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The organic food movement has been around for nearly 49 years, but the USDA's release of proposed operating rules that would entitle farmers or food processors to qualify for a federal "organic" label has focused fresh attention on a controversial topic.

The market for "organic" foods -- those produced with little or no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics or hormones -- has grown remarkably since 1990. USDA puts current "organic" sales at $3.5 billion, a fraction of all food sales.

Advocates such as the Organic Trade Association say the proposed federal organic standards fall short. "We are very disappointed that the preamble to the standards raises questions relating to the inclusion of genetically modified organisms, food irradiation, the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, and sewage sludge (as fertilizer)."

Conventional farmers repeatedly have said that the proposed standards go too far. They say they could not meet market demands without using materials that organic advocates would ban.

Some years ago, former state Ag Commissioner Richard McGuire refused to engage New York State government in setting "organic" standards, saying that conferring an "organic" label on some farms and their foods would imply that all other farms and foods were inferior.

Of course, that's what organic advocates have been saying, at least with respect to long-term health and environmental concerns.

The "organic" standards proposals will not be adopted until after USDA conducts information hearings and digests the private comments it seeks. In any event, time will tell whether a federal "organic" label will mean boom for foods with it or doom for those that lack it.

Gov. Pataki's Dairy Task Force on Thursday heard oral testimony from about 100 of the nearly 500 persons who attended its milk price hearing at the State Fairgrounds. Farmers by the busload attended the session. The great majority of the speakers were dairy farmers who pleaded with the task force to understand that milk prices that the state's 9,000 dairy farmers have been getting will drive many of them from the industry.

A few speakers represented low-income consumers and were equally adamant about protecting them from higher milk prices.

The 15-member Dairy Task Force, co-chaired by Ag Commissioner Don Davidsen and Consumer Affairs Director Tim Carey, had met twice before the hearing and will meet again in January before submitting in mid-January its recommendations to Gov. Pataki.

Hard-pressed farmers will get some help in 1998, when they can claim about $70 million in school tax credits against their state income taxes.

Meanwhile, Davidsen exercised his Rogers-Allen Law authority by setting $15.25 as the minimum December Class I price, in case federal Judge David Doty's ruling abolishing national price differentials held up. But Doty stayed his own ruling until February, allowing November and December pricing to continue under existing rules.

Farm Bureau, now with 28,400 members, awarded Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-Glens Falls, its 1997 Distinguished Service to Agriculture Award for his 1996 efforts that held off Midwestern attempts to drag down Northeastern milk prices.

History often is repeated. Thirty years ago, Western New Yorkers were encouraged to plant sugar beets and send them to a processing plant near Elmira. The effortfailed. Recently, Imperial Holly closed its Fremont, Ohio, beet sugar plant because growers agreed to plant only 8,000 acres of beets, 10,000 fewer than processors sought.

Pennsylvania authorities have reimposed a poultry quarantine around Lancaster County because avian flu infected a flock of 24,000 turkeys. All are to be destroyed. Authorities worry because on Nov. 10 they had just lifted an earlier quarantine. They want to avoid a repeat of the 1983-84 avian flu epidemic that required killing 17 million poultry birds.

Barnyard gossip -- Bruce Croucher of Ontario County has been re-elected as master of the State Grange. . . . Dry bean production, mainly light red kidney and black turtle soup beans, this year reached 617,000 hundredweight, 64 percent above 1996. . . . Good sun, rain and wind produced record yields of 1997 Louisiana sugar. A USDA plant pathologist says red plastic mulch in tomato patches discouraged nematodes and sped tomato growth and size. . . . Dairy farmer Gordon Lamb of Oakfield has been re-elected a director of the Co-Bank of Denver. . . . The American Farm Bureau opposes the proposed multinational treaty designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a climate-stabilizing measure. . . . Farm Bureau cites scientific disagreement, higher farm fuel costs, reduced livestock production and lumbering, lower acreage yields and "plowless" farming as among farming negatives.

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