According to Cornell University's Agriculture Experiment Station, organic farming is one of the most dynamic and fast-growing segments of the U.S. agricultural market and is an increasingly important engine of growth for New York's farmers, large and small.
Through numerous research and extension activities, Cornell supports a wide variety of organic agriculture including dairy.
As the number of organic vegetable farms has increased tremendously in the past decade, the movement to organic practices in dairy farming has been slower.
From my recent inquiries, Clinton County had just three or four local farms shipping organic milk, all located in the northern part of the county. Consumer demand is not the problem as demand for organic milk in the Northeast is greater than what is produced in the region. The most recent USDA report on organic fluid milk consumption and production in New York indicates that during the first six months of 2011, sales of organic fluid milk products in the Northeast increased 21.4 percent from the same period of 2010. The 2011 magnitude of growth is triple the magnitude for the same period of 2010.
Organic milk product share of all fluid milk sales is also increasing in the Northeast. During the first six months of 2011, sales of organic milk products accounted for 5.2 percent of all fluid milk sales in the region, up from 4.2 percent in 2010.
The benefits of being organic can be financially rewarding. The current base price of organic milk is almost $28 per hundredweight with numerous quality premiums. Because some consumers are willing to pay more for products produced without antibiotics, synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other additives, organic dairy farmers currently fill a small but growing niche. So why aren't there more organic dairy farmers?
The number-one obstacle is the risky transition period. A farmer can't just decide to start producing organic milk tomorrow, next week or even next year. The transition takes three years to become certified organic. During this time, the farmer must cease using conventional management tools such as fertilizers, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and synthetic hormones. Additionally, the farm must develop a whole-farm plan that tracks the organic management of every animal and every acre of crop and pasture land. New regulations also mandate that cows have access to pasture that provides at least 30 percent of their diet during the grazing season. While no dairy farming is easy, organic dairying probably requires even more management skill and record keeping than conventional farming.
The risk of transition comes from the fact that during this three-year period, the farmer is not yet eligible to sell his milk as organic. With organic production comes higher expenses for such things as organic grain and feed, more crop losses from the inability to use conventional pest-control methods and usually lower milk production per cow.
With increased costs and lower income, the transition period can be a make or break process. With the conventional milk market as variable as it has been for the past few years, going organic has been even more risky. Due to the increasing demand, some organic-milk cooperatives will pay the farmer a $2 per hundredweight premium on their production in their third year of transition as an incentive to complete the process.
Of the organic dairies in Northern New York, one of the common threads seems to be that many are already managing their farms and cows on pasture and close to organic methods. A desire to be more sustainable and to produce a product that is high in quality leads many of these farmers to seek a viable farming style that is attractive to consumers and gentler on the environment.
For more information on organic dairy farming in New York, visit Cornell University's Organic Dairy Initiative website at http://cuaes.cornell.edu/cals/cuaes/organic/projects/dairy/dairy-initiative/index.cfm, call the Clinton County Cooperative Extension office at 561-7450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901, call 561-7450.