The new American farmer

Seeking a lifeline, a handful of small-scale dairymen stake out a niche in organic milk production - and notch some socially responsible success

If the average farmer is American Gothic, Travis Forgues is decidedly postmodern: He wears denim shirts and stone-washed bluejeans. His hair hangs down to his shoulders. He is 28 years old.

Even in the gray light of winter, when a harsh wind pounds the flatland here on the Canadian border, Mr. Forgues (pronounced forgs) relishes being outdoors with his cows. In a vain effort to corral his heifers for a photograph, the young farmer runs among them, playfully kicking snow onto their hooves.

In a business known for its unforgiving hours and grueling repetition - a business in which the average practitioner is older than most clergy - Forgues's youthfulness stands out. But many nearby colleagues also add that Forgues has a veteran farmer's principles, combined with a commitment to reform. He is an organic dairy farmer, which means he doesn't treat his cows with antibiotics and hormones or feed them grain grown with pesticides. The organic alternatives require more time and more up-front costs, but they also result in milk that many consumers view as a premium product worth paying for.

As Forgues sees it, the organic model allows farmers to operate with the best interests of the animals and the earth in mind, while making enough money to stay out of debt.

It's an equation many believe can help ward off the demise of America's family-operated dairy farms, which are collapsing by the thousands in the face of larger competitors.

Yet even as sales grow, the organic-milk movement faces an identity crisis. The participation of at least one giant organic-milk producer, small-farm advocates say, threatens to overshadow the local, family-focused character of organics with the bland, big-profit motives of corporate America.

A lifestyle revival

Farming was organic by definition until advances in agricultural chemistry took place after World War II.

The resurgence of organic dairy farming has its roots in the 1960s back-to-the-land ethic. Its first adherents were not flinching at the use of chemicals and antibiotics so much as embracing a more "natural" way of life.

Such was the attraction for the Forgues family, hard-working contrarians with an affection for simpler times. When Henry Forgues, Travis's father, bought a 240-acre homestead here abutting Lake Champlain in the early 1970s, his intention was to raise a family. Producing milk was secondary.

In 1991, Travis went to college with no expectation of becoming a farmer. "It wasn't even a reality, we hadn't even talked about it," he says.

That was until a wave of grass-roots reform swept through Vermont's farmlands. The elder Forgues soon became a pioneer in the cow-grazing movement, which called on farmers to let their cows eat pasture grass rather than chemically treated feed.

In 1994, the Forgues family began advocating land preservation, and sold development rights for their own land to the state. The spirit of rural progressivism drew Travis back to the farm after college. He and his wife, Amy, soon bought a tiny blue house next door.

"Dad and I began to consider ourselves stewards of our farm, not farmers," says Forgues.

The family soon spoke with The Organic Cow of Vermont - New England's first organic milk label - about contributing to the company's initial milk pool. Going organic seemed like a natural, profitable evolution.

The emergence of organic practices has given struggling farmers like the Forgueses a new financial lifeline. Other organic products include beef, cereals, eggs, fruits and vegetables, and even frozen dinners. The organic market as a whole is growing by $20 million each year, according to the Organic Trade Association, with dairy accounting for much of the interest.

Now, most organic dairy farmers earn about $20 for 100 pounds of milk - the common commercial unit of sale. That's about $5 more than conventional dairy farmers, whose earnings have remained flat for 20 years. During that time, however, the cost of machinery, feed, and cattle has risen.

The consequence: Since 1991, the number of dairy operations in Vermont has decreased by 35 percent - with a decline of more than 40 percent nationwide - according to the Agriculture Department.

The stark reality of dairy economics leaves most dairy farmers with three choices: go bankrupt, grow bigger, or find a new niche.

Those who choose to expand their business often increase their herds from some 150 cows to about 500 in an effort to boost their margins. To keep pace with loan payments, they are pushing cows to produce more milk than ever - often milking them three times a day.

"We put our cows on cement [in milking stalls] all day long," says Don Maynard, who teaches dairy-farm management at the University of Vermont, in Burlington. "Some cows stand that better than others." Critics say the big-farm model is taking its toll on both animals and farmers.

How has Forgues managed to avoid the frenzied upshift? He cites his membership in Organic Valley, a LaFarge, Wisc.-based cooperative - now one of the largest suppliers of organic fruits, vegetables, and milk in the country.

Organic Valley never takes on more milk than it can sell - guaranteeing each farmer a consistent income. There is no incentive for member farmers to produce more milk, because production is capped to prevent market saturation.

For many agriculturists, the group represents pure organics, because it is run by the farmers themselves. Forgues, who joined in 1999, is one of a motley amalgam of hippies, religious Pietists, and taciturn Yankees who define success in terms of the number of farmers they can include.

The co-op also tries to satisfy organic consumers' thirst for homegrown products. One of its flagship milks, called New England Pastures, is produced by Forgues and 40 other farmers in Vermont and Maine. Released last week, the milk is geared toward consumers who consider the social impact of their spending.

