Historic drought creates ongoing stress for US organic dairy farmers

New coalition seeks aid
calendar icon 7 November 2022
clock icon 3 minute read

Straus Family Creamery, a California-based, certified organic creamery whose mission is to sustain family farms and revitalise rural communities, organised the newly formed group named Western Organic Dairy Farming Crisis Coalition. Organic dairy producers and agricultural industry supporters are part of the coalition seeking immediate emergency drought relief assistance for organic dairy farmers. The drought has created a dramatic increase in feed costs (up to 50%), feed shortages, and drought-related operating costs, according to a press release from the coalition.

Several organic dairies expect a severe financial loss at an average of $250,000 this year. Financial loss is expected in 2023 if the drought and inflation continue. Some farmers have had no choice but to shut down their businesses this year—threatening the viability of the organic dairy farming sector in the future—impacting regional milk and food supplies and rural communities’ economic stability.

“Farmers have survived through drought before, but the current drought coupled with inflation and other impacts are leaving dairy farmers strapped like never before,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “In my many years of working with local dairy families, I’ve seen dairies contemplating their future in tough times, but they’ve hung on encouraged that the situation will turn around. This time is different.”

Despite the USDA having long-standing farm assistance programs for dairy farms facing a financial crisis, these programs are not enough to save organic dairy farms confronting a dire situation, according to the coalition. Stricken by the unprecedented drought, rising feed costs, and feed shortages, some farmers are already selling off their milking cows and going out of business. Several organic dairy farmers predict they may be compelled to shut down their farms in the next few months.

United States farmers are less than 2% of the country’s job force and family farms provide approximately 85% of the country’s food supply. Slightly more than 10% of California is farmed organically, and it is barely more than 1% nationally, according to California Certifiers of Organic Farmers (CCOF).

“If we have to continue to farm with these challenging climate conditions, then farmers will need to innovate more to survive,” said Albert Straus founder and CEO, Straus Family Creamery. 

On Albert Straus’ organic dairy farm, despite the drought, he said that 2021 was one of the best pasture years. 

Climate-positive farming practices offer dairy farmers a more sustainable, viable business model but it can be economically challenging to implement if farmers are only trying to survive. Hay feed supplies in the West are in dangerously short supply as the regional drought persists. Some conventional dairy producers are now purchasing a limited supply of organic alfalfa hay, potentially leaving organic dairy farms without enough feed for their animals in the coming months.

“Local family farms and ranches are essential to West Marin’s community,” said Stefan Parnay, who serves as Marin County’s agricultural commissioner. “These farms and ranches feed us fresh, healthy food not only in Marin County but throughout the entire state and other parts of the country.”

On behalf of the coalition, mission-driven Straus Family Creamery is currently engaging with state and federal politicians and agricultural agencies. The coalition is organizing meetings and sending letters to seek emergency aid to help save organic dairy farms.

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