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Originally published September 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 30, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Can a dairy be big and organic?

Watts Brothers Farms in Eastern Washington has 2,200 cows milking — but some ask whether a dairy farm that large can be truly organic.

Seattle Times business reporter

PATERSON, Benton County — Zipping along in a four-seat helicopter, Don Odegard can see Watts Brothers Farms from miles away.

Its dairy cows are dark dots ambling toward an indoor milking carousel. Others munch on grass in irrigated pasture before retreating from the Eastern Washington sun to shelters the length of three football fields. They rest there and eat dried organic hay and other feed before heading to the carousel again.

It's not exactly Old MacDonald's farm.

Watts Brothers, which started milking cows in December, is Washington's largest organic dairy with 2,200 milking cows.

State regulators and some small dairy farmers speak highly of it, but critics question whether milking thousands of cows is worthy of the term "organic."

They lump it into the same category as Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, which agreed last month to reduce its herd, add organic pasture and stop labeling some of its milk "organic" after the U.S. Department of Agriculture threatened to revoke its organic certification.

Consumers sometimes pay twice as much for organic milk, and they might not picture the dairies producing it with thousands of cows, or a farmer arriving at 140 mph from overhead.

However, increasing demand for organic milk has made the market appealing to large-scale farmers like Odegard, president and a minority owner of Watts Brothers.

"The right thing to do"

The idea for Watts Brothers' organic dairy began three years ago, when Odegard realized its 22,000-acre vegetable farm could save money on manure if it produced its own. With customers like Gerber and Safeway wanting more organic vegetables, it made sense to start an organic dairy that would produce organic manure.

Watts Brothers cows graze on four giant irrigated circles among hundreds near the Columbia River. Many of the circles grow vegetables for Watts Brothers customers, others are part of a joint venture begun 16 years ago between Watts Brothers and Lamb Weston, a brand of ConAgra, and some grow grapes for the state's largest winery, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

Watts Brothers grows much of the organic hay and other dry feed that its cows eat, and its cows produce much of the manure that its organic crops need.

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That arrangement saves the company money and is good for the environment, Odegard said, because it means fewer trucks hauling in supplies from other places.

"It's the right thing to do," said Odegard, a former banker and professional football player with the New York Jets.

That's the way he answers a lot of questions about the dairy.

Watts Brothers uses mostly Jersey cows, which is unusual in the dairy business because they produce less milk per cow than a Holstein. Jersey cows were bred to graze, and their bodies produce milk more efficiently, Odegard said, which makes business sense and is "the right thing to do."

The dairy milks each cow twice a day rather than three times, which produces less milk but is easier on the cows in the long run and is also "the right thing to do," said Odegard.

"God gave us the resources we have, and our job is to use them as efficiently as we can and leave it like we got it, if not in better shape," he said.

Grazing questions

Odegard believes Watts Brothers has a better business model than many small dairies.

"A lot of smaller dairies are barely getting by," he said. Because they have fewer cows, he figures, the small dairies need to wring more milk out of every animal, which creates stress for cows, employees and the environment.

PCC Natural Markets in Seattle sees it differently. The grocery cooperative stopped carrying Horizon Organic milk products last year, partly because it doubted that cows at Horizon's biggest dairies were spending enough time on pasture.

Unlike conventional dairies, organic dairies must graze their cows on pasture.

The U.S.D.A.'s organic-standards board recommends they graze at least 120 days a year, and that at least 30 percent of their food come from pasture when it is available.

Watts Brothers is one of Horizon's largest suppliers. Although its cows graze for several hours a day on 500 acres of irrigated pasture, the dairy's critics say it is missing the bigger picture.

"These people are probably making every effort to be organic," said Goldie Caughlan, nutrition education manager at PCC and a former member of the U.S.D.A.'s organic standards board.

"There's just no way to get around the fact that this is an arid desert area," she said. "That's not a sustainable place for concentrated animal operations."

The Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm-advocacy group in Wisconsin, opposes organic dairies with more than 1,000 cows, and co-founder Mark Kastel says one in an arid region like Eastern Washington is "really stretching it."

Large organic dairies can't graze cows properly, Kastel contends, and they might end up driving smaller organic players out of business.

That's what happened with conventional dairies, he said, "so one of the things family farmers did was switch to organic because of the relationship with consumers who are willing to pay a fair price for their product. Now the corporate players want that, too."

A big welcome

Odegard knows about the criticism and is determined to run Watts Brothers' dairy responsibly.

He wants to put picnic tables on a patch of grass next to the milking barn and invite the public for tours.

They won't see cows lolling around under shade trees, but that vision might exist more in consumers' minds than in reality anyway.

"People want to picture cute 50-cow dairies all over the countryside, but our economics don't allow for that everywhere anymore," said Georgana Webster, an organic-livestock inspector for the Washington Department of Agriculture, which determines whether dairies like Watts Brothers are following national organic standards.

She finds that no matter what their size, organic dairies put less stress on cows and workers.

"I see healthier cattle and happier people," Webster said. "There's less stress. They're not pushing, depending on the economics of their situation."

Her boss, Miles McEvoy, manages the state's organic program and applauds Watts Brothers for going the organic route with its new dairy.

Odegard was appointed by the department's director to sit on its organic program advisory board.

"We want to create a sustainable, organic agricultural system, and we need not just small farms to be involved," McEvoy said.

"Large farms are part of agriculture, and excluding them from organic agriculture would be a big mistake."

Washington is the 10th largest milk-producing state, with 488 dairies pumping out 5.5 billion pounds of milk last year. Most are conventional dairies averaging about 500 cows each.

Organic dairies are smaller and coming on fast. Washington now has 46, up from three in 2003, and they average about 250 cows each.

Even Watts Brothers, the largest by far with 2,200 cows, is dwarfed by the country's largest conventional dairies, which can top 15,000 cows, according to the U.S.D.A.

Smaller dairies threatened

Other organic-dairy owners were concerned when they heard that a large Horizon supplier was opening in Eastern Washington. They don't want the organic-dairy label to be tainted by any questionable players.

"A bunch of us said, 'How is Watts Brothers going to graze in pasture in 110-degree heat?' " said Jay Gordon, an organic dairy farmer near Olympia and executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation.

The state uses routine and unannounced inspections to ensure that organic cows are grazing, and by now word has spread to other dairy farms that Watts Brothers' cows are doing fine.

"We all went, 'Doggone it, they figured out a way to do it,' " Gordon said.

That still leaves the question of whether small dairies can survive alongside operations 10 times their size in the organic marketplace. If the demise in recent years of tens of thousands of smaller conventional dairies is any guide, a lot of small organic dairies will disappear.

Organic dairymen like Gordon hope that with 200 or so cows, they will have the critical mass necessary to stay in business.

"I like to think I have a good, efficient system at my place," he said, "but ask me in 10 years."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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