North Bay farmers worry over new rules

December 29, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Organic dairy farmers in Marin and Sonoma counties are afraid that what works in Wisconsin simply won't work here. Organic farmers in California believe their livelihoods are now at stake.

"It would drive us out of business we had to live up to the USDA proposal," said Albert Straus.

Albert operates his family's Straus Creamery. They have been in business for more than 65 years. In 1994, they became the first certified organic dairy, west of the Mississippi, but Albert says their innovations could be threatened by the planned Agriculture Department guidelines. They call for cattle to be grazed in pastures year round, but the climate and terrain in the North Bay make that unrealistic.

"Our soil is such we have to be careful how many animals we put in the field in the winter, and there's not much nutrition in it either," said Albert.

Cattle usually get to the hillsides from March to June. The proposals have the support of big organic farms elsewhere, but Albert says what works in Wisconsin simply isn't feasible in Marin or Sonoma Counties.

"It tries to make it all fit into one definition. It's too varied, we don't have water for irrigation," said Albert.

He says it is also in conflict with state clean water quality rules. The USDA has taken comments from nearly 5,000 farmers and their customers through last Tuesday. Albert hopes they'll come to his creamery to see how he operates.

There has been no response yet, but there could be some flexibility as the USDA told ABC7 News: "We look forward to working with interested parties to fashion a final rulemaking that meets the goals of the organic community."

There is no timetable from the USDA, but Albert thinks a ruling could come within a year. If the proposed regulations go into effect, it could mean small organic dairies like this are out of business.


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