"Our customers recognize that organic agriculture is one way to save the family farm, to stop sprawl in a community, and to stop the sale of farmland for industrial use," says Tim Sperry, Northeast director of purchasing for Whole Foods Market stores, which promote the New England Pastures label.

The task of making inroads

But good information in the dairy aisle is not always easy to find - a clear obstacle for organic producers, who rely on customer education to pitch their products.

Milk producers are not obligated to inform consumers where their milk is produced. Some simply emboss the container with a serial number corresponding to one of the 50 states, according to the American Farmland Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that educates consumers about regional farming.

"Trying to find milk from local farmers, organic or traditional, is a challenge for consumers and communities right now," says the Trust's Northeast regional director, Jerry Cosgrove.

To many consumers' surprise, New England's first mainstream organic milk, The Organic Cow of Vermont, is no longer produced exclusively in Vermont, but also at farms in Maryland and Michigan, as well as Vermont, Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania.

Horizon Organic, which now owns The Organic Cow, produces more than 30 percent of its milk at two industrial-size dairies, one of which milks close to 5,000 cows. The publicly owned, Colorado-based company controls more than 70 percent of the nation's organic milk market.

The emergence of Horizon as the dominant player in organic milk has opened the doors of supermarkets across the US to its product, introducing the organic concept to millions of consumers. It has also likely made organic milk far more affordable for the average consumer. (A half-gallon of The Organic Cow 2 percent milk costs $2.99 - a dollar more than most nonorganic milk.)

"People say you cannot feed the world with organic. But we proved you can do it on a big scale," says Kelly Shea, Horizon's director of organic agriculture. "We showed that organic milk is not just a fly-by-night hippie thing."

Ten years ago, Horizon argues, the company had no alternative but to establish their own large farms because organic producers were few and scattered. In 2002, however, small-time farmers' urgent push to find a new niche has cast a cloud over Horizon's business model.

Paul Stecker, a Horizon milk producer from Cabot, Vt., believes his employer's impact on the market may soon cause him to lose his farm. The 39-year-old dairyman was one of The Organic Cow's first producers. Horizon will now pay him $1.50 less for his milk when his contract comes up in April, Mr. Stecker says. "That is not a sustainable price and it's a little insulting really," says Stecker, who last year turned down a contract that would have paid him 50 cents more.

Still, Stecker was looking to leave Horizon regardless."The reason we went into organic to begin with was because we didn't want to be a part of big business," he says.

Some industry-watchers point to testimonies like Stecker's as evidence of contradictory goals in the organic-dairy world: Horizon is ultimately accountable to its shareholders, so must focus on net profit; agricultural reformers prioritize sustainability, counting on sympathetic consumers to bankroll their experiment.

Individual producers of other organic products have gained some ground in larger markets. Small-time organic fruit and vegetable producers - the veterans of organic agriculture - have won space in major supermarkets out to compete with farmers' markets and other community- supported efforts, according to John Masiunas, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

But unless independent dairymen join large co-ops, they still require industrial knowhow to pasteurize, process, and package their milk. To that end, Paul Stecker calls Travis Forgues once a week in an effort to secure a spot with Organic Valley. Stecker is just one of 20.

"Some people bang on my door, others call all the time," says Forgues. "Organic farming shouldn't be about making money. It's about how many farmers can we save."

A new aid for 'organics' shoppers

Sales of organic food in the US will likely double over the next 10 years, according to the Organic Trade Association.

A key catalyst for the boom: a tiny label designed to help consumers spot organic products certified by the federal government.

Beginning this summer, the label will be affixed to packages of organic offerings from milk to beef to potatoes.

It will designate products that adhere to new national organic standards recently announced by the federal government after 10 years of discussion with farmers and big business.

Some producers of conventional products, experts say, had attempted to scuttle plans for the label, saying it would prompt consumers to think of non-organic food as inferior or unhealthy.

But many growers argued that the new labels were necessary to clarify the meaning of "organic," which has varied from state to state for years and has been confused by its haphazard use by retailers.

The new label will apply to US growers who, for the most part, produce food without the use of genetic engineering, growth hormones, or pesticides.

But the system is unlikely to end consumer head-scratching altogether.

On the product container, organic producers will be able to categorize their product as "100 percent Organic," "Organic" (for products that are 95 percent organic) or "Made with Organic," for products that are less than 95 percent organic.

The variation is due to the lack of some organic ingredients available in commercial form. It also illustrates the difficulty in guaranteeing the organic purity of any product. Because of the ubiquity of genetically engineered grains in the US, crops grown using organic methods are likely exposed to at least a small amount of "unnatural" ingredients.

In 2000, some 300 food brands were pulled from US grocery stores after regulators discovered that pollen from StarLink crops, which are genetically engineered, had contaminated nearby cornfields.

Many organic farmers privately admit that their products are not entirely free of inorganic ingredients. Even crops that register no trace of inorganic ingredients were crossed with other already hybrid crops in the past - perhaps scores of times.

"There can always be a possibility that any product contains traces of pesticides or genetically modified ingredients," says Arthur Neal, a spokesman for the National Organic Program. "The label indicates that the government has verified the process as organic, not the product."

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