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Organic Dairies Watch the Good Times Turn Bad

Organic Dairies Watch the Good Times Turn Bad

When Ken Preston went organic on his dairy farm here in 2005, he figured that doing so would guarantee him what had long been elusive: a stable, high price for the milk from his cows.

Sure enough, his income soared 20 percent, and he could finally afford a Chevy Silverado pickup to help out. The dairy conglomerate that distributed his milk wanted everything Mr. Preston could supply. Supermarket orders were skyrocketing.

But soon the price of organic feed shot up. Then the recession hit, and families looking to save on groceries found organic milk easy to do without. Ultimately the conglomerate, with a glut of product, said it would not renew his contract next month, leaving him with nowhere to sell his milk, a victim of trends that are crippling many organic dairy farmers from coast to coast.

For those farmers, the promises of going organic — a steady paycheck and salvation for small family farms — have collapsed in the last six months. As the trend toward organic food consumption slows after years of explosive growth, no sector is in direr shape than the $1.3 billion organic milk industry. Farmers nationwide have been told to cut milk production by as much as 20 percent, and many are talking of shutting down.

Bruce Drinkman, who milks 60 cows on his organic farm in Glenwood City, Wis., has seen his income drop 40 percent since this year . To keep the farm going, he has dipped into his retirement savings and dropped his health insurance. But without a loan, his wife has had to draw money from her I.R.A. to help out. “Our Plan B is if we don’t have a decent year, we’re done,” said Mr. Drinkman, who has farmed for 30 years. “I’m 46,” he said. “I wonder what I will do if I can’t farm anymore.”



 

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