Back in 2017, an idealistic young farmer and his wife took over a Wisconsin dairy farm that had been run for years by a raw dairy farming couple, Wayne and Kay Craig. If you’ve read this blog long enough, you might recall that the Craigs and their Grassway Organics farm spent more than a decade unsuccessfully battling Wisconsin’s Department of Dairy, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) over their right to sell raw milk.

Chaz Self and wife Megan at Grassway Organics in East Troy, WI.

The new owners are changing that dynamic, big time. After some start-and-go issues, one of the new owners, Chaz Self, milked his first cows on Thanksgiving of 2017, selling some of the milk to a large processor and the rest as raw milk to area residents as “incidental” sales allowed under Wisconsin rules. Around that same time, he agreed to be interviewed for a Netflix documentary on dairy farming after the producers suggested it would offer an objective view of raw dairy production.

In early 2018, the documentary came out as part of a series on food safety, with the title “Rotten,” and it turned out to be the opposite of what was suggested—a polemic suggesting that raw milk was at the root of the crisis afflicting dairy farming in the U.S., whereby hundreds of family dairies were failing every year. Also featured in the documentary was Mark McAfee, owner of Raw Farm (previously known as Organic Pastures Dairy Co.) in California.

“ ‘Rotten’ was released on a Thursday, and that Monday, two DATCP inspectors showed up on our farm,” recalls Self. “They said everything was wrong with my milk parlor. They wanted me to make $3,500 in changes to be able to keep my Grade A dairy license” allowing sales to a processor.

That was all fine with Self, but they had one other demand: They wanted him to sign a cease-and-desist agreement saying he wouldn’t sell raw milk. “They left the agreement here….and I refused to sign it. My contract with Westby (the processor) came up that March and Westby wouldn’t renew it.”

Clearly, the processor didn’t want to risk bad relations with DATCP by continuing to work with a rebel raw dairy farmer. Around that same time, Self reached out to McAfee, whom he didn’t know. As portrayed by ‘Rotten,’ “Mark McAfee was the big bad organic farmer and I was the small good organic farmer,” says Self.

In any event, they hit it off, and McAfee convinced Self he could survive without selling milk for processing, but that he should  “do what was necessary to qualify for certification” from McAfee’s Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI). That included installing an on-farm lab to test his milk regularly for common pathogens.

DATCP “left us alone for two years,” recalls Self, as Grassway expanded its food club providing raw milk and other farm-grown products to members. In June 2020, the RAWMI web site featured an article welcoming Grassway as the first-ever RAWMI-certified farm in Wisconsin. “Two weeks later, two guys from DATCP show up again,” says Self.

This time, DATCP not only presented Self with a cease-and-desist agreement to refrain from selling raw milk, but also threatened criminal charges through a local district attorney. With assistance from Elizabeth Rich, a lawyer who has long assisted the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, Self came up with a proposal to DATCP for legal raw milk: “You can’t legally sell RM in Wisconsin unless you have a Grade A license. Mark McAfee drafted a contract where he would pick up a gallon of milk for processing each year and I formed a coop, which is a legal way to sell, tied into my Grade A license. I pay a $125/year processing fee to Mark.”

DATCP went for the arrangement. “They came and gave me my Grade A license back,” says Self. “They really worked with us to become the first legal raw milk dairy in Wisconsin.”  

There was more good timing for Grassway when Covid hit around the same time. “Our business just blew up.” He had added a pizza business for outdoor sales during the summer months. “2020 was the biggest growth we’ve ever seen. We could focus on long-term investment. Not just milk, but everything was growing.” At the start of Covid, “We were milking 30 cows once a day and now we’re milking 45 cows twice a day and selling out.”

In another sign of just how much Wisconsin has changed, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau in December reversed its anti-raw-milk stance, or “flipped,” as Food Safety News put it in a recent article suggesting its disbelief. (Food Safety News has been stridently anti-raw milk for years.)

Self is hopeful that the next big regulatory step in Wisconsin will be legislation that will essentially legalize sales of raw milk, not only directly from the farm, but possibly via retail outlets as well.

Clearly, Wisconsin’s powers that be have decided that watching hundreds of dairy farms fail each year isn’t a sustainable policy for a place that prides itself on being “the dairy state.” A more realistic approach is giving farmers, and consumers, the option for accessing safe raw dairy. Are sensible business and dairy practice finally becoming acceptable in Wisconsin?