 1993. The evidence is inconclusive for now, but some scientists believe that drinking milk from treated cows may increase the risk of prostate and premenopausal breast cancer. All certified-organic milk products (and some conventional brands, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, for instance) are rBGH-free.

But the boom in the popularity of organic dairy is not due entirely to rBGH (or the lack thereof). A significant motivator is consumers’ concern for the environment and, in many cases, animal welfare. “We feel that agriculture should be done in a way that does the least amount of damage to the environment as possible,” says Amy Barr, spokesperson for Horizon Organic Dairy, the nation’s leading producer of organic milk and dairy products. “It’s a mission for us. If we lose our mission and our vision of what organic is, we lose the heart of our business.” The company saw sales of $84.8 million in 1999, up 78 percent from the previous year. As required under private and state organics guidelines, Horizon’s cows receive no antibiotics or hormones and survive, quite happily, on a chemical-free diet of open air, sunshine and organic feed. The company’s largest farm, a 4,000-acre spread in Paul, Idaho, includes enormous lean-tos in which its 6,800 Holsteins can take shelter from bitter winter winds.

Many dairy farmers, some of whom were raised on conventional agriculture, are finding that going organic is one way to ensure their products stay in demand and receive a fair price. “The organic niche is proving a viable solution to help keep rural communities and small farmers economically and socially healthy,” says George Siemon, CEO of Wisconsin-based CROPP Cooperative, a coalition of more than 200 organic farmers and the largest such cooperative in North America. Marketing its products under the Organic Valley label, CROPP has garnered numerous dairy awards. Its raw milk sharp cheddar cheese, for instance, has taken first place at an annual competition sponsored by the American Cheese Society. Other products include European-style cultured butter, cream cheese, yogurt, and chocolate milk featuring organic chocolate from Costa Rica and organic sugar from Paraguay.

Operating on a much smaller scale is Straus Family Creamery. Tucked into the rolling hills of Marin County just north of San Francisco, Straus sells its milk in reusable glass bottles, uses homeopathic remedies when its cows become ill, and, in an effort to preserve its products’ “unique regional flavor,” makes everything in small batches.

“People ask me why our milk tastes so good,” says Vivien Straus, the company’s marketing director and one of several family members involved in its operation. “I tell them it’s because we’re a small farm and our milk doesn’t mix with other milks. If your milk comes from 40,000 cows, it’s going to taste a lot different than if it comes from 400 cows.” The first certified-organic dairy west of the Mississippi, Straus produces everything from cream-top whole milk and Monterey Jack cheese to 35 percent butterfat whipping cream.

Living Culture

Another family-owned and -operated company out of California, Brown Cow, sells six- and 24-ounce containers of organically produced yogurt with live active cultures. Flavors include plain, vanilla, coffee, maple, raspberry, strawberry and peach. Stonyfield Farm, which operates out of Londonderry, New Hampshire, one-ups Brown Cow in the yogurt size and variety wars with 15 organic flavors and a bucket-size 32-ouncer. Still, the company is not afraid to cater to those with smaller appetites. Its certified-organic “Yobaby” yogurt for babies and toddlers comes in four-ounce six-packs. Other Stonyfield offerings include dessert delectables like frozen yogurts and ice creams.

Also contributing to the current deluge of organic desserts is Cascadian Farm. While Cascadian’s “home farm” is in Washington’s North Cascades (adjacent to 75 acres of old-growth forest preserved as a refuge for bald eagles), most of the company’s dairy comes from hundreds of independent organic growers. The company’s ice cream, frozen yogurt, and sorbet-and-cream swirl come in flavors like chocolate, caramel almond and blackberry and are fortified with tasty additions like organic fudges, fruits and nuts. Cascadian also offers what it claims is the world’s first organic ice-cream sandwich—vanilla ice cream tucked between two fudge brownies. Now if that’s not incentive for a mad dash to the dairy aisle, what is?

CHRIS HAYHURST is a Colorado-based freelance writer.