Lots of raw milk drinkers I meet when I’m out speaking before various food and green organizations about the ever-increasing intensity of the crackdown on raw milk and nutrient-dense foods tell me, “Well, if it gets real bad, I can always go out and buy my own cow or goat.” It that’s your fall-back strategy, the story I’m about to tell about the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s renewed crackdown on raw milk may make you squirm just a little.
Last we heard from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, its paper pushers were taking the summer off from going after raw milk producers. At least that’s what MDAR’s commissioner, Scott Soares, supposedly told his pals at the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in June. The general reading in Massachusetts was that the heat had gotten a little too intense from the May 10 Boston Common demonstration and followup ag hearing opposing the effort to squash buying clubs. Soares’ strong suggestion in his statement to NOFA-MA was that the bureaucrats wanted to wait till after the elections in November, when politicians would be less inclined to respond to constituent complaints.
I assumed the hacks were just enjoying the beautiful summer we’re having in the Northeast, taking afternoons off to go to the beach, maybe kicking their dogs when the bullying urge overcame them. So much for that theory. Seems you can’t keep good bullies down, and the ones over at MDAR have been busy as bees hatching a major new crime-stopping initiative: put a one-milking-cow Massachusetts dairy owned by Brigitte Ruthman out of business. Ruthman’s dairy in the Berkshires, Joshua’s Farm, yesterday received a cease-and-desist letter (see below) from MDAR ordering it to discontinue supplying raw milk to three herdshare members.
Now, mind you, there’s nothing in the Massachusetts laws that mentions herdshares. Just as there’s nothing that mentions buying clubs, which have been the MDAR’s other obsession since the first of the year.
Nor has there been anything secretive about Ruthman’s venture. She’s had an MDAR inspector out to her farm to advise her on how to qualify for a permit to sell raw milk from her farm. The advice, she says, was contradictory, suggesting she needed to spend many thousands of dollars on a new septic system and replacing wood floors with plastic, and then suggesting maybe not.
In May, she was one of 50 people who testified in front of MDAR’s commissioner, and stated, “I might be the only person in The Commonwealth to have launched a dairy enterprise in the current mine-filled landscape. I brought back land that hadn’t been farmed in years…My personal investment in this business is now over $60,000. I am nurturing a small herd of milking shorthorn cattle on pasture. In order for me to offer their milk for sale, under current regulations, I must sell part ownership of the cow to a buyer who then agrees to pay me for the upkeep.”
She only began milking her first cow in April, after it gave birth. Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund helped her draw up the herdshare agreement she’s used with her three members, who heard about her via word of mouth. While Ruthman had spoken about her herdshare in front of the ag commish Soares in May, MDAR says in the cease-and-desist that its hard-charging investigators learned about the herdshare via the Weston A. Price Real Milk web site. You just can’t keep good detectives down, it seems.
If Soares and his bully crew expected Ruthman to roll over and stop milking her cow, they may have misjudged…just like they’ve misjudged pretty much everything–especially the public outrage–in this entire shameful crackdown. While the owners of the four buying clubs targeted earlier this year with cease-and-desist orders have been mulling over their options, Ruthman says she’s already decided, and the answer is no, as in, “This is bullying and harassment. I’m going to fight them.”
She definitely has a fighting attitude, and maybe that’s because she’s a seasoned journalist, covering the courts for Waterbury’s Republic-American in nearby Connecticut. She’s been all over me for not being tougher on the MDAR for its anti-small-farm attitude. At the May hearing, after I testified that MDAR should leave the raw milk situation as the agency found it on the first of the year, Ruthman stated, “With all due respect to Mr. Gumpert, who just said leave the system the way it is because it’s fine- I offer that it is not fine. If I walk a cow from my farm down the road to Connecticut, her milk taken on Connecticut land would fall under another set of rules- I could perhaps sell it through a retail business for instance, not so in Massachusetts. The rule book you sent me is two inches thick- filled with rules that are open to interpretation.”
Given what’s just happened, I’d say Ruthman has a valid point. I’m certainly not going to argue with her. I’ll leave that to Soares, who inexplicably has just gone much deeper into that can of worms he opened with his assault on buying clubs. Now he’s dealing with someone who isn’t intimidated by bullies.
By the way, NOFA-MA is sponsoring a raw milk symposium on Friday morning, featuring Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation and Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund as principal speakers. Maybe they can explain how we handle it when the food police come calling for that cow or goat we are using for our own milk.