Organic milk production has become a boon for many North Bay dairies, but proposed rules have farmers worried that the federal government is about to fence them out of a growing market.
It's one thing for the U.S. Agriculture Department to propose that cows producing organic milk graze on pasture land as well as consume organic hay and grain.
But it's another, dairy owners say, to call for keeping cows in the fields all year long in an area such as the North Coast, where rainy winters turn pasture land into mud bogs.
"There's no way I could have this ranch that way," said Doug Beretta, a Santa Rosa dairy farmer and president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
At stake is who can continue to sell certified organic milk. The nation's organic dairies include farms with only a handful of cows, as well as operations with thousands of animals that supply milk to such retail giants as Wal-Mart and Costco.
Organic farm proponents say federal rules are needed to prohibit "factory farms" from keeping cows in huge dirt lots and still labeling their milk organic.
But local farmers say the proposed pasture-land rule would prove unreasonable. After winter storms, cows could get udder and foot diseases from living in the muck, and dairies would fall under constant threat of state water quality fines should any manure enter nearby creeks.
Getting good pasture rules is "the most important issue we face right now," said Marcus Benedetti, president of Clover Stornetta Farms, the Petaluma-based milk processor that buys from 21 organic dairies in Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties.
Benedetti agreed with Beretta that the proposed rules need revision. But he suggested the organic industry will be undermined without new requirements that address consumer expectations.
"The expectation is the cow is out on pasture," he said.
About 40 percent of Clover Stornetta's sales come from organic products, which Benedetti said constitute its largest growth sector.
Twenty-one of Sonoma County's 73 dairies are certified for organic production, county officials said. So are about a half-dozen of Marin's 28 dairies.
During the past three decades, more than 130 Sonoma County dairies have been squeezed out of business or consolidated into bigger operations. Milk was for decades the county's leading agricultural product until surpassed by wine grapes in 1987.
Today, the conventional milk market is a tough business, in part because of uncertainty on what the state will set each month as a minimum farm milk price. Local farmers also face stiff competition from much larger dairies operating elsewhere in California.
To survive, North Bay dairies have looked for niche markets, including cheese and organic products. Such markets offer better revenue and greater stability than the conventional milk industry.
"They can remain small and produce nice amounts of milk," said Leslie Butler, an economist with the UC Cooperative Extension.
Organic milk is free of antibiotics and comes from cows that eat feed grown without pesticides.
While still a small fraction of the overall market, organic dairy products already amount to a $2.7 billion industry, according to the Organic Trade Association. The group's reports show dairy sales are growing faster than the overall organic sector.
The proposed rules would affect a variety of animals raised for organic markets. But most attention has focused on the dairy industry, which for years has debated the pasture issue.