JORDAN, Minn. — The cows on Pam and Jeff Riesgraf's farm chomped happily away on lush, green grass on a warm, sunny afternoon. Their milk would soon find its way to grocery stores, where organic dairy products are a hot item.
The Riesgraf farm represents one vision for organic dairy -- small and medium-size family farms where the cows have names and spend the growing season on pasture.
A different kind of organic dairy farm is emerging out West -- corporate-owned feedlot operations with thousands of cows that are fed organic grain but, critics say, get little chance to graze.
Fears that big operations will muscle out family farms have produced a backlash, including a boycott by the Organic Consumers Assn. against the country's biggest organic milk brand, Horizon Organic.
Organic farmers and consumer groups are hoping the U.S. Department of Agriculture will level the field. The agency is considering whether to mandate that milk bearing the "USDA Organic" seal come from cows that have significant access to pasture, a move that smaller producers say would give them the protection they need.
Chris Hoffman drank Horizon milk until she learned about the dispute and switched brands.
The Sherburne, N.Y., woman said she'd thought she was buying milk from "family farms with happy cows." To her, feedlot milk does not follow the spirit of organic farming.
"I just think it's patently dishonest. And it just really ticked me off," she said.
Horizon, part of Fort Worth, Texas-based Dean Foods Co., sells about half of the organic milk in this country, through retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Its chief executive, Joe Scalzo, said Horizon was a strong supporter of family farms, helping hundreds make the transition to organic. Horizon is just trying to meet the "exponential" growth in a market where demand outstrips supply by about 20%, he said.
However, Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with the research group Cornucopia Institute, countered, "There's been a near-consensus in the organic community that these factory farms are repugnant to the consumer and put organic farms at a disadvantage."
Kastel said organic milk consumers are willing to pay more because they believe it's produced to higher ethical standards that benefit the environment, the animals and family farmers.
"They don't think they're supporting rich corporate investors who think organics is a great way to cash in," he said.
The Organic Trade Assn. says the U.S. organic dairy sector racked up $2.1 billion in sales last year, up 24% from 2004. The association says organics now make up 3.5% of all dairy products sold in the U.S.
Although Scalzo said the boycott has had "very, very little" effect, he acknowledged that Horizon has had to spend time explaining its position to stores.
While Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon has taken the most heat, the critics also slam Aurora Organic Dairy, of Boulder, Colo., which provides private-label organic milk to chains including Costco, Safeway, Giant and Wild Oats.
Aurora says it milks about 4,100 and 3,500 cows, respectively, at its farms near Platteville, Colo., and Dublin, Texas, and will open a 3,200-cow operation near Kearsey, Colo., this fall.
The company says its approach is unique in the organic dairy sector, allowing it to keep prices affordable while producing the highest-quality milk. Aurora says its cows get a balanced diet that includes organic grain and hay, and they graze on organic pasture.
Aurora spokeswoman Amy Barr said organic standards shouldn't be based on an "image of Old MacDonald's Farm" held by people who may never have been on a farm. Pasture is important, but it's not the only measure of animal welfare, nor is an all-grass diet necessarily the best for a cow's health, she said.
Horizon milks about 4,000 cows at its farm near Paul, Idaho, and about 450 at its farm near Kennedyville, Md. But Scalzo said Horizon gets more than 80% of its milk from 340 family farms, all but three of them with herds of 500 cows or fewer.
"Farms of all sizes are going to be needed -- at least for the foreseeable future, the next two to five years -- to meet demand," Scalzo said.
Executives with Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market Inc. recently toured Horizon's Idaho farm and were pleased with improvements made there, said Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of communications and quality standards.
"The cows looked in good health. They were certainly curious, which is always a good sign. They're being taken care of," Wittenberg said.
Whole Foods was not impressed, however, by Aurora's Colorado farm.
"It remains unacceptable for us," Wittenberg said, declining to elaborate.