Governor Mills and Commissioner Beal Urge USDA to Finalize Origin of Livestock Rules

August 5, 2019

For more information contact: Jim Britt at (207) 287-3156

Latest push calls for maintaining vital markets and providing needed relief for Maine organic dairy farmers

AUGUSTA, Maine - Governor Janet Mills and DACF Commissioner Amanda Beal are calling on USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue to finalize the proposed Origin of Livestock rules to maintain important markets for Maine organic dairy farmers. Because of a lack of clarity in current regulation, some farms outside of Maine have been allowed by their organic certifier to repeatedly transition non-organic livestock into their herd at a lower cost, instead of organically raising substitute cattle after a one-time herd transition. This creates an unlevel playing field for organic farmers in Maine, who are abiding by the original intent of this regulation.

"We continue to be deeply troubled by what is happening to the dairy industry," Governor Mills and Commissioner Beal wrote in a letter today. On behalf of the Maine dairy industry, we urge you to take immediate action to finalize the proposed Origin of Livestock Rule and to not waste any more valuable time by proposing new rules to consider. The full text of the letter follows.

In response to the letter, Maine dairy groups have voiced their support:

Organic dairy farmers in Maine are grateful to have the support of Governor Mills and Commissioner Beal in our attempt to get the final rule for origin of livestock passed into regulation. Dairy farmers across the country are struggling with low milk prices and higher costs, and while organic dairy was once immune to these price fluctuations, that is no longer the case. The USDA must do what is right to uphold the integrity of the organic program and maintain consumer trust. Small family farms are the backbone of our rural communities and it is more important now, than ever, to do whatever we can to protect this way of life on which so many of us depend. - Annie Watson, President of the Maine Organic Milk Producers.

Organic dairy farmers in Maine have committed to compliance in an effort to maintain accountability with consumers. Because of a few farms in other parts of the U.S. who have stretched their interpretation of organic to achieve higher profit margins, Maine farms who have adhered to the intent have been pushed out of the marketplace. USDA needs to finalize and enforce the NOP rule to reassure consumer confidence and create a level playing field for all U.S. organic dairy farmers. - Julie-Marie Bickford, Executive Director of the Maine Dairy Industry Association

Beyond calling for immediate action, Mills and Beal call for consistent and fair application of all NOP rules; the full text of the letter follows:

The Honorable Sonny Perdue Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture 1400 Independence Ave., S.W. Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Secretary Perdue:

We write to urge you to finalize the National Organic Program's (NOP) 2015 proposed Origin of Livestock rule which greatly impacts the markets and viability of Maine dairy farmers.

We continue to be deeply troubled by what is happening to the dairy industry. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, commercial milk operations in Maine dropped from 367 in 2012 to 286 in 2017, a decrease of 22 percent in 5 years. In Maine and across the county, dairy farmers are struggling to keep their businesses open because of a plethora of challenging issues, such as unpredictable markets resulting in low payments to farmers, high costs of production, labor issues, and extremely low profit margins. At the same time, the demand for the organic market continues to increase and nationally, the number of organic farms increased from 14,326 to 18,166 between 2012 and 2017 and the total value of organic sales increased 57 percent, from 3.1 billion to 7.2 billion. Yet, recent issues with oversupply in other parts of the country directly impacts the viability of Maine organic dairy farms, as over 25 percent of our commercial dairy farms are selling to organic processors.

On average, Maine organic dairy farmers spend $600-$1,300 more per calf than farmers who raise calves conventionally. They follow strict rules and guidelines and are greatly concerned that a few bad actors in other parts of the country are taking advantage of the organic system by diverging from organic standards. The proposed rules would help clarify the standards regarding the transition of conventional dairy cows to organic and the management of breeder stock on organic livestock farms.

Finalizing the proposed rule is an immediate action that the USDA can take to provide much needed relief to dairy farmers. The industry has overwhelmingly supported these changes for over a decade, including thousands of public comments that are on the record in support of the proposed rulemaking.

We are grateful to have the support of the rest of the Maine delegation on this issue, who have supported language requests which would require the USDA to finalize the proposed rule within 180 days of enactment, in addition to incorporating the comments and feedback from the public during the rulemaking process.

On behalf of the Maine dairy industry, we urge you to take immediate action to finalize the proposed Origin of Livestock Rule and to not waste any more valuable time by proposing new rules to consider.

Furthermore, we would also like to take this opportunity to call for consistent and fair application of all NOP rules, particularly the Access to Pasture rule. The inconsistent enforcement of this rule disadvantages those farmers who adhere to it and harms the organic market and integrity of the NOP itself. There are many stresses that farmers face, and lax or improper application of the NOP rules should not be one of them.

Sincerely, Janet T. Mills Governor

cc: Commissioner Amanda Beal Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry