For years, Massachusetts has epitomized a sensible approach to raw milk. It provides permits to dairies selling raw milk directly from the farm. And it’s tolerated buying groups that deliver milk from the rural central and western parts of the state to Boston in the east, and other urban areas.
Now, all of a sudden, the state seems unwilling to turn a blind eye to the buying groups it has tolerated for some years. In the last year, three have been sent cease-and-desist orders by the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources. The latest to receive such an order is Blanche Lennington of Granny B’s Raw Milk Buying Group, in western Massachusetts, which serves about 15 customers. She says that when she called the state official who signed the order, she was told it originated from a complaint from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The buying groups extend the reach of raw dairies way beyond the farm, allowing consumers who are unable to drive the hour or two to a farm to conveniently obtain their raw milk from dropoff points designated by the buying group.
Why the shift by the state? I asked that question of Scott Soares, the DAR’s commissioner, and he insisted there has been no shift. He argued that the buying groups have always been illegal under Massachusetts law, and that his department has begun going after them after learning about their existence from its own investigators scanning the Internet.
“Entrepreneurial individuals are looking to extend sales off the farm,” he told me.
The fact that some buying groups have been operating for a number of years doesn’t make them legal, he explained. “It was an illegal project then and it’s an illegal project now.”
Nor would he allow that such buying clubs are akin, as one farmer put it to me, “like asking a friend to go pick up your milk for you.” Under Massachusetts law, raw milk can only be sold direct from the farm by dairies with raw milk permits issued by his department. The buying groups are “actually more accurately described as milk distributors, which is illegal…They would have to be licensed as milk dealers,” which participate in the pasteurization process.
He admitted that there have been no reports of anyone becoming ill from raw milk in the state—indeed, Massahusetts hasn’t had any illnesses from raw milk since 1999, while three people died from pasteurized milk in 2007. Still, he said, his agency has concerns about “a loss of control when (raw milk) leaves the farm. There is no guarantee the milk will be held at the proper temperature.”
He denied that the three cease-and-desist letters have come about because of complaints from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. And he denied suggestions that a crackdown on buying groups would severely curtail raw milk sales in Massachusetts, despite the fact that several have grown significantly in recent years, and many consumers depend on their convenient regular dropoffs. “We’ve been trying to promote people visiting farms. This has been driving more people to visit (raw dairy) farms.”
Despite the denials about a change in policy, it appears that the policy has changed. Everyone involved in raw milk in the state appeared to have been pleased with the existing arrangement, and last June, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Massachusetts released a study describing the economic benefits of raw milk to local communities around the state, indicating that raw milk sales account for $600,000 revenues annually, which mostly stays within local communities.
Indeed, over the last couple years, it seems as though the climate has gradually turned sour for Massachusetts’ raw dairies.
Perhaps the first sign of trouble occurred in 2008, when the state’s Department of Agriculture Resources sent cease and desist orders to dairies offering samples of raw milk at farmers markets. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health then followed up with letters to all local public health officials warning about growing raw milk consumption.
Last month, the town of Framingham seemingly approved allowing its last remaining dairy farm to sell raw milk, but since then has apparently been vacillating on the exact testing rules it wants to impose on the dairy. The farm has already received a raw milk permit from DAR, but can’t begin selling milk until the Framingham Board of Health signs off. The town’s board of health approved the sale, but has apparently gotten bogged down in writing up rules, and the farmer, Doug Stephan, says he feels they don’t want to approve it. I wasn’t able to connect with him by phone, but he wrote me: “I am being slammed by the beuarocrats and am feeling quite alone, actually. The situation on saving the farm is onerous, as we have an administrator who is out of control, and I wish I knew where to turn for legal help from one of these groups.”
Scott Soares denied that the DAR crackdown came at the behest of state public health officials, who were at odds with his department over approving the Framingham dairy for raw milk sales.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s behind the change in climate in Massachusetts. I suspect it’s part of a spreading crackdown on buying groups—we’ve seen actions taken against groups in Wisconsin, Georgia, Missouri, and now Massachusetts. The crackdown may have been presaged by emails describing a conference call that I reported on in my book, The Raw Milk Revolution, and then described on this blog. The emails indicate that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in late 2008 was choreographing an assault against buying groups.
Such efforts are having the combined impact of arousing consumer ire, and forcing dairy farmers to opt out of permit programs, and work underground. Too bad, because Massachusetts had a nice situation.
I’ve been traveling a good deal and speaking to a number of groups about raw milk over the last few days, which is why I haven’t posted as much as I’d like. I’ll have more about my travels upcoming.