Organic milk sales are on the rise, but even as consumers pay hefty premiums for the products, dairy producers aren't necessarily receiving commensurate prices.
According to the California Department of Agriculture, less than 3 percent of the "Golden State's" dairies are certified organic, but production of organic milk nearly doubled in 2006.
A gallon of organic milk currently sells for about twice the price of the regular variety. But, as conventional milk prices rise and the organic supply increases, premiums returned to producers have fallen steadily.
Dairy farmers, however, have other ways of capturing a higher price for their value-added products. As Jeannie Campbell discovered earlier this year, one Washington state dairy is milking a profit from sales of non-pasteurized milk.
Jeff Brown milks cows in the state of Washington in the rain shadow of the Olympic mountain range. Brown says he has been milking cows since he was 11, but in 1986, he sold his herd as part of the Dairy Termination Program. It was just one of the many federal programs designed to reduce milk production.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "Well the buyout was a national thing. Milk prices were terrible, Government came in and, and offered to pay you to exit the dairy business for a period of five years. The cows all had to go to beef. Hardest thing I've ever done and I would never do it again."
Jeff and his wife Debbie missed dairy farming so much that five years after taking part in the buyout, they returned to milking cows. Today, the only two dairy farms in Clallam County is the farm Jeff grew up on and the dairy he built.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "This County probably had three hundred and fifty, I think about 1950, and now there's two. There's still more milk nationally, but ah, the small dairy farm in this area went out mainly because of the price of land. Much more profitable to grow houses than to grow crops."
In the 1950's the primary farm activity in Clallam County for over half a century had been dairying, with the highest concentration of dairies in the Sequim-Dungeness lowlands. It is where Jeff and his family milk 60 Jersey cows, and home to the Dungeness Valley Creamery where the Browns bottle their own milk.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "As long as you ship to a um, any kind of a processor, whether it be a co-op or, or, any other type, you have no say whatsoever in the price. By doing our own, it's a market place. We can go out there and we can create our own market, and we create our own price."
What sets milk from the Dungeness Valley Creamery apart from most of the milk sold in the United States is that it is not pasteurized. According to the Weston Price Foundation, there are currently twenty-five states where it is legal to sell raw milk for human consumption. There are five other states that allow cow-sharing programs where shares of dairy cows are sold. Since shareholders own the animal they are not technically purchasing the milk. For the Brown family the decision to sell raw milk came after their oldest daughter Sarah, graduated from Washington State University.
Sarah Brown, Sequim, Washington: "My parents, they probably would've just keep on dairying the way they had been, but because I came back they, we needed to do something to make it more economically viable. So, that's when we decided to do a niche market, and so we decided to go raw."
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "Probably the best way to explain it is we never wanted to be more than just a small family farm. 50/60 cows, and we didn't want to grow in numbers. So, we wanted to a make our emphasis be on keeping small, keeping quality, and finding a market that was a niche market."
Besides selling milk at the dairy, the Brown's sell their milk in a number of stores across Washington. They can sell their milk for 4-and-one-half times the price they received when they sold it to the coop. While there are some new expenses, the profits, besides keeping Sarah on the farm, have allowed the Browns to hire additional help.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "We have about seven, what we call full-time part-time help. The way we look at it is, we used to sell the milk to Darigold and Darigold incurred the expense of the processing. Now we have the expense from us, right to the consumer. There's a certain amount of expense there too."
While proponents of raw milk believe that it is better for you than pasteurized milk there are potential health hazards associated with drinking unprocessed milk. For a dairy to sell raw milk in the state of Washington, it must be licensed, and every container of milk it sells must carry a warning label that it could be harmful to drink.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "The requirements are more strict. But they need to be. The cleanliness of the facilities is more important. Our quality standards that we have to meet are much, much, stricter than ah, pasteurized milk. Everything we do is just geared to make sure that milk is clean, clean, clean."
By going raw, the Brown's have been able to keep their daughter on the farm without expanding their herd. Like those who drink raw milk, it might not be for everybody, but it works for Browns.
Jeff Brown, Sequim, Washington: "There is more work, and here's more headaches the buck stops here more. But it's more rewarding."
While proponents of raw milk say that it is more nutritious than pasteurized, critics including the federal government claim the product may contain potentially deadly bacteria. Next week we will examine the issue and hear from those who say it's important that raw milk remain legal.
For Market to Market, I'm Jeannie Campbell.