It's been a tough few months for dairy, with Norway's butter shortage and now an ominous cloud looming over 2012 for organic milk drinkers.
Organic dairy farmers can't produce enough milk to meet demand, and the Southeast U.S. may be the hardest hit by this shortage, according to The New York Times, which had a recent report on the state of things. Consumers across the country can probably expect to see retail prices increase by as much as 10 percent this month.
So what's behind the squeeze on organic milk? According to the paper, inputs — like organic grain and hay for animals — are now dramatically more expensive for farmers, but farmers aren't getting paid more for the milk. As a result, cows are getting less food and producing less milk. (As with lots of other troubles in agriculture these days, corn for biofuel has something to do with it.)
Meanwhile, consumers continue to clamor for organic milk, which many believe to be safer, more healthful and better for the environment than conventional milk. Demand rose by as much as 10 percent in 2011, according to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association.
To be certified organic, milk must come from cows that eat only feed grown without pesticides or herbicides. The cows can't be given antibiotics or growth hormones. And, for at least three months a year, the cows have to be out on pasture.
According to the NPOPA, as organic dairy farming has become less profitable, some farmers are returning to conventional methods. That also hurts supply.
It's also a change from a few years ago, when farmers were courted by milk companies desperate to boost their supply of the organic product. Depending on the month, organic farmers could earn double what a conventional farmer makes per gallon of milk.
Now, the farmers still in the organic game are demanding more money from the processors who buy their milk. One group, the Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, has asked major processors like Organic Valley and Horizon for an additional $5 for every 100 pounds of milk; some of that cost would be passed on to consumers.
That may be more than processors are willing to pay, but other producers' groups are insisting that Organic Valley and Horizon will have to figure out some way to help cash-strapped farmers.
The Western alliance says grocery stores also can help the situation by lowering their markup on organic milk so that the prices don't ward off customers.
Publix, a Southeastern grocery chain, told The Times that shortages started in November for both its own brand, Publix GreenWise Market organic milk, and national brands like Horizon and Organic Valley.
"Supplies are sporadic," Kimberly Jaeger, a Publix spokeswoman, told The Times. Hoarding milk, unfortunately, probably won't do you much good, as it's clearly one of the most perishable items in the fridge.