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Looking for something beyond organic

By David Kline
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --I am a small-scale organic dairy farmer and I am disheartened.

No, not with organic farming. That works fine. Five years ago when I switched from almost-organic to full organic, I hoped our family would be able to produce milk for an organic milk and cheese market. But that has not come to fruition because the United States Department of Agriculture and I don't see eye to eye.

Here's the wasp under my hat: The USDA's National Organic Program (NOP) requires that any cow treated with an antibiotic cannot stay in the herd. She has to leave the farm. I think that is inhumane. Yes, I realize that factory farming has overused antibiotics for a long time, which has contributed to a rise in antibiotic-resistant organisms. But I, and most other small-scale farmers, haven't abused the medications.

Many of the animals on my farm never have had a need for an antibiotic. For example, Langa, my daughter Ann's cow, has done very well without antibiotics all her 14 years. I believe that if Langa were to contract pneumonia or foot rot, two fairly common infections in domestic animals, I should have the right to treat her with an antibiotic and still keep her on the farm. As the NOP rule now stands, Langa would have to be sold.

Foot rot especially is easily cured with penicillin. Occurring almost always in a back foot, sometimes following an injury, foot rot is extremely painful. The infected animal is barely able to hobble around. I would owe it to Langa to make her as comfortable as possible. Before NOP, the organic standards required that a treated cow's milk be withheld for twice the time required by the conventional market, which was six days. Europe's organic rules are 14 days. The USDA says forever.

My 40 Jersey cows, and Maynard the bull, work for me on our 120 acres of rolling Ohio land, and the only way I can repay them is with kindness - provide for them the best possible life the doe-eyed cows could desire. From April through November they are on pasture. Every 12 hours, following the morning and evening milkings, the cows are turned onto new grass and legumes. They have access to fresh spring water and, during the hot part of the grazing season, the gentle bovines have the comfort of shade.

In the cold months, the cows are indoors. They receive no bovine growth hormone shots, no genetically modified feeds, no chemicals. In return, they give us sweet and creamy grass-based milk, rich in beta-carotene, high in omega-3 fatty acids, milk that reflects the tastes of the season, the weather and the fertility of the fields. It's not like that watery whitewash sold as low-fat or skim milk in the supermarkets. Stuff our barn cats refuse to drink.

Perhaps we need to move beyond organic to a label for grass-based milk and meat - a green label for a more ecologically friendly farming, where all the inhabitants of the farm are taken into consideration, where cows aren't merely profit units and where, as Aldo Leopold writes, "There is a harmonious balance between plants, animals, and people; between the domestic and the wild; between utility and beauty."

On such a farm, hay-cutting will be delayed to let the young bobolinks fledge and the cows will be kept out of a paddock until the four speckled eggs of the killdeer hatch and the precocial fluffball young scurry to a new field. There, the woodlot will be fenced off from livestock so the Eastern towhees and other ground-nesting birds can rear their young in seclusion, and the dozen virgin white oaks will be saved for future generations to behold what this land looked like 200 years ago.

And it will be a farm where the "Final Rule" will allow Langa, if suffering from pneumonia or foot rot, to stay at home.

David Kline is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agricultural research organization in Salina, KS. He is the author of two books and an editor of Farming Magazine. He and his family farm near Fredericksburg, Ohio.