Winegrowers in Central Otago are embracing organic practices at a rate that “punches above their weight”.
The first answer on most dairy farmers' lips now is $9.20/kgMS.
But to get a robust answer to this important question we must dig deeper by first asking why our markets are willing to pay so much more for organic milk?
Our milk is perfectly good without being organic, isn't it? Yes, but here's a key principle: the consumer rules. Every expert is telling us we need to focus on quality production for the high end international markets, i.e. certified organic.
The next question then is, what do they know that we don't know to prompt them to pay so much more, or is this all just hype we can take advantage of?
To answer, we need to know what consumers see in organic milk. Mostly they see safety: they want milk products less likely to carry pesticide residues and less likely to contain antibiotics or mycotoxin traces. Some of them equate organic milk with grass fed and the reputed health benefits of milk from all-grass grazing.
When I stand back and look at these questions, the answer I come up with is BUGS. Yes, microbes – bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and tens of thousands of other kinds of microscopic organisms that rule our existence and underpin agriculture and specifically our wellbeing.
And what the heck qualifies me to say that? Well, microbes are the basis of soil and I trained in soils at university and have studied the biological aspects of soil and agriculture for 20 years. I've been a soils consultant and turned production, profit and farmer health around on many farms.
I farm an organically certified dairy support block in Hawkes Bay. I studied with Dr Dettloff, senior consulting vet for Organic Valley Co-op (USA) and I provide certified animal remedies for most of the major dairy health issues.
But increasingly it is my study of eco-nutrition and the ties between the microbiome (the zillions of microbes in the soil, on our skin and inside our guts and cows' guts) and health that fuel my interest in looking after those willing microbial workers.
Without a robust, diverse natural population of microbes in any setting, we're stymied. Unbalanced or outright starved/nuked microbes lead to tight, water-repellent soils that won't fix atmospheric nitrogen for free, can't sequester carbon and can only produce crops that attract pests and diseases, increasing the 'need' for pesticide applications in a vicious downward spiral.
Likewise in our guts, Candida fungi in charge of the beneficial lacto bacillus and bifidus struggling to maintain a foothold means inadequate digestion of our food, mood swings and an inexorable march towards Alzheimer's. Microbes are important: we are more microbial DNA than we are human genes. We're simply vessels for complex microbe ecologies and so is every other ecosystem on the planet. They may be tiny but microbes control the game. And we damage them at our peril.
Organic ag systems do less damage to microbe populations because they don't use synthetic chemicals, antibiotics or scorching conventional forms of fertiliser, all of which harm some part of the soil and animal microbiome.
Few consumers probably see their purchase of organic milk in this light, but we're the ones producing it and we need to know the basics: all natural soil fertility, all quality nutrition, all water quality and all human and animal health depend on well balanced microbe populations.
If you think this organic stuff is too hippy and too hard, repeat to yourself: "My health depends on happy microbes." And if that isn't enough, keep repeating "$9.20... $9.20."
• Phyllis Tichinin is an eco-nutritionist and founder of True Health, Havelock North.