Organic Dairy Is Getting Squeezed By Big Ag

Consolidation in the organic dairy industry means more family farms getting squeezed out of the market. Here's how it's happening.

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Food System

by Rebecca Wolf

In the 1980s, Tamara Tripp spent her days doing chores on a small dairy farm in Minnesota. The future FWW Managing Director of Philanthropy was helping her mom and dad milk 60 cows. They sold their milk to Land O’Lakes, took care of the land and were comfortable enough to raise four children.

By the late 1990s, corporate mergers and the systematically-crafted farm crisis had taken their toll — Tamara’s parents sold the cows. 

Big Ag Mergers In Organic Dairy Mean Fewer Buyers

We hear this story over and over again. Corporate bullies gobble up the market, enabled by corporate-friendly federal government policies. Since the advent of the organic milk label, the U.S. has failed to protect small organic dairy farmers from cutthroat corporate mergers.

In 2020, Dairy Farmers of America bought the dairy giant Dean Foods with little oversight from federal regulators. Before this $433 million-dollar buy, Dean Foods had swallowed up Horizon, AltaDena and Organic Cow of Vermont. Other notable shifts:

  • The licensing of Stonyfield Farm’s fluid milk brand to H.P. Hood
  • The growth of organic store brands in large grocery chains like Safeway, WalMart, Target and Trader Joe’s.

These changes left very few buyers for milk from organic family dairy farmers.

Organic Dairy Industry Becomes Another “Get Big or Get Out” Story

The dairy industry has been wholly transformed, from the cows to the cooperatives securing its prices and the processors packaging milk for consumers. Massive mega-dairies confine dairy cows and may use antibiotics and growth hormones to boost production. Then milk is shipped nationwide to be mechanically separated and resold as everything from ice cream to industrial protein concentrates. These days, consumers no longer know where their milk comes from — or what is actually in much of the dairy they consume.

It was hard for families like the Tripps who refused to use growth hormones like Monsanto’s Bovine Somatotropin (bST). And today’s industry doesn’t work for small- and mid-sized organic family farmers, either. They face pressure to “get big or get out.” The New York Times recently published a piece featuring the last New England organic family dairies. They struggle to survive in a market where just a few large cooperatives are the buyers — therefore setting the prices. Large processors also prefer to buy from a few large, polluting mega-dairy operations instead of family-scale ones with 60 cows. The growth of Western Goliaths producing organic milk on factory farms adds more pressure on small organic family dairies. They also happen to create massive amounts of liquid waste that jeopardize our air and water.

Higher Prices For Consumers, Smaller Profits For Farmers

While all this is happening, consumers are paying higher prices at the grocery store. It seems like everyone is losing, except for the corporate middlemen and speculators who skim off all the cream. 

The organic movement in the United States originally built support for sustainably-produced food. Sustainable methods preserve the health of the land, the animals and the farming families. At first, organic producers received great prices with standards administered by the USDA. But increasingly, even the organic label has been eroded by consolidation, the influence of corporate bullies and profiteering. Because of co-op Goliaths, the organic milk market is now dominated by factory farms, sometimes housing tens of thousands of cows. The almost total corporate control of prices and standards in our food system is a bad deal for farmers and consumers. 

The Crisis And Consolidation Of Organic Dairy Is A Policy Choice 

The good news is that with good policies, farming like Tamara’s family enjoyed is a possible vision for our future. We can have a real market for organic milk. Consumers, the environment, animals and farmers can all share in the abundance of a healthy food system. 

These changes will require shifting our food system using bold and essential federal legislation. The Farm System Reform Act will help us transition away from factory farms. Further, the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Review Act will break the corporate stranglehold on our food system. Crisis and consolidation in organic dairy are policy choices that we can change.

Urge your Congressperson to support the Farm System Reform Act today!