Raw milk for sale on a central Massachusetts farm.In our debates about the economic impact of raw dairies, we’ve had to speculate, use our personal experiences. There’s been a lot of that going on over the last few days, along with intense debate over safety and Big Ag’s products versus those of smaller farms.

Conveniently, a new study has just come out from the Northeast Organic Farming Association examining in some detail the economic impact of raw dairies in Massachusetts. What it says is that raw dairies have more economic impact than we generally realize, and that the impact is growing rapidly.

The state’s policy on raw milk is similar in important respects to states like New York and Pennsylvania, in that it allows purchases direct from the farm. Actually, it’s more liberal than New York because it allows buying clubs to deliver raw milk to consumers in the Boston area who can’t or won’t travel to farms, but it’s less liberal than nearby states like Connecticut and Maine, which allow retail sales of raw milk.

The study makes for fascinating reading (at least to this raw milk nut). Here are a few of its revelations:

  • Raw milk is produced by 25 of the state’s 189 dairies, or 13% of the total. The number of Massachusetts dairies producing raw milk has more than doubled in the last three years, while the number of dairies has declined dramatically, from 829 in 1980; that means that over nearly thirty years, the number of dairies has declined by more than three-fourths.
  • The dairies producing raw milk had total sales of more than $600,000 in 2008. That may not sound like much, but the report notes “that 12 of the 25 dairy farmers reported that raw milk sales were vital to their farm’s survival,” accounting for more than 20% of their farm’s income.
  • Money earned from raw milk sales “has a lasting effect on the communities where it is sold,” says the study. Not only does the money contribute to other local businesses and taxes, but, “Some farmers also report that consumers who purchase raw milk from farmers build on that habit by purchasing other products from nearby farms, thus further stimulating the local farm economy.”
  • Raw milk revenues are especially helpful in offsetting the costs of maintaining organic standards, since Massachusetts is underserved by organic processors; thus, many are selling organic milk at conventional prices, which are about half organic prices (roughly $1 a gallon versus $2 a gallon).

What the study doesn’t say is that despite the fact Massachusetts doesn’t test the milk of raw dairies for pathogens (it tests coliform, total bacteria, and somatic cell counts), there hasn’t been a reported illness since 11 Boy Scouts came down with salmonella in 1999, and quickly recovered. No weird listeria findings, a la New York Ag and Markets). As we well know, the most notorious case of illness from milk in the state occurred in 2007, when three elderly consumers died from listeria in pasteurized milk, and a pregnant woman lost her fetus. (I researched the subject heavily and wrote an article in the Boston Globe Magazine.

One raw dairy farmer quoted in the study probably said it best, said what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and its state enforcement partners and large dairy processors are trying their darndest to make sure other conventional dairies never hear: “Selling raw milk is the only way a farmer with limited resources has any chance of running a profitable dairy.”

Look for raw milk to become an ever larger force in the dairy industry.