When we drink a glass of organic milk, or eat organic pork sausage with our organic scrambled eggs, it’s easy to forget what goes into securing that “organic” label. On the surface, it’s simple: in order for its output to be called organic, a cow (or a pig, or a chicken) has to eat organic food.
But it’s not quite as effortless as it sounds.
The National Organic Program (the branch of the US Department of Agriculture that governs organic production and practices) mandates that livestock feed used on organic farms must not contain animal drugs or hormones, or mammalian or poultry by-products. What does that mean? That non-organic feed can contain such things — growth promoters, ground-up slaughter by-products, and pesticides. And while organic dairy (and livestock in general) is a growing sector, there’s certainly much more supply and demand of non-organic feed nationwide.
Steve Russell, of Winslow, runs Pine Hill Jerseys with his family — a 45-cow operation that sells its milk through the Organic Valley cooperative. When he went organic more than a decade ago, there was “almost no infrastructure” in Maine to obtain organic grain on a large scale, he says. Then the Blue Seal organic grain mill in Auburn filled the void for a while (Blue Seal Feeds is headquartered in New Hampshire). That mill closed last year.
“We decided that was a good opportunity for some of us to get together and do it ourselves,” Russell says of himself and the 11 other farmers who incorporated Maine Organic Milling (they’re also all shippers to Organic Valley). “We’re kind of at the end of the grain pipeline and we didn’t have a lot of control over what we were getting for grain. The real motivating factor was to take over the quality of the ingredients and what we were feeding our cows.”
With logistical and financial help from Organic Valley (which has 36 farmer-owners in Maine) and the Maine Department of Agriculture, the folks behind Maine Organic Milling set in motion the $350,000 mill purchase and put two former Blue Seal employees back to work part-time.
The feed produced at the mill combines corn, barley, wheat, and other grains from the Midwest and Canada. Right now it is being ground for bulk orders, but organizers hope to develop a bagged-feed program for smaller-scale backyard farmers in the near future.
According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, “organic dairy farming has become the fastest growing agricultural sector in New England,” and “Maine has the highest percentage of organic dairy farms compared with conventional in the nation.” Also according to MOFGA, purchased feed is by far the largest expense on an organic dairy producer’s balance sheet.
It makes sense, then, to have a local feed producer, one that can serve this growing market as sustainably as possible. And the feed is available not only to co-op members, but to any Maine organic farmers (by calling 888.809.9297). Next steps include bringing other types of livestock farmers on board to develop and distribute feed recipes for other animals (in my March column, “Hog Wild on the Farm,” I mentioned that the local organic pork producers at Treble Ridge Farm were interested exploring local organic grain possibilities). And the “ultimate goal,” according to Russell, is to “encourage more local production” of the raw materials — large-scale grain-growing right here in Maine.
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at email@example.com.