If you look at it one way, these are the best of times for organic egg and milk producers. They can barely keep up with demand. Prices for their products are high. Profits are rolling in. Operations are expanding.
But that expansion is provoking suspicion, name-calling, and even clandestine investigations within the organic "community" because some organic advocates believe that some of these megafarms are not truly organic.
This past summer, an organization called the Cornucopia Institute, which has been fighting against what it considers a takeover of organic farming by big business, commissioned aerial photographers to collect images of 14 large organic egg and milk operations in nine different states.
"We targeted them based on scale," says Mark Kastel, the co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute. "When you get to [5,000] or 10,000 cows, you know that they're gaming the system."
Cornucopia published many of the photos online this week. The organization says the images show that these farms are violating organic rules that require good pasture for cows and access to the outdoors for chickens. In a statement, Kastel wrote that "the vast majority of these massive, industrial-scale facilities, some managing 10,000 to 20,000 head of cattle and upwards of 1 million laying hens, had 100 percent of their animals confined in giant buildings or feedlots."
In the photos of dairy operations, most of them located in Texas, few cows can be seen grazing. The photos, taken in May, show irrigated pasture land nearby, but it's unclear whether it has been used for grazing.
The photos of egg producers, meanwhile, show arrays of large hen houses with small areas of grass or bare dirt between them. In some photos, the small doors that normally allow chickens to leave the house and roam outside appear to be closed, and no birds are visible outside.
Yet Nate Lewis, a specialist on organic certification of livestock operations for the Organic Trade Association, the organic industry's trade group, was unimpressed by the photos.
"For any of these photos, I could come up with a completely valid reason for what you're seeing," he said. In the case of egg-laying chickens, for instance, the rules allow animals to be enclosed for several different reasons, such as when temperatures outside are too hot or cold, for reasons of preventive health care, or when the chickens are very young.
In a few cases, Cornucopia may have photographed the wrong farms. Aurora Organic Dairy says it does not recognize the farm that's identified as an Aurora operation in Dublin, Texas. "We have a facility in Dublin. That one is not ours," says Sonja Tuitele, a spokesperson for Aurora. Another dairy that Cornucopia targeted, Redland Dairy in Farwell, Texas, stopped producing organic milk in April of 2013, according to one of the dairy's managers.
UPDATE Dec. 12, 1:40 pm: Cornucopia's Kastel insists that the photos of the dairy farm in Dublin, Texas, are of Aurora's facility. "We compared them to still photography I took on the ground a few years ago," he wrote in an e-mail. "It's the same farm."
Tuitele says that Aurora abides by the organic rules, which require that cows graze for a minimum of 120 days each year. The rules also require that cows get at least 30 percent of their feed (measured by dry weight) from grazing.
One of Cornucopia's targets was an egg-producing facility in Idalou, Texas, that's owned by Chino Valley Ranches. David Will, the company's general manager, sent us a copy of the facility's operating logs for the day that the photos were taken. They show that the chickens did have access to the outside on that day.
Will says that Kastel has complained about the Idalou facility in the past. The USDA investigated in 2012 and concluded that the facility complied with organic standards. "We personally invited Mark [Kastel] to visit," Will says. "He hasn't shown up."
George Siemon, founder of Organic Valley, a major producer of organic milk and eggs, says that he does not believe that the organic producers targeted by Cornucopia are flouting the rules. But the rules, he says, can also be a kind of trap, encouraging organic farmers to do the bare minimum. Making sure the cows get 30 percent of their feed from grass, he says, "is not the same as embracing grazing" and making it the heart of a dairy operation. Siemon says the industry should instead adopt a program of "continuous improvement."
Cornucopia has filed formal complaints against the 14 operations. The USDA's National Organic Program will now investigate whether the facilities are, in fact, following organic rules.