For the past decade, Organic Valley cooperative has played a major role in the rebirth of small, sustainable dairy farms, particularly in Northern California. By purchasing organic milk produced from cows that spend their days grazing on grass pastureland, rather than in feedlots eating corn, Organic Valley has provided a guaranteed market that small farmers need to flourish. But now, the co-op is under fire because it has lowered its standards for California eggs. Instead of working with small farmers whose hens graze on pastureland, too, Organic Valley has an exclusive deal with a large, factory-farm-like egg producer in Petaluma whose chickens are not allowed to roam free.
"It's hypocritical" said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a leading environmental and consumer watchdog for the organic foods industry. Over the years, the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute and other environmentalists have praised Organic Valley for its work in promoting small, sustainable dairy farms. And they contend that the co-op should be doing the same with egg farmers in California. Instead, Kastel said, "Organic Valley is giving large corporate agribusiness an ever bigger competitive advantage,"
Throughout most of the country, Organic Valley, which is also Wisconsin-based, purchases organic eggs from farms whose animals graze on pastureland — much as it does with cows. In fact, Organic Valley's requirements for egg farms exceed those from the National Organic Program Standards. The cooperative, for example, mandates that its farmers provide hens with at least five square feet of space outdoors. This requirement ensures that hens won't be penned up in henhouses all day.
But in California, Organic Valley has eliminated this requirement, and purchases organic eggs from Petaluma Farms, an industrial-size operation that only provides screened "sun porches" for its chickens. As a result, the chickens spend their lives packed inside row-houses. Each hen eats organic feed, but does not live the normal life of a chicken.
Petaluma Farms sells organic eggs under the brand name Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs. Owned by Steve and Judy Mahrt, Petaluma Farms is adept at marketing. Judy's Family Farm is family-owned and the eggs are organic under the relatively weak US national standards, but the chickens do not roam free outdoors as the brand name seems to suggest. Petaluma Farms also sells eggs under brand names Uncle Eddie's Cage Free Eggs, Rock Island Eggs, and Gold Circle Eggs.
Petaluma Farms also supplies eggs for supermarket private labels. Records show, for example, that Berkeley Bowl's private label eggs come from Petaluma Farms. All Organic Valley eggs sold in California also come from the company's row-houses.
The Mahrts and Petaluma Farms also have fought against efforts to improve the lives of chickens and other farm animals. Steve Mahrt, for example, lent his name and was one of the first donors to the campaign to defeat Proposition 2 in 2008. Prop 2, also known as the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act, sought to provide farms animals with more living space. Many farm animals in California are confined to tight quarters, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in their own excrement. Yet despite the efforts of the state's largest agribusinesses, voters overwhelmingly approved Prop 2.
Last fall, Cornucopia Institute also strongly criticized Petaluma Farms in its report on the organic egg industry, "Scrambled Eggs." The organization gave Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs its lowest rating on its "Egg Scorecard," after Petaluma Farms refused to participate in the study. Cornucopia Institute also has produced scorecards for organic milk and soy.
The organization, along with other environmentalists, refers to Petaluma Farms and other factory-farm producers as "industrial organic," and contend that they're undermining the true intent of the organic label. Judy's Family Farm eggs are supposedly organic because the hens eat organic feed, do not receive antibiotics or growth hormones, and purportedly have "access" to the outdoors. But Cornucopia Institute contends that Judy's should not be certified as organic because the company's mesh-screened "sun porches" don't allow the hens to actually go outside. In a complaint filed last month with the US Department of Agriculture against Organic Valley, the Cornucopia Institute argued that Petaluma Farms' sun porches don't meet the national standard for organic chickens.
Steve Mahrt of Petaluma Farms did not return a phone call seeking comment. But on its web site, the company contends that it can't let its hens range freely outdoors because of heath concerns. The company says that the California Department of Agriculture and state veterinarians "strongly advocate" that chickens don't range freely because of the risk of avian flu transmission. Organic Valley cites the same reason on its web site for why it has gutted its free-range standards in California.
But some researchers say grazing chickens on grass pastureland doesn't raise the risk of avian flu. The Cornucopia Institute noted that David Swayne, a leading researcher for the USDA, has reported that "there has never been a recorded emergence of highly pathogenic avian influenza virus in any backyard flock or free-range poultry operation." By contrast, the risk of pathogenic infections may increase in high-density, factory farms.
In an interview, George Siemon, Organic Valley's CEO, did not mention concerns about avian flu for why the co-op has contracted with Petaluma Farms. Instead, Siemon said Organic Valley couldn't find small organic farmers to meet its needs in the state. Simeon also praised Petaluma Farms, saying that even though Organic Valley believes chickens should roam freely, the company still runs a good, clean operation. "This was a tough decision," he said of the co-op's exclusive deal with the Mahrts.
But then when asked why Organic Valley doesn't buy from small farms that Cornucopia Institute identified in its report, Siemon offered what appeared to be the real reason for the co-op's decision — price. The CEO said that eggs produced by small California farmers whose chickens graze on pasture are too costly. "They're very, very expensive," he said.
How expensive? Organic Valley eggs sold for $4.79 a dozen last week at Berkeley Bowl, while eggs from hens that graze on pasture ranged between $7.29 and $8.29 . Interestingly, Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs sold for less ($4.25) than Organic Valley, even though they come from the same farm.
The controversy over Organic Valley's deal with Petaluma Farms also comes at a time when some small farms are making marketplace inroads. Late last week, for example, Berkeley Bowl began selling Alexandre Kids Organic Eggs, which come from hens grazing on pasture near Crescent City. In an interview, Blake and Stephanie Alexandre said their farm currently has nearly 6,000 egg-laying hens. The farm also sells eggs at Whole Foods stores.
The Alexandres patterned their dairy and egg farm after Mennonite farms in Pennsylvania and Polyface Farm in Virginia, a sustainable, organic farm profiled in UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma. Like Polyface Farm, the Alexandres move their chickens around their pasture in portable henhouses. The birds sleep in the henhouses at night to protect them from predators and then graze in the pasture during the day, where they're protected by guard dogs.
When outdoors, the chickens also eat insects and small animals — they're omnivores, Stephanie Alexandre noted. "I laugh when I see 'vegetarian fed' organic eggs," she added. In short, the Alexandres' chickens live like chickens. Cornucopia Institute gives the Alexandres its highest rating — five eggs. The dark brown eggs they produce with deep-orange yolks also taste heartier and are more filling than other eggs (Eco Watch tried his first dozen last weekend). "It feels great to be doing it," Stephanie said of their sustainable farming practices, "and to be producing a product that's superior."
The Alexandres also emphasized that they have great respect for Organic Valley and have no interest in entering the egg dispute. In fact, they're a dairy supplier for Organic Valley in Northern California. If you buy Organic Valley milk in the Bay Area, there's a good chance it comes from their farm. They also supply organic milk for Whole Foods' private label, 365.
Siemon said he has much admiration for the Alexandres, calling them "a very, very good producer." But again, he cited price as the reason why his company doesn't buy eggs from them. Alexandre eggs retail for $7.29 a carton.
Stephanie Alexandre said it costs more to produce eggs on pasture, dealing with breakage and predators. As for avian flu, she said state inspectors test their hens for infection each month and they've had no problems.
Kastel argues that the price of Alexandre eggs and that of other small California farms would drop if Organic Valley bought them and provided a stable market — as it does with milk. Kastel also hopes that Organic Valley farmers in other states who are grazing their hens on pasture will ultimately pressure the co-op to sever its ties with Petaluma Farms.