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Organic dairy producer Mark McAfee checks out his free-range milk-producing cattle, in Fresno, Calif. Atlantic dairy producers hope organic milk will help smaller dairy operations stay in business. ((Gary Kazanjian/Associated Press))

The growing demand for organic products and the need for farmers to find new revenue sources in tightening markets has some dairy producers in Atlantic Canada thinking green.

Mike Main, an agrologist based in Truro, N.S., and a researcher with the Organic Agriculture Centre, is trying to help dairy farmers find ways to overcome some huge obstacles, including the high cost of finding a processor.

Main said the goal is to support a more viable family farm.

"We've got farms with 20 or 30 cows that in the conventional dairy business are becoming very marginal," he said. "With that organic premium it just tips it to where it becomes quite a viable little operation."

'We didn't come this far to just give up.'—Mike Main, agrologist

All organic dairy products currently sold in the region are imported from Ontario and Quebec, but a handful of local producers are hoping to change that.

"We have certainly hit some hurdles but we didn't come this far to just give up," said Main of the half-dozen dairy farmers in Nova Scotia who have formed the East Coast Organic Milk Co-operative.

"We're convinced there's a way to do it. Our goal would be to see milk on the market before Christmas."

Although growth of the organic dairy market has slowed over the past few years, members are still encouraged by the success of OntarBio, a farmer's co-operative based in Guelph, Ont., that is now building its own processing plant.

OntarBio has for many years been marketing organic milk and cheeses under the Organic Meadow label.

"It's not a big industry here," said Main, who is also a regional field manager for the Organic Meadows Co-operative. "But in Ontario up until two or three years ago it was just booming. It was all you could do to keep up."

"So many people came in and then the market just flattened. There's still some growth but not the level we've seen."

High standards demanded in organic farming

In order to be considered organic, land, crops and cattle must all must be certified in a process that can take up to four years.

There can be no use of pesticides or commercial fertilizer on pastures or hayfields. Cows have to be fed organic crops for at least a year before their milk can be certified as such.

Also, growth hormones are banned and there are severe restrictions on the use of antibiotics.

Main said one of the biggest problems in the region is finding someone to process organic milk because most established dairies deal in volume and high heat processing to extend shelf life.

He said finding feed is less of a problem regionally because there are a couple of growers who could supply the limited organic market with enough to meet the need.

"With organic we tend to go for a much more natural feeding system which, for cows, is grass. But in order to maintain decent production from the cows, they need some grain."

Main said there are a lot of positives from drinking organic milk, even though the cost to the consumer may be about 80 per cent more than regular milk.

The taste is much the same but because organic milk is forage-based, it can be a lot healthier.

"It's going to have generally more bioactive fats that are known to provide health benefits in reducing heart disease and allergy problems," Main said.