Update on the California Drought and the Straus Dairies
Slowly but surely, Northern California is starting to “look like normal” after much needed rainfalls in the last few weeks. The grass has finally started to grow, turning Marin and Sonoma counties’ rolling hills green – an image one would have expected to see three months ago.
For most people, the delay of the emerging greenery has little meaning. For organic dairy and hay farmers, the amount and height of grass in pastures is essential to a successful year, and has a direct effect on the economic viability of farms.
Due to the ongoing drought in Northern California, the pasture season has been delayed by up to six weeks, and pasture-grass growth has been delayed and stunted. The eight dairies, including the Straus dairy, that supply organic milk for Straus Family Creamery’s dairy products, have only recently started to put their cows out on pasture. The beginning of this year’s grazing season marks, almost exactly, the day of the end of last year’s rainy season.
The rains have fallen at different levels in the two counties. While the Straus dairy, which is located in Marin, has seen a total of 9 inches of rain since the beginning of this year, the Hughes dairy in Sonoma County’s Bodega had almost twice that at 17 ¼ inches. Luckily, all eight dairies have reported having enough water, filling ponds and reservoirs for the season to come.
However, all of them say that they are running low or are out of silage, which was grown last spring and stored for use all year. As a result, the farmers have had to increase, and will continue to have to purchase alfalfa hay, which is difficult to find, and which has been and will continue to be more expensive than usual, due to the drought and high demand. Similar to silage, the 2013 hay crop is already depleted, which causes a significant increase in cost to farmers.
Another factor that influences the economics at the farm level is water allocation. The federally supplied irrigation water to most farm districts in California will not be available to crop farms in 2014, which includes hay farms. Therefore, only 50-75% of the usual hay crop in California is expected in 2014, which will further increase prices to farmers for an estimated two years.
These increases in costs of production for farmers that are the results of the ongoing drought comprise the true costs of sustainable, organic production. Straus Family Creamery is therefore actively evaluating with farmers when and by how much to raise prices paid to them for organic milk.
Albert Straus recently attended a hearing, hosted by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who suggested introducing legislation to allow the allocation of treated human wastewater for livestock. The idea was met with universal skepticism by attending farmers: “The use of tertiary treated human wastewater for livestock is not tested and not approved,” said Albert Straus, “I will not subject my cows and my customers to this potentially harmful method.”
In Straus’ opinion, there are other ways to preserve water resources and make them available to farmers: City and county officials can work with households to reduce water use, applying simple measures which are already successfully implemented by Sonoma County residents. We invite you to learn and apply more of these water saving techniques – farmers will be thanking you for it.
The temporary variance in the pasture rule granted to dairy farmers, due to the harsh impacts of the drought, has generated speculation about organic integrity. Independent certifier California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) has posted a detailed response that the integrity of the organic label stands. http://www.ccof.org/blog/organic-milk-organic