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The Fall of Promiseland Livestock

Three years ago the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture filed a formal complaint against Promiseland Livestock in Bassett, Neb., and its owner/manager Anthony Zeman. Just this week, the agency announced that it is suspending Promiseland Livestock's organic certification effective July 28.

The decision represents “a victory for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect the integrity of the USDA organic label,” stated USDA officials, who’ve been decidedly more friendly towards nurturing organic production, and more vigilant about protecting the National Organic Standards, than past administrations in Washington.

And yet the “victory” was a long time in coming. The case against Promiseland dates back to 2007, when the agency began sniffing around in connection with their investigation of organic milk producer Aurora Dairy, the nation’s largest supplier of private label organic milk. Aurora got in big trouble with the feds, who threatened to suspend the dairy's organic certification amid allegations that it had violated more than a dozen organic regulations — including replenishing its many organic herds with conventional cattle.

That’s were Promiseland comes in, as it supplied the replacement heifers to Aurora. In 2004, the company sold no fewer than 3,077 cattle to Aurora; in 2005, the number went up to 3,699 cattle; and in 2006, the number ballooned to 6,280 cattle — all sold to Aurora as organic-certified dairy cows.

When USDA inspectors requested paperwork documenting the organic certification of the cattle, as well as for the adjacent farmlands used for growing feed and providing pasture, and details on the sale of the cattle to Aurora, Promiseland balked, and delayed… and finally turned over some of the requested information. After that, they refused all other requests and declined to cooperate with USDA representatives during an unannounced visit to the main farm. USDA started the slow regulatory hearing process to suspend Promiseland's certification.

There were inklings of trouble early on. The certification agency that originally approved Promiseland’s operations in 2002, Quality Assurance International, notified Zeman and company in 2006 — a full year before the USDA stepped in — that the record-keeping system at the farm was inadequate and, as a result, it was impossible to conduct an audit or verify compliance with the organic regulations.

Soon after, Promiseland took steps to remove QAI as its certifying agent. As stated above, things went downhill from there.

The Cornucopia Institute, the controversial, pro-small farm organization that tipped off the feds to the entire mess, and which doggedly pursued the allegations beginning in 2005, has stated that the long fight against Promiseland and Aurora demonstrates the dangers of Big Organic.

“Large industrial-scale dairy operations push cattle for high levels of production and sometimes slaughter cattle after they have been producing milk for only a year or two, due to stress-induced health problems. This approach demands a steady stream of replacement animals into their milking herd,” Cornucopia officials said, noting the heavy demand opens the door to large-scale abuses of the kind seen here.

In announcing the suspension, David Shipman, acting administrator of the AMS, dropped the bureaucratic jargon usually associated with these types of actions and said the agency remains committed to the integrity of the NOP.

“Our diligence in this long battle has paid off,” he stated. “The organic standards are rigorous; all certified operations are expected to adhere to them.”