Keeping cost of organic milk reasonable getting harder to do

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 25, 2012

By Shavonne Potts
As a Rowan County organic farmer, Chris Hoffner has had to do things a little differently lately to meet demand for organic milk. Consumers are finding it harder to get organic milk as supplies tighten across the nation.
Hoffner, whose family owns Hoffner Organic Farms in Mount Ulla, says the high cost of feed and rising fuel prices have led them to look for ways to bring in extra cash to continue giving consumers what they want.
“Consumers are consuming more organic milk,” Hoffner said. “In a sense, the more grain you feed, the more milk they produce up to a certain point.
“We have to grow more of our own crops to feed the cows rather than purchase it.”
Because Hoffner is able to produce his own organic grain, he can keep his cows fed. However, this doesn’t mean he isn’t feeling the effects of higher prices.
When grain prices go up, farmers can’t feed the cows what they would like.
“They are not producing as much milk as what they were before,” he said.
Farmers like Hoffner have felt the pinch and found ways to supplement their income, including growing organic barley for Asheville-based Riverbend Malt House.
The farm also raises beef cattle and grows wheat for flour that it grinds and sells.
Hoffner’s farm also supplies Weeping Radish Farm Brewery in Grandy.
The farm is part of a co-operative, Organic Valley, which buys Hoffner Organic Farms’ milk. Both Organic Valley and Horizon Organic, owned by Dean Foods Co., have increased the prices they pay to farmers to account for higher production costs.
“They have given us a pay increase for our milk because they know grain is high. They are trying to help out the farmer as best they can,” Hoffner said.
The company’s goal is to make sure farmers continue to produce “a high quality milk,” he said.
It may mean consumers have to pay more, Hoffner said.
Area grocery stores are working hard to keep organic milk on the shelves, officials say.
Harris Teeter has seen demand for organic milk, and the company continues to work with its suppliers to secure the product for its shoppers, said Danna Jones, a communication specialist with the grocery chain.
Many factors can affect the supply of any agricultural product. In this case, the cost of organic grain, weather and slowed growth of organic farms have affected the availability of organic milk, Jones said. “We will continue to do our part to stock our shelves for our shoppers, even while supplies of organic milk remain low nationwide,” Jones said.
Christy Phillips-Brown, director of external communications for Food Lion parent company Delhaize America, said the Salisbury-based grocer is “working very closely with our organic milk suppliers to ensure this product is available to our customers.”
Phillips-Brown said the company, like other retailers, has experienced some intermittent supply issues associated with organic milk.
“Food Lion continues to experience increased customer interest in its organic and natural product items. We routinely review these categories and enhance product offerings based on customer preferences,” Phillips-Brown said.
The Hoffners’ farm, which includes Chris’ wife Tara and father Alan “Buddy” Hoffner, made the switch to organic several years ago. But Hoffner said it’s hard to switch from conventional to organic, and for some farmers it may not be economical.
Conventional grain prices are high as well, Hoffner said.
Rick Parker and his wife, Dorcas, also have an organic farm in Mount Ulla. They could not be reached for this story.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.