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Agency of Agriculture, Rural Vermont work on compromise on raw milk regs

The Agency of Agriculture and the organization Rural Vermont both say they are close to finding a compromise after weeks of what Rural Vermont’s Jared Carter called “intense meetings.”

Up for discussion was how to protect farmers selling raw milk from litigation, while not expecting them to play food police to their customers.

On these two points, the Agency of Agriculture and Rural Vermont agree. It’s interpreting Vermont’s raw milk legislation they’re still working on.

Fluid consumption

Vermont’s Raw Milk bill (Act 62), passed in 2009, allows farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers for “fluid consumption” in limited quantities.

Rural Vermont has worked with raw-milk producers for a year and a half to host dairy classes in which participants learn to make yogurt, butter, and cheese, said Carter.

But the Agency of Agriculture’s Daniel Scruton, dairy section chief, sent Rural Vermont a notice of warning, dated Feb. 10, ordering the group to cease teaching these classes or face possible legal action.

In his letter, Scruton wrote, “Your homepage is advertising for a class to make cheese and other products from raw milk with the tag line ‘Farmers! Interested in boosting your raw milk sales by teaching OR hosting a dairy processing workshop? Let’s talk!’”

Scruton said to Rural Vermont that the workshops “clearly show that your intent is to both put on classes that are in themselves a violation of [state law], and to encourage farmers [to] break the law by selling milk to be processed to unlicensed persons.”

Scruton said he sent a similar warning to Carter’s predecessor almost a year ago.

The crux of the agency’s warning centered on the definition of “fluid consumption.”

According to Scruton, encouraging farmers to teach consumers to make yogurt or cheese defies the bill’s requirement that the raw milk be sold as fluid milk. The raw milk, said Scruton, is not intended for transformation into another dairy product like cheese.

In addition, Scruton said that making products like cheese requires a milk handler’s license in Vermont, which is something many of the farmers teaching the dairy classes don’t have.

‘Milk police’

Rural Vermont’s interpretation of “fluid consumption,” according to Carter, refers to the milk at time of sale.

“Any other interpretation makes farmers into milk police,” he said.

Carter does not agree with the Agency’s interpretation that teaching classes requires farmers to get a milk handler’s license. The Vermont constitution protects free speech and education, he added.

Regarding his discussions with Scruton and other representatives from the Agency of Agriculture, Carter said that there is a consensus that the agency shouldn’t be in the business of policing people in their own kitchens.

Expanding economic options

In a state where dairy is the top agricultural product  — and has been for more than a century — Rural Vermont advocates for raw milk because the organization views it as a better economic option for farmers, said Carter.

Farmers who sell their milk to commercial dairies are burdened with a complicated national pricing system and are often paid less for a gallon of milk than it costs them to produce it.

But farmers selling raw milk directly to consumers can charge the price that reflects their production costs.

Rural Vermont estimates that there are 150 raw milk farmers in the state.

Raw milk represents huge economic benefits to farmers, said Carter, who estimates that raw milk sales total $1 million annually in Vermont.

“We’re prepared to stand up for [these farmers’] rights and our interpretation of the law,” said Carter.

Since sending out a Feb. 16 notice that they had to cancel the dairy classes, Carter said, his organization has received hundreds of calls and e-mails supporting the classes. The letters have come from farmers, lawyers, and consumers.

“It’s really been overwhelming, in a good way,” Carter said.

Health and safety

While Rural Vermont claims that its support of raw milk is an economic issue, Scruton said that his agency’s concern is for the health and safety of consumers.

According to Scruton, milk is a sterile product when it comes straight from a healthy cow. However, once out in the open, if handled incorrectly, it can become a host to bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes. He compares drinking raw milk to eating raw hamburger.

Raw milk supporters, such as journalist and nutrition researcher Sally Fallon Morell, say that raw milk is better for one’s health than pasteurized milk. She is cofounder of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which asserts that raw milk stimulates the immune system, builds a healthy gut wall, prevents absorption of pathogens and toxins in the gut, and ensures assimilation of nutrients, among other positive qualities.

According to Morell, pasteurized milk lacks the enzymes that help the body digest it, which can lead to issues like lactose intolerance.

A legislative solution?

“It’s clear. Farmers are allowed to sell raw milk, and customers can take raw milk home and do with it what they want,” said state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.

Partridge, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture, said that not all committee members supported the Raw Milk Bill.

She said that farmers who know that customers are making yogurt at home with their raw milk could become vulnerable to lawsuits if the customers get sick. Also, she said, there’s an overriding concern that a raw milk food scare would result in bad publicity for Vermont’s vital dairy industry as a whole.

Scruton said the Agency of Agriculture and Rural Vermont are still in the discussion phase, but both parties hope to come to a resolution shortly.

Part of the compromise might entail changing the language of the 2009 Raw Milk bill, he said, although he would not elaborate on the nature of these changes or how they would solve the impasse.

According to Scruton, language changes are due to go to the Legislature next week.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #91 (Wednesday, March 9, 2011).

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