Organic Dairy Was a Green Niche…Then Came CAFOs and Lawyers

By Mark McAfee, Chairman, Raw Milk Institute
CEO, Organic Pastures Dairy Corporation, Fresno, California

When I first started our organic dairy 20 years ago, I was mentored by Tony Azevedo. He operated an organic dairy near Merced, California, and had been in the dairy business his entire life. He was also a member of the CROPP Co-op at Organic Valley and was on a mission to get more organic milk for the emerging organic market. It was 1999 and he mentored me on ways to start and run an organic dairy, and it was Tony who provided me with an Organic Valley CROPP co-op contract. We were so excited. I listened to and leaned on his every word. There was one sentence that he repeated to me several times when we walked through his pastures. He said, “Mark, if there ever comes a day when the USDA does not enforce the 120-day pasture rule, organic dairies will be done and the niche will be lost. The pasture is the only thing that stands between organic dairies and the 15,000-cow CAFO [confinement animal feeding operation] next door.”

Tony explained that the pasture is nature’s acreage-stocking-rate ratio; it acts as a natural quota and limits production. If there is no pasture rule that requires pasturing of the cows, then anyone can buy organic feed and confine a huge number of cows and call it organic! Well, that day has come. It is here, and it is now.

Since Christmas 2017, California has lost 12 percent of its 119 organic dairies, and more are being lost every week. Wisconsin has lost untold numbers of family organic dairies and so has Pennsylvania. A friend of mine shared with me the sad news that in one Mennonite church alone, six Horizon organic contracts had been cancelled, leaving the organic dairymen with no place to sell their organic milk. Here in California, Horizon has cancelled 80 percent of all of their organic dairy contracts and told the dairymen that their organic milk was no longer needed because cheaper milk could be bought from dairies in Texas and Colorado. Organic processors in Wisconsin are now obtaining their organic milk from Colorado and paying five dollars per hundred weight just to ship it in, which displaces local organic dairies. Wallaby Yogurt in Northern California cancelled its organic milk dairy contracts and moved out of state because it was cheaper to buy organic milk elsewhere. The surviving and remaining Horizon organic milk contracts in California have been reduced to receive prices below cost of organic production. We all know what that means; that some organic dairymen will start cheating to survive or go out of business. That could be cheating by reducing the amount of time feeding their cows on pasture or feeding conventional GMO feeds at cheaper prices.


So what is going on? Years ago, back in 2005-2007, Cornucopia Institute, the consumer watchdog group, sued several large CAFOs because they had discovered that these large operations were cheating under the organic regulations. These CAFOs confined up to 15,000 cows each and also held organic certifications. The lawsuit alleged that the CAFO operations did not comply with the USDA-mandated 100-day pasture grazing rule (following the 30 percent dry matter intake standard), and that they failed to follow many of the other USDA organic standards. The judge agreed and mandated that the operations change their production processes. In addition, a $7.5M consumer fraud claim was assessed, and it was paid. The courts found that these CAFO dairies had “willfully violated 14 standards” under the USDA organic regulations. The CAFO operation in Pixley, California was immediately shut down by State of California Organic Enforcement (CDFA) and was not allowed to continue in operation. However, the Colorado operations were placed on probation and continued selling organic milk with protective lobbying in Washington, DC, thanks to plenty of legal maneuvering and behind-the-scenes negotiations.

How different the state of California acted versus the state of Colorado. The state of Colorado was permissive and passive, whereas the state of California was ethically decisive. The Colorado CAFO operations were able to champion the political conditions in Washington, and even more so under our current administration. They continue to operate with impunity against the USDA-mandated organic pasture rules. Experts and compliant organic farmers know that it is impossible to pasture 10- to 15,000 cows at one facility and have them receive 30 percent of their dry matter from pasture with the amount of available pasture these dairies have. It is also impossible to take this number of cows back and forth from pasture to the milking parlor two or three times a day. Cows cannot walk that far to reach the green pastures. Additionally, the 5,000-feet elevation where these dairies are located will not allow regrowth of the pastures fast enough to allow for a 120-day pasture feeding season, yet the CAFOs are issued a valid organic certificate from their local inspectors.

The Washington Post sent an investigator to Colorado years ago for week-long observation to verify that the cows were being pastured. They reported seeing only a small number of nonmilking cows (dry cows and heifers) on some pasture, but not the thousands of milk cows as ordered by the courts. It was also found that this CAFO invites its organic inspectors to perform their audit during winter months, which is the non-pasture season. Now that this CAFO in Colorado has been able to get away with willful non-compliance, other CAFO operations in Texas and Idaho have taken notice and followed their example. The “CAFO green light to violate” is shining brighter than ever.

It appears that our secretary of agriculture, Sonny Perdue, does not believe it is important to pasture cows, and has not made compliance with the pasture rule an important issue, although publicly stating that organic enforcement is a top priority. The policy at USDA is that “pasturing is overly prescriptive and hard for the larger dairies to perform.” Clearly, this is one federal law that they don’t like. The founders of the organic movement clearly had this on their minds when they created the pasture rule in the first place.

