Small Dairy Farmers Fear Coming Out of the Barn | Civil Eats

Small Dairy Farmers Fear Coming Out of the Barn

Amidst a spate of law enforcement raids and other regulatory actions taken by local, state, and federal officials against raw milk producers across the country, an alarmed group of small California dairy farmers and consumers have recently formed the Food Rights Coalition and begun to push state regulators and legislators to take action to help them. The coalition formed in response to at least a half dozen cease and desist orders issued by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) over the past year to  small dairy herdshares across the state.

At a Petaluma, California meeting last week, several local members of the group expressed concern for the loss of their livelihoods and the safety of their families, seeking the assistance of 6th District Assemblyman Jared Huffman to protect their milking rights.

Prior to meeting Huffman, Farmer J (who spoke during an interview on condition of anonymity) stated that the CDFA’s actions forced them to reach out to other herdshares, farmers, and advocates to begin organizing: “It was the fear of what they were doing and where that could be heading that led us to come together and try to protect ourselves and fight for our right to do what we’re doing–milking and caring for a few cows and sharing the milk with our co-owners.”

A herdshare is a private business arrangement whereby consumers purchase a piece, or share, of a cow, goat, or herd of the animals and contract with a farmer who is compensated for feeding, caring, and milking the animals, and bottling, storing, and distributing the milk. The details of the relationship between farmers and their herdshare co-owners may vary, but they generally feature the encouragement, sometimes requirement, that co-owners make some regular contribution to the animals’ care themselves.

Herdshares are often begun simply as a means of dealing with the volume of milk that can be produced by a lone family cow. One lactating cow can produce four gallons of milk per day—enough to create small-scale exchange of goods on a local level. According to Farmer “A”, who has a small West Marin herdshare and also spoke on condition of anonymity, product transparency is key to a successful herdshare operation, and their co-owners are generally a passionate, well-educated bunch. “A lot of our members have developed a personal relationship with our cow…we’ve had quite a few people come out and really inspect the whole farm. It’s important to them to see how the cows are treated and they have a say in how we feed them. Good pasture-management techniques are a very big deal to them.”

“But,” she continued, the CDFA just doesn’t know how to deal with small dairy operations, treating one or two cow operations as if they’re far larger, industrialized businesses. “They only have these large dairy guidelines, so whether you have 200, 2,000, or one cow you’re the same in their eyes.”

Raw milk is legal for retail sale in California, but current regulations regarding its production were largely written with big producers such as Organic Pastures in mind, which has over 500 cows at its San Joaquin Valley operation.

According to the farmers interviewed for this piece, and the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, it has often been the process of bottling the milk that the CDFA has objected to, stating that the co-owners of a cow or goat may drink the milk from that animal on the farm, but when they leave the farm with that milk in a bottle the farm has become a processing plant, requiring special permits. The costs of obtaining those permits can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars–an impossibility for most small dairies, said Farmer J.

“The farmers I know…I would say all of us became farmers because we love milk, we love cows, we love farming. I don’t actually know anybody who’s making a living doing it. If we didn’t live on my mother’s property and have neighbors who let our cows graze their land, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

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Meeting with Assemblyman Huffman, who is a candidate for the retiring Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s seat in the House of Representatives, the farmers appear to have found a sympathetic ear. “The fact that we have policies that discourage local, even self-food production is unacceptable,” said Huffman. “I think you’re doing a wonderful thing. I’m a big fan of community-based agriculture and this is a great example of how it can work. I want the government to be a partner with you and not an obstacle. I certainly don’t want you to live in fear of some heavy-handed law enforcement action, so I’m going to be very interested in doing everything I can to get this turned around.”

It’s possible, however, that help may already be on the way. Last summer, CDFA Secretary Karen Ross suggested the formation of a working group on herdshares, representing all stakeholders concerned, which would make recommendations on the issue of regulating small dairies. It has become known as the Small Herd Dairy Working Group. After a second meeting on December 7, it remains to be seen whether the apparently open and collaborative approach embodied by the Working Group will yield results that allow for herdhshares to relax and keep on milking.

According to members of the Coalition, the CDFA has acknowledged that current regulations do not cover herdshares and state regulations for commercial dairies were not appropriate for them either. Farmer A suggested the big dairy players in California may have deep-seeded reasons for resisting legitimizing dairy herdshares. “They might be worried about more people becoming informed about grain. It really upsets a cow’s rumen and changes the bacterial levels in milk. What you feed a cow and how you treat it really affects what comes out of the cow. I think the more people become enlightened about that process, the more they [big dairy interests] might be fearing the public’s knowledge about how they’re farming and possible regulations that might come down the channel at them.”

“There’s a lot of support for herdshares in Sonoma and Marin,” she continued, “But there’s also a lot of worry about the next steps that will be taken. Right now it’s milk, but people are worried about eggs and even community gardens. Where does it stop when they start coming after families’ source of their own food?”

One thing the farmers of the Food Rights Coalition agree upon is that they’d love to live without fear–fear of losing their farms, fear for their families’ safety, fear of being out in the open.

Said Farmer J, “It’ll be nice when everyone can come out of the barn.”

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Christopher Fisher is a Sonoma County journalist whose work has appeared at Civil Eats and Grist. Currently editing the forthcoming book, Green Town Earth, a primer for young activists and advocates, he is also a proud co-founder of the Petaluma Grange and member of Petaluma Bounty. Last year he worked on the Label GMOs campaign for the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. and was a producer of the 2012 National Heirloom Exposition. Read more >

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  1. Thank you, Christopher, for a well-balanced story about herd shares.

    Monsanto has publicly declared that they are going after "seed to plate" control of the food system. This makes for a very fragile system, and I fear widespread hunger and disease is the inevitable result.

    The more diverse our food production is -- with a patchwork of small farms producing a wide variety of products -- the more resilient it is. And with petroleum in decline and global warming changing the rules, we're going to need all the resilience we can get.
  2. Christopher Fisher
    Thanks for the comment, Jan. It's that resilience and diversity in our food system that I hope we can convince many, many more people to help us create....quickly!

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