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Illegal no more

Farmers hail change in raw milk law that allows consumers to legally use it in their kitchens

Thanks to recent changes in state law, farmers selling unpasteurized milk can now know whether consumers plan to use the raw milk for purposes other than “fluid consumption.”

To celebrate the revision, farmer-advocacy organization Rural Vermont and farmer Lisa Kaiman hosted a raw-milk dairy class and ice-cream social on June 8.

“We can party until the cows come home, and that isn’t until 5:00 in the morning,” said Kaiman to the dairy class participants.

Shelby Girard, an organizer with Rural Vermont, called the revised state raw-milk bill an important piece of legislation, because by legalizing the sale of raw milk, the bill “validated a traditional practice.”

When legislators enacted the original raw-milk bill in 2009, the law decreed that “the production and sale of unpasteurized milk for fluid consumption is permitted within the state.”

According to representatives from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Rural Vermont, the words “for fluid consumption” prohibited the sale of raw milk for any use other than drinking.

Not cheese. Not yogurt. Not ice cream.

This language essentially deputized farmers as milk police and wedged the government into people’s kitchens, said Jared Carter, director of Rural Vermont.

Running afoul

The issue came to the attention of the Agency of Agriculture earlier this year.

Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Diane Bothfeld said that the agency had issues with multiple raw-milk farmers “going afoul” of the law.

The agency also sent Rural Vermont a letter of warning in February, informing the organization that the dairy classes it hosted at raw-milk farms violated the state’s raw-milk law.

The classes aimed to connect farmers with consumers interested in learning how to make products like ice cream and yogurt from raw milk at home.

When a statute goes into practice, “that’s when you find out what does and doesn’t work well,” said Bothfeld.

The statute, as written, did not work to anyone’s benefit, she said, so the agency and Rural Vermont rolled up their collective sleeves to find a compromise.

According to Carter, the Agency of Agriculture showed great support for revising the 2009 raw-milk bill. As the two organizations worked together, they had “progressively more productive meetings,” he said.

Bothfeld said that the agency worked to solve the issue before the end of the 2011 legislative session so that it could be included in what she called a “dairy housekeeping bill.” Governor Peter Shumlin signed the bill, known as S.105, last month.

Bothfeld feels that by inserting the words “for human consumption” into the law, the agency has clarified for farmers and consumers that they can use raw milk to make products at home for their personal consumption.

The revision also “takes the whole onus off the farmer,” she said.

Farmer to consumer

Kaiman, who runs Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, showed class participants around her raw-milk dairy.

Although the farm where Kaiman milks about 26 grass-fed Jersey cows is not certified organic, she follows organic farming guidelines. She believes that farming is less about certification and more about good practices.

Kaiman does not hide her commitment to local food and humanely raised animals. She owns WAAWWE (“We are all what we eat”) Farms Market in Gassetts. The market sells products like meat from grass-fed animals, free-range eggs, and cheeses, all from local farms.

“Mother Nature does not screw things up,” she said.

As a farmer, she sees herself in a support role to the animals in her care, although she said that she doesn’t “assume I know how to be a cow. And I definitely don’t know how to be chicken.”

She told the class members that all her calves are fed on mothers’ milk, and that in Jersey Girls’ 12 years, she has not lost a cow.

Her cow barn does not have the traditional stanchions or stalls, and most of the floor is dirt, mimicking the outdoors. Outside is where her cows like to be, unless it’s too cold or too slippery, she said.

Controversy

Controversy has surrounded the sale and consumption of raw milk nationwide.

Critics like the state Department of Health say that the substance can fall host to deadly pathogens, such as bovine tuberculosis. The pasteurization process heats the milk over 160 degrees Fahrenheit to kill any potential bacteria.

In the early part of the 20th century, people fell ill from raw milk traced back to city dairies. Before the reform of health standards, most dairies were unsanitary, as were the cities where they were located.

But raw-milk proponents say that pasteurizing also alters fresh milk chemically and destroys many dairy health benefits.

Sally Fallon Morell, a journalist, nutrition researcher, and founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation and A Campaign for Real Milk, is a well-known supporter of raw milk. She said that pasteurized milk does not offer such benefits as the ability to build a person’s immune system, because heating the milk breaks an essential protein, lactoferrin, that shuttles vitamins and enzymes.

Most of the food people buy is “dead food,” Kaiman said. “You might as well eat the packaging.”

