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Beyond the Jug: Why Buying Milk at the Co-op Matters

Bob Gibson

At a recent visit to the Co-op, a shopper in line behind me set two half-gallons of Trickling Springs milk onto the checkout counter. I asked her why she chose that brand. “My family loves this milk and we really like the returnable glass bottles,” she said. “We also like knowing that our purchase helps keep smaller family farms in business.” 

Isn’t Milk Milk?

You can buy cheaper milk at the large chain grocery stores, especially those that discount milk as a “loss-leader.” That may be good news for cash-strapped families.  But rock bottom prices are truly sad news for the dairy industry – and for the hopes of keeping productive lands in the business of producing food rather than subdivisions. 

Family-run dairies have long been a mainstay of the American family farm. But falling milk prices are crippling the U.S. dairy industry and forcing smaller farms across the country to sell their herds. As they do, more and more of our milk production shifts to factory farms, where milking cows are housed by the thousands in enormous sheds and surrounded not by pastures but feedlots. Many of these newer and larger factory dairy farms are located in western states, like California, Arizona and Texas – where they require intensive use of scarce water resources. 

Next to a growing array of plant-based milks in the refrigerated section in the back corner of the store, the Co-op offers several brands of dairy milk, including Trickling Springs, Harrisburg Dairies, Natural by Nature, and Maple Hill Farms.  These dairies each represent a network of smaller dairy farms in the mid-Atlantic states that offer high-quality ‘conventional’ milk as well as organic and 100% grass-fed products. The prices are higher – but fairer to the producer. The shopper is also getting more value for the money through higher nutritional content and fewer additives. 

But, I Always Buy Organic Milk … 

When the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic seal was launched in 2000, it spurred a boom in organic food sales, which grew from $6 billion in 2000 to $40 billion in 2015, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic milk appeared to be a perfect fit for smaller dairies that could not compete on volume but could on quality. Consumers were willing to pay more for milk that was certified organic based on a range of criteria, including feed raised organically and with extensive grazing time in pastures.  

But as Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey explained in his May 2017 article, “Why your ‘organic’ milk may not be organic,” lax enforcement of organic rules helped open the door to domination of organic milk sales by large corporate farms. To save money on inspections, the USDA relies on inspectors that are hired by the farms. These inspectors make on average one visit a year, usually arranged well in advance, and are unlikely to be able to verify whether factory farm cows see anywhere close to the minimum pasture grazing stipulated in the USDA organic standards.

The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based non-profit food and farm policy watchdog group has tried to fill the reporting gap. The Washington Post article notes that “Cornucopia publishes its own scorecard of organic dairies because, its officials say, the USDA has failed to weed out the bad.” The article quotes Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association, who said “[c]onsumers look at that cartoon label on organic milk with a happy cow on green pasture with a red barn, but that’s not always the reality. What we’ve said all along is that organic milks are not created equal, and your results [the Washington Post investigation] show that.”

While a large number of organic dairies score poorly in the Cornucopia Institute annual ratings, the Post article cast one factory dairy farm, the Aurora Organic Dairy of Colorado, in particularly poor light. At Aurora’s central production facility more than 15,000 cows produce the milk that ends up in the organic milk branded and sold by Costco, WalMart and other large retailers. Over several visits, few of those cows were observed grazing on grass. One of the benefits of allowing cows to forage on pastures throughout the growing season is that the milk they produce contains higher levels of nutrients such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), beneficial antioxidants. But studies conducted for the Post by Virginia Tech scientists showed that some varieties of milk labeled organic, including Aurora’s, contained CLA and ALA levels that were similar to that of conventional milk.

Another brand that you won’t find on the Co-op’s shelves is Horizon, the milk with the “happy cow” on the carton and that also sports a USDA Organic stamp of approval. Horizon promotes a family farm image and indeed, more than 80% of its contracted suppliers are family farms with average herd sizes of 90. However, a large percentage of its product comes from very large and corporate farms, businesses that have milking herds of several hundred to more than 2000. In part due to a lack of transparency about its operations, Horizon often gets an ‘ethically deficient’ rating from the Cornucopia Institute.

Instead, you will find one large organic retailer, Organic Valley, in the fridge. Organic Valley represents more than 2,000 family farms across the U.S. and Canada with an average herd size of just 76. It is also a cooperative, and, as owners of the business, the farmers share in the business profits – bringing more money back to each farm. Organic Valley farmers, who can be found as close by as Frederick County, adhere to an organic standard called Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP), which sets more stringent criteria for animal care than the National Organic Program. For these and other reasons, Organic Valley regularly receives an “excellent” rating by Cornucopia. 

Can I Really Make a Difference?

Choosing milk from local farmers sends the message that you care about rural economies, that you support family farms, and that you understand the value of nutrient-rich, ethically-raised animal products. Plus, choosing locally-sourced milk ensures that more of the profit goes to the farmers, not a large corporate reseller. Thoughtfully choosing organic protects our planet and the health of farmers as well as consumers.

Simply put, milk matters.

*Image from Trickling Springs.