Published on July 22nd, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance
Horizon Organic and Silk Soymilk: Integrity of Farm Aid Sponsors Questionable
I’ve long been a fan of Willie Nelson and Neil Young and what they have done for the American family farm and the environment. I remember watching the first Farm Aid concert in 1985 when I was 14-years-old and being moved by the message and the music. This year’s Farm Aid concert will be on October 4 in St. Louis, Missouri, and its purpose is to “raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land.” Unfortunately, several of Farm Aid’s corporate sponsors have come under scrutiny by organic consumers in recent years. Has Farm Aid been greenwashed by its sponsors?
Because sponsorship is a mutually beneficial relationship in which Farm Aid lends its valuable brand name to a company’s promotions and marketing, in exchange for a sponsorship fee, Farm Aid seeks association with companies which make a demonstrable concession to family farm values. Consumers are helped in their food choices by labels, brands, and marketing campaigns that help them know who grew their food, where, and how it was grown. Farm Aid urges companies to be transparent, accountable, and actively increasing opportunities for US family farmers. While no business or organization (or even farm!) is perfect, we seek partners who are moving in a positive direction for a future of good food from family farms.
Given these sponsorship requirements, why are Horizon Organic and Silk on the list?
Horizon Organic is owned by Dean Foods, Inc., the largest dairy producer in the US. Horizon did start out as a family farm, but in recent years the company has been accused of watering down organic standards by using milk from feedlot cows. Organic consumers have boycotted the label, and not all of the milk comes from family farms. The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) reports:
Horizon said its two company-owned farms the Paul, Idaho, dairy and its 500-cow Maryland dairy make up 20 percent of its milk supply. The other 80 percent, it said, comes from 340 family farms.
It is the Idaho dairy farm where the image is most depressing and contradicts the Horizon label that promises cows “make milk the natural way, with access to plenty of fresh air, clean water and exercise.” OCA describes one Horizon corporate farm:
At a Horizon dairy farm in central Idaho, the cows don’t look that happy. Four thousand cows live in a stark landscape of sagebrush fields, long silver barns and open-air sheds. Jammed in crowded pens atop the hardpan of the Idaho desert, the cows are fed a diet of alfalfa, hay, grains and soy, all certified organic. Only occasionally do they eat fresh grass.
Dean Foods is an $11 billion agribusiness giant and the largest milk processor in the United States. They own over 50 milk labels around the country, including Horizon Organic, a brand that heavily depends on factory farms each milking thousands of cows…According to reports by farmers and farmer-owned cooperatives, after Dean Foods purchased the Silk brand in 2002, they told domestic farmers that they would not work with them and buy their organic soybeans unless they could match the cheaper price of imported Chinese soybeans…Unlike their two competitors in the refrigerated dairy case (Organic Valley and Wildwood), Dean Foods refused to transparently participate in Cornucopia’s study-depriving their customers of an independently verified review of their practices…Recently, Dean Foods reformulated their Silk product line converting almost all their products to “natural” (conventional) soybeans. They did this, quietly, without telling retailers or changing the UPC code numbers on the products.
Merle Kramer, a marketer for the Midwestern Organic Farmers Cooperative, further explains how Silk screwed over American farmers:
Dean Foods had the opportunity to push organic and sustainable agriculture to incredible heights of production by working with North American farmers and traders to get more land in organic production. But what they did was pit cheap foreign soybeans against the U.S. organic farmer, taking away any attraction for conventional farmers to make the move into sustainable agriculture.
Neither Silk nor Horizon deserve to be part of Farm Aid, considering their unethical practices towards consumers, animals, and family farms. Even during tight economic times, Farm Aid should hold strong to their standards and not be greenwashed by corporate sponsors who do not truly support family farms and uphold organic standards. Family farmers not only need financial support, they need moral support for ethical practices in food production.