Products like raw milk are “live products” and have good bacteria meant to keep food safe, she added.

Proponents of raw milk cite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control that show that no one has died from a food-borne pathogen in milk for 30 years. They claim that people are 10 times more likely to get listeria from deli meat, even though listeria is a pathogen that both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration predominantly warn about when it comes to raw milk.

According to Bothfeld, however, Vermont’s raw-milk regulations don’t alleviate the potential from getting sick from raw milk. “There’s no magic to say raw milk is 100-percent safe,” she said.

But, she added, everything we do contains an element of risk. “Some people like to eat raw oysters,” she noted.

What the state’s raw-milk regulations do, Bothfeld said, is to give consumers informed choice and consent.

And Girard noted that, overall, the raw-milk bill ensures best practices identified by farmers, such as cooling the milk rapidly to inhibit pathogen growth, and knowing their customers.

From illegal to legal

“Seven months ago, you all were illegal. How does that make you feel?” Carter asked the class as they learned to make food with raw milk.

The word change has made raw milk a “perfectly legal product” on the farm and in customers’ kitchens, he said.

He added that it’s “common sense” for legislation to support local farms rather than to outlaw products like raw milk or to prohibit on-the-farm slaughter. When laws prohibits these traditions, they push the products underground.

According to Carter, raw milk affords farmers greater economic security. Rural Vermont estimates that the state’s 150 raw-milk farms brought in $1 million in revenue last year.

This money went directly to farmers, he said.

Raw-milk farmers earn an average of $6 to $7 a gallon. In contrast, conventional farmers, Carter noted, earn about $1.95 a gallon, which is often less than it costs to produce the milk.

Girard said that one of the upsides to the Agency of Agriculture shutting down the dairy classes from February until May is that Rural Vermont had messages of support come “out of the woodwork.”

The dairy classes “are a really easy, fun, profitable way to bring people together” at the farm, she said, and the moratorium created a demand for classes in the summer, a traditionally slow time for dairy classes.

The new raw-milk bill has the added benefit of making consumers more self sufficient. “People need to learn how to make their own stuff,” said Kaiman.

Most people can’t feed themselves anymore because they’re dependent “on companies who don’t want to feed you to make you healthy, but to make money,” she added.

“Even though we won this [battle], there’s one right behind it,” said Kaiman, adding that if people want farms, then they need to support their local farmers.

Kaiman added that when people see food companies reporting record profits, it should send up red flags. The only way to get those profits, she noted, is by investing little in their product and exploiting the environment and farmers.

An adversarial relationship?

Despite the legal change, Kaiman believes that some of Vermont’s agricultural regulations are still “ridiculous.”

For example, raw-milk farmers still can’t make and sell butter because of a fear of introducing harmful bacteria. But, said Kaiman, butter can’t grow harmful bacteria because it doesn’t contain any liquid to host it.

Kaiman drops some of the difficulties farmers face at the door of the Agency of Agriculture.

She described the agency’s approach to farming as more “adversarial” than its counterpart agencies in states such as New Hampshire and Maine.

When Kaiman started Jersey Girls, older farmers told her that she should rely on other farmers for technical concerns, rather than the Agency of Agriculture, because the agency might “shut [her] down.”

Kaiman wonders whether this advice derived from the fact that the agency oversees both agriculture and food safety, creating a possible conflict of interest.

Local food is safe, Kaiman insisted, and word would travel fast if local farmers engaged in bad practices that made customers sick.

To follow up on the success of the raw-milk bill, Rural Vermont is in the early stages of a Food Sovereignty Campaign. Unlike the raw-milk bill, for which the advocacy group worked mostly within the Legislature, Girard said that the campaign would operate at a grassroots, town-by-town level.

The campaign’s aim, she said, is to ensure that people can buy and sell locally without the “burdensome requirements that block honest, pure, and simple transactions” between customers and producers.

For her part, Bothfeld said that it concerns her that some farmers feel they can’t contact her agency without fear of punishment.

She said that the agency works with people so that they can meet regulations and inspections. In turn, the doors are open wide for farmers and food producers, like cheesemakers, who have new products to market.

Bothfeld added that the agency also helps farmers and producers to develop business plans, training, and other resources.

“We show them, ‘This is how you get there.’ We don’t come in and drop a hammer,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #106 (Wednesday, June 22, 2011).

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