by Mark Cardwell

Organic milk is a niche market for Quebec dairy producers, but a new organic milk production program at a leading provincial agricultural college may help make it a more popular and profitable field, Quebec dairy experts say.

“It’s very good news for a growing industry,” says François Dumontier, a spokesperson with the federation that represents Quebec’s 6,300 dairy producers.

The new $4.4-million program is located at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire campus in La Pocatière, an hour’s drive east of Quebec City.

The program is housed in a $3.2 million barn that was inaugurated last week in the presence of Quebec Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Minister Pierre Corbeil.

The building, which notably features abundant natural lighting and ventilation, lodges some 30 cows from two dairy breeds – Jersey and the rare Canadienne.

The animals are fed only antibiotic-free feed that’s grown without herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They’re also isolated from the school’s existing herd of about 40 conventional dairy cows.

“Everything has been designed and thought out with the animals’ well-being in mind,” says ITA’s director Rosaire Ouellet. “The atmosphere in this new building is one of total relaxation.”

According to Dumontier, the approximately 100 organic dairy producers in Quebec produce a total volume of roughly 32 million litres a year.

That is a drop in the bucket compared to the provincial dairy industry total annual output of 2.85 billion litres, generating $2.16 billion in farm-gate revenues.

However, it is almost double the production of only five years ago, and ten times the amount produced in 2000.

Dumontier credits that rise on the steady increase in retail sales of organic milk products over the past decade. He says his federation’s support of the organic milk industry has also contributed to growth.

Notably, the federation has organized the transportation of organic milk from producers to processors since the late 1990s.

It has also negotiated production bonuses or premiums for organic producers from processors since 2000. Organic milk producers currently receive 25 cents per litre more than conventional producers.

“That helps to cover their production costs,” Dumontier says. “It’s only fair, since retail prices of organic milk, which are unregulated, are $1 to $2 higher than regular milk.”

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