Edwin Shank of The Family Cow, a raw dairy in Pennsylvania.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is trying a new tack, using an obscure regulation, to limit availability of raw milk, and make life miserable for many raw dairy farmers across the country.

It has apparently put its lawyers to work scouring dairy regulations, and they have decided to strictly enforce a provision that requires testing of ALL milk for antibiotics. The effect is to make survival much more difficult for dairy farmers who sell some of their milk for pasteurization and hold some back for private sales of raw milk or for making cheese.

Here is how Pennsylvania dairy farmer Edwin Shank describes the shift, in a newsletter he put out today to his customers:

“A high percentage of permitted raw milk farms across the nation jug and sell raw milk to their local customers and they love it. In fact, raw direct sales is usually their first love. They would love to sell all of their milk as raw milk.

“But since they don’t have enough raw milk customers to keep their farm going financially, they often sell 75% or greater of their milk to a milk marketing co-op. The co-op pays them a much lower price, of course, since they are picking it up bulk in a milk tanker truck and doing the work of bottling and distributing the milk to grocery stores, but it is better than no market at all.

“Up to this point, most of the co-ops have been at least a little understanding, and put up with raw milk farmers selling some of their milk as raw. But now the FDA seems to have set out to change that.

“The FDA is scaring the willies out of the co-op people by enforcing (in an extremely detailed and unbendable way) an obscure antibiotic testing requirement that has been on the books all along.

“The co-ops’ fear is not that the raw milk farmers would fail the antibiotic test. Most of us are organic and do not even use antibiotics period.

“Rather, the co-ops are afraid that if a raw milk farmer would not fill out the complex FDA required paperwork correctly when he makes a batch of raw cheese or bottles a few jugs of raw milk that his mistake would jeopardize all the rest of the farmers who make up the BTU (Bulk Tank Unit) of the milk co-op.

“The FDA has made it very clear that they would do just that. They would shut down and penalize 100s of farms if there is even one missed entry in a whole ream of paperwork from even one small farmer in the group.

“Of course as you can imagine, this threat throws the co-ops’ legal counsel, insurance providers, bankers and even the farmers into a dizzy panic of fear. As you can see by the TSC letter to us, they feel they have no recourse but to demand that any farmer who sells to them must promise to sell 100% of the farm’s milk to them and agree to NEVER hold back ANY for raw milk sales or cheese.

“Most raw milk farmers have no choice. As much as they love to sell raw milk… their family farm cannot remain financially viable without sales to the co-op. I have talked to many of these farmers. They sadly will need to discontinue raw milk sales in the next few months.

“The only raw milk farmers who will survive this are those who did not have any co-op relationships in the first place or those whose raw milk percentage was so great that the loss of the co-op sales will be small enough that they will be able to reinvent themselves and survive without the co-op.”

Shank says his dairy, one of the largest raw milk producers in the country, is fortunate that it can survive without making milk available to the co-op processor. “It’s not going to be easy. As I write, we are in the frantic process of buying $5,000 of additional FDA required lab testing equipment, something over $100,000 in other dairy processing equipment, (think cream, butter, yogurt, etc that TSC used to do for us) and then we will need to spend an additional $10,000 per year every year going forward running tests for antibiotics 3 to 5 times per week at the government’s mandate even though we have not used antibiotics on our organic farm for over 10 years! We even have a government agency and certification called USDA Organic to verify that we have not and do not use antibiotics!”

He advises customers of other raw dairies to re-commit to supporting those that may be uncertain about being able to continue raw milk sales. “If you do know of a raw milk farmer near you who is on the edge trying to decide if he can swing his raw milk dream without his old co-op sales… now is the time to solidly get behind him and give him the hand that he and his family need to make it over the top. Talk to them about it. They may be embarrassed to bring up the subject lest they be seen as a failure. Assure them that you need them and you’ll be there for them. Together we can stand.”

This is all a further reminder, as if we needed it, that the promises of reduced regulation by the new administration in Washington do not extend to small farms. Instead, they seem to be reserved for the largest and most prosperous corporations.