It appears that the USDA pasture rules must be followed by everyone except for big CAFOs, resulting in a devastating and drastic loss of many small organic dairy farms across the United States. The added 80,000 cows from the non-compliant CAFO operations have become the cheap “one-stop shopping source” for Group Danone, which owns Horizon Organic Milk, Stonyfield and other big box brands. These 80,000 CAFO cows are roughly equivalent to most of the California organic dairies put together! It is no wonder that organic dairies are being shut down. There is a massive national oversupply of organic milk and there are no supply limitations now that nature’s natural pasture rule limits have been removed.

When the founders of the organic movement originally designed the organic rules, the pasture rule ensured many benefits. Cows on green pastures made better milk with high CLA and good omega-3 fatty acid ratios. Cows on pastures sequester carbon and save our air from the ever-increasing burdens of carbon dioxide. Cows in CAFOs with their huge manure lagoons are part of the problem, while cows on pastures are part of the solution.

The pasture rule is also critical because of sustainable supply management. If there are no limits to production of organic milk, then it will become over-supplied and prices will drop, just like in the conventional dairy system with its chronic oversupply problem and below-cost-of production prices. Several years ago, most organic dairies received $35- to $40 or more per hundredweight for their milk. Now that price is dropping and in many places is $22 per hundredweight with some areas left with no market or buyers at all. Then the milk goes into the conventional markets at less than $15 per hundredweight.The break-even cost for production of organic milk is roughly $28- to $30 dollars per hundredweight if organic inputs are used.


As a consumer of organic dairy products, you are left wondering what to do and whom to support? Organics should be about fair rules and evenly enforced regulations. As it stands today, it’s not fair and it’s not evenly enforced. When you have no enforcement of standards, you have no organic market.

There is now a movement to place an add-on label on organic products. One of the most popular is the Real Organic Project ( Its founders are some of the central and most important leaders of original organic movement. They founded the USDA organic program and now have grown disgusted by it, as the program sold out to the big business interests. Organic is supposed to be about vital living soil, plants, animals, the environment and humanity. Large CAFO corporate interests owned by Wall Street have no soul and are about one thing—making money and eating up all others.

Look for the Real Organic Project label and vote for it with your dollars. It means real organic and it means local.


So far, this story has been all about the train wreck of ultra-high-temperature-pasteurized, ultra-dead, CAFO-produced “organic” milk; the deep throes of corruption, cheating and fraud in the current organic dairy markets; and the loss of family organic dairies all across America. But now let’s shift gears and briefly discuss real organic milk. The most important dairy product you can bring into your life is the “organic milk that still has the organic in it.” This milk is alive, vital, raw, pasture-fed, biodiverse, enzyme-rich, non-denatured, probiotic and straight from the farmer.

J.I. Rodale, one of the founders of the modern organic movement, said that “It is not organic to produce organic milk and then pasteurize it.” Taken in this context, it is no wonder that the pasteurized organic milk markets are falling apart. Those markets are based on long shelf life and not gut life. They are based on a race to the bottom and a market disconnection between farmers and consumers. They are based on processors making money while cheating farmers and denying consumers the whole food they need for good health.

In the final assessment, if you cheat Mother Nature, you will pay a dear price. That price is being paid by organic dairymen who thought they had a profitable and green niche product, but really did not have much of anything at all when processors dropped them in favor of huge CAFOs.

When desperate organic farmers call me for help, I counsel them to start making a farmstead cheese or start studying raw milk, reading the Raw Milk Institute food safety website resources, Weston A. Price Foundation information ( and learning about the gut microbiome—because if you are going to produce and sell raw milk, you will need to become an expert in raw milk food safety, how whole food is medicine, the gut microbiome, and the principles of good nutrition. You will need to start teaching and educating consumers to create a market for your products. When the teaching is done and the safe milking is done, you will have created a highly value-added market that will be hard to take away from you. No processor can take that away from you. Consumers will love you and be glad to pay you well. Being loved by consumers and being paid well are concepts foreign to the consumer-disconnected, processor-centric dairy industry. Consumer connected—that’s a real organic dairy!

Twenty years ago, our organic dairy left the deadly grip of the pasteurization-loving processors and went raw! All of my thanks go to the consumers who came to our farm and told me what they wanted. I listened! Real organic is raw organic. Our contract with Organic Valley only lasted a short time before all of our milk was flowing directly to consumers. In fact it was Organic Valley that kicked us out of the co-op when they saw our raw products sitting next to theirs on stores all over California.

The science of milk genomics and human health is just catching up to what we have always known: raw milk and other raw dairy products are medicine for the human condition and always have been. The last words of Dr. Weston A. Price were, “You teach, you teach, you teach.” Let’s gather friends to teach and build that market. With thriving raw milk sales, the world becomes a greener and healthier place for all.