Why Farmers Are Turning Away From Organic Milk Despite Popularity

The pandemic ushered in demand for organic milk among American consumers and provided an incentive to dairy farmers worldwide, per VTDigger. In 2021, organic dairy production reached a record $22 billion in global market value, according to Statista, and this figure is only expected to grow. Yet the challenges farmers face in running successful businesses are many, and some entrepreneurs are calling it quits, reports William Reed's Food Navigator

After analyzing more than a decade of data collected from Vermont dairies, agricultural researchers pinpointed several major contributors to whether a farm would become profitable: farm size, feeding and farm management, milk price, and input costs. According to a paper published on Sustainable Farming, organic dairy farms have the potential to do better financially than conventional dairy producers. So what's the problem?

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners record that in 2003, more than 90% of farms transitioned out of the organic category for economic reasons. And many organic dairy farmers resorted to non-dairy farming activities to support themselves — 43% reported off-farm income streams. As documented by Time, small farms are struggling to stay afloat. 

A risky endeavor

"Farmers are facing steeply rising input costs due to global politics and economic conditions, climate variation and weather events, and farm improvement investments that are required, necessary, or both," writes NOFA-VT Director Jen Miller on NODPA. The Australian Farm Business Management Journal echoes similar challenges for farmers throughout the European Union.

NODPA, the Massachusetts-based nonprofit, lists feed as farmers' biggest expense. For an organic dairy farm to succeed, explains eOrganic, the cows must be fed quality foods. These could be organic-certified fields set aside for grazing or quality forage that provide the nutrition cattle need to stay healthy and meet supply demands. The cows can't be fed anything genetically modified for one year before a farm is organically certified, and it's not only the feed — the land on which livestock live must also qualify, per Darigold. No chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides can be used for three years before and after land certification.

American dairy farmer Cornell Kasbergen told LiveKindly, "You're better off putting your money into trees... almonds, pistachios, grapes. There are a lot of alternatives that provide a higher return than milking cows."