North Bay dairies shift to organic milk production, seeking higher income and stability
Eighty percent of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties now produce certified organic milk, a change that allows them to command a premium milk price and also has sheltered them from a severe downturn that has buffeted the conventional dairy market for more than a year.
The North Bay’s shift away from the conventional dairy business, which has taken place over more than two decades, represents a striking contrast with the rest of California, where organic milk comprises less than 2 percent of total dairy production.
So many local farmers have switched to organic production that Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms, the Bay Area’s largest independent dairy processor, has reached out beyond the North Bay’s coastal grasslands to the Central Valley to satisfy its need for conventional milk.
“We have had to move east where the milkshed is,” said Marcus Benedetti, president and CEO of the company with the iconic mascot, Clo the Cow. “And that will be a trend that continues.”
But even moving to organic won’t entirely protect the local dairy industry from volatile ups and downs, as the nation’s organic sector faces a milk surplus. Already two large local buyers of organic milk have announced what they characterized as small price cuts, and some dairies could have difficulty finding processors for their milk.
Some are predicting upheaval in the larger organic market, though not as severe as what the state’s conventional dairies have been suffering.
“You’re going to see farmers going out of business,” said Richard Mathews, executive director of the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, which represents more than 275 farmers in 12 western states. “You’re going to see farmers downsizing and you’re going to see competition (among buyers) shrinking, which will further drive down prices to the farmers.”
Still, more local dairies are making the transition away from conventional production.
“On the 10th of August, I will be fully organic,” said Domenic Carinalli, 75, a longtime dairy farmer south of Sebastopol.
Carinalli, who sits on the California Milk Advisory Board and the boards of directors for the county and state farm bureaus, said he loves the dairy business, “but you have to pay the bills.” For him, organic production with his herd of about 95 Holstein and Guernsey cattle provides a better opportunity than the conventional market.
West Santa Rosa dairy farmer Doug Beretta made the same decision during a similar downturn a decade ago. The realization that he was working 12-hour days and still losing money prompted him to convert the family farm to organic production in 2007. From the beginning, he has supplied his milk to American Canyon-based Wallaby Yogurt Co.
“The dairy business has always been kind of a roller coaster,” said Beretta, a director at both the Sonoma County Fair and the farm bureau. “I still think with the organics, the dips have not been as bad as the conventional [milk] world.”
Organic milk, meats and other foods are produced according to standards set by the U.S. Department of Agricultures, with each farm’s practices individually certified by independent consultants.
Among other things, organic production prohibits use of antibiotics or genetically modified organisms, as well as most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. For dairies, it also requires that the milk cows get a specific percentage of their diet from pasture.
In 1994 the Marin County farm of Straus Dairy, based in Marshall, became the first certified organic dairy not only for the North Bay but for all the states west of the Mississippi.
Today, Marin and Sonoma have 88 dairies, 71 of which are organic, according to the agricultural commissioner’s office from the two counties. Marin has 20 organic and five conventional dairies. Sonoma has 51 organic and 12 conventional.
The switch to organic milk mirrors efforts by Sonoma County farmers who have planted premium wine grapes, grown grass-fed beef, harvested organic vegetables and produced artisan cheeses. Survival in North Bay agriculture increasingly has involved switching from selling a commodity to finding a premium niche product.
“This has always been a high-cost area,” said George Mertens, a Sonoma dairy farmer.
Mertens, who has been farming for nearly a half-century, remains a conventional dairyman because he lacks the pasture needed for organic operations. “I’m one of the few left,” he observed.
In the local dairy sector, the difference in price helps explain the shift from one type of production to another.
Marin’s organic farmers reported the average price paid for their milk in 2015 rose 21 percent from a year earlier to $37.50 a hundredweight, according to that county’s crop report. A hundredweight is equal to 100 pounds, or about 11.6 gallons of milk.