For nearly ten years, Barbara Smith held a New York state permit to sell raw milk. But because her Meadowsweet Farm is located a half hour drive from the nearest substantial town, Ithaca, and New York regulations require each customer to come to the farm for milk, she never could get more than 20 or 30 customers.
So last spring, she decided that a better way to reach the many consumers she knew wanted regular access to raw milk was to give up her raw milk permit, and distribute via a cowshare arrangement. Consumers could buy in for $50 a share, and pay quarterly in advance for their share of boarding fees, based on $6 a gallon. This would allow her to distribute outside the farm at dropoff points. She started a limited liability company (LLC) whose only asset was her eight cows.
She was correct about the pent-up demand for raw milk in the Ithaca area. Word got around and within months, she had 130 cowshare owners and a waiting list of 30 more.
The only fly in the ointment has been New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets. According to Barbara, the state has continued to treat Meadowsweet as if it still has a permit, by conducting ongoing inspections of her farm, leading to fines and, today, a search warrant.
The Barbara Smith episode seems to be the latest step in a campaign begun late last year to transform New York from a somewhat permissive to a tough state with regard to sales and distribution of raw milk. The campaign had previously focused on shutting down raw milk producers for listeria monocytogenes contamination (four were hit) even though no one became ill, and no listeria-related illnesses related to raw milk have been documented in the U.S. since the Centers for Disease Control began keeping statistics in 1973.
The problems for Barbara escalated at the end of August, when she received a notice from the agriculture department that she was being fined $1,700 for various “unsanitary plant conditions” found in inspections during the late spring and summer. The list of violations included a tear in a screen door, “unlabeled containers” of liquid (which contained buttermilk), a small pool of water that collected under a refrigerator condenser, and “excessive weeds” outside her barn.
Adding insult to injury, she was informed that if she didn’t pay the fine within 15 days, she faced a possible lawsuit to recover the penalties. She didn’t pay.
Moreover, on September 7, when an inspector showed up, she answered his question as to whether it was okay to conduct an inspection with a refusal. She reasoned that since she no longer had a raw milk permit, she should no longer be subject to inspections that seemed geared toward harassment fines. On September 14, the inspector returned, this time with a supervisor, and she once again refused to allow them to conduct an inspection.
Today, the same inspector and supervisor showed up, and now they had a warrant from the New York State Supreme Court in Albany County, stating to the bureaucrats, “You are hereby authorized to enter (the farm); to inspect those premises; to take photographs; to inspect any vehicles used for the storage or transportation of milk, dairy products and food to and from the premises; to quarantine milk, dairy products or food which is adulterated or misbranded; to take samples of milk, dairy products, and food for analysis; and to seize, destroy, or denature such items which are unfit or unsafe for use.”
Barbara told them she wanted to talk to her lawyer, though she never refused to let the two enter her property. The inspectors said that if she wasn’t going to stand aside, they would file contempt charges against her, and left.
She says she wouldn’t have refused the inspectors permission to conduct their search, except they didn’t give her a chance. “It feels like entrapment,” she adds.
I spoke late this afternoon with Jessica Chittenden, the public information officer for the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, and she seemed to be attempting a conciliatory tone, saying that the department’s lawyer had just made contact with the Smith’s lawyer. “We are hopeful that the Smith’s will comply with the regulations,” she stated.
Which regulations? “We require a permit for the sale of raw milk,” she stated. When I explained that the Smiths had given up their permit, and weren’t selling raw milk, but rather distributing it to cowshare owners, she said, “We are in the process of negotiating all that with their lawyer.”
As for possible contempt charges against the Smiths, “Nothing has been decided yet.”
Pete Kennedy, a lawyer for the Weston A. Price Foundation, who spoke with Barbara, told me that in his view, New York’s Department of Agriculture and Markets "exceeded their authority. There is nothing in the law that says they have juridiction over herd share programs."
Guess we’ll have to wait and see whether this is an isolated problem, or the beginning of a new campaign targeting cowshare/herdshare programs.
NOTE: I believe I inadvertently erased seven or eight of the most recent comments posted in connection with my previous posting on organics. My sincere apologies. One of the big problems on most blogs is a proliferation of spam messages. Suspected spam is held aside for me to review and either approve or disapprove. Tonight, there were more than 1,000 such postings, which is way more than usual, and in an effort to hurry through them, I failed to notice that a few legitimate comments were mixed in. (They look a little different.) Next time, I’ll be alert to them. In the meantime, if your comment was erased, please feel free to recreate it.