By Samuel Fromartz
It has taken several years and many attempts to beef up a regulation requiring organic livestock to graze on pasture. Now it appears, there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
If this rule passes, as many farmers, retailers and advocates hope, cows will be required to graze on fresh grass for a minimum amount of time each year.
A coalition of dairy groups is pushing for a floor of 120 days on pasture, with 30 percent of the cows' nutritional needs coming from fresh grass. Previously, the regulations only required "access to pasture," which meant a cow might rarely get a blade of fresh grass and live out its productive life on huge feedlots. A clear pasture regulation would end that practice, though it is unknown what the final rule will actually say.
In an interview, Barbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator for the USDA's National Organic Program, told me that a pasture rule should be released for comment this summer, though she was doubtful that it would take effect by the end of this year.
ROBINSON: I'm hopeful that we'll see something this summer. It is drafted. It's in clearance, we've gone back and forth with our attorneys who are the first level of review and it's with them again for a second review and then it has to make its way through the department and to OMB (Office of Management and Budget).
FROMARTZ: And that can happen by the summer?
ROBINSON: Again, I don't know but I'm hoping because it's my no. 1 priority and has been. You don't often have a deputy administrator who works on a pasture rule or on any rulemaking but I have been. It's kind of been my baby.
Once the proposed rule is published, the public will get an opportunity to comment. Those comments will then be incorporated into the final rule, which will be published. At that point, the rule would probably take effect within 30 days with a transition period for farms to come into compliance.
But she added: "I don't think it would be in the effect by the end of the year."
The rule could also hit roadblocks once it's sent over to the Office of Management and Budget in the next couple of months. Robinson said there has been a great degree of interest in this rule, as there is with the entire organic program. "Everybody and their brother gets to look at it and they ask, why you changed this paragraph. It takes forever," she said.
Robinson said the rule could also run into problems if "we really got it wrong. Then we might have to republish the proposed rule but I don't think that would be the case. I think we got it right," she said.