I’m a little behind most of the rest of you. I was still yesterday digesting the intense comments from two posts ago (November 30). Deborah Stockton’s insightful analysis of how farmers have been betrayed over the last half-century-plus, by their own organizations, working with the government, to keep milk prices low and serve the interests of Big Ag. There was Milky Way’s curious assertion, “There is no law against possession of raw milk – no one walking, running, or riding (car, bicycle, horse) across state lines with raw milk is going to get arrested unless they are selling it (exchange of money).” Lola Granola arguing for respect of her go-it-alone under-the-radar approach to food production.
Before I could re-focus, Mark McAfee was saying yesterday he’s had enough with the negativity on this blog, that he “tried my best to be honest and truthful only to have my efforts and words twisted to serve a belligerent anti-raw milk agenda.” For McAfee, who has dealt with the highest-pressure situations imaginable, to feel this blog is too intense, well, that says something about the heat level here.
Then the debate following my previous post, about husbandry practices, and the pros and cons of Ken Conrad’s foot-in-the-bucket vs Violet Willis’ more tender approach.
Today, I received two emails from loyal readers with the same general theme–the belligerence is running rampant. One opened by stating: “I fear your site is destined to just implode into fine dust.” She noted that with Mark McAfee bowing out for the time being, following on the path of other veterans who haven’t commented much lately, “I just truly miss the substantial educational feedback I have enjoyed on this blog in the past.”
So I have tried to answer the question, what’s goin’ on? Here are a few things I see goin’ on:
* There’s a huge, and expanding, gulf between the raw milk “public sector” and its “private sector.” Or maybe I should say, between publicly sold food, and privately sold food in general. A big part of McAfee’s problems (and of the Raw Milk Institute) has been an inability to appreciate the different landscapes, and mindsets, of the two arenas. It may simply be that they are incompatible, as Violet Willis suggests, and as Dave Milano has suggested in the past. People who become accustomed to obtaining their food privately, via food clubs or herdshares or CSAs, come to have different priorities and values than those who are mostly buying their raw milk in retail stores. There’s a bigger emphasis on cooperation and community in such private initiatives, run as they are invariably by volunteers working together with farmers.
* There are lots of new people being drawn to nutrient-dense foods. These include true consumer types. They may well have unrealistic expectations about what is and isn’t a sanitary farm, or to what extent outsourcing might be appropriate. That’s not meant as a criticism. I’ve been writing about farming matters for a few years now, and still consider myself a novice about much that goes on in making a farm work for both farmer and customer. There are few sources of guidance; the public health community makes little or no effort to help educate the hordes of newbies heading out to the farms.
* There remains a huge amount of ignorance about what it takes to successfully produce nutrient-dense food. The discussion following my November 30 post, and Wayne Craig’s surprise, but on-target assertion that, yes, it can well cost $8 a gallon to produce milk, was revealing. Because he’s talking about producing a special quality of milk, artisinal quality, if you will. Our culture’s focus on price, price, price makes it nearly impossible for many people to ever fully appreciate that reality of high costs, and concurrent high prices–all in exchange for a product that is impossible to obtain in grocery stores.
* There is a great deal of misunderstanding about private food arrangements, and for good reason–they’re new to most of us, including farmers. A few people here have wondered about the differences between herdshare arrangements and leasing of animals, for example. Milky Way betrays naivete about the federal prohibition on taking milk across state lines, suggesting in the quote at the start of this post that it’s fine, so long as you don’t get money for it. She/he clearly doesn’t have an understanding of the “agent” concept, whereby consumers pay a farmer, and then designate an “agent” to pick up and deliver their milk. It’s that agent arrangement, and the government’s desire to try to make that arrangement (which is common in many industries, and includes sending a neighbor to the drug store to pick up a painkiller you’ve been prescribed because you are flat on your back) as the equivalent of commerce, that is being tested by the Raw Milk Freedom Riders on Thursday in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Around all these issues, there is a growing amount of disagreement and dissension, farmer versus farmer, farmer versus consumer, and consumer versus consumer. Mix in aggressive regulators trying to scare people off from the private realm, and trying their best to divide the food rights movement and, well, you get an idea of what’s goin’ on.
I’m certain I haven’t begun to get at all the nuances. Bottom line, though, except for the government’s efforts to slow down or break up the private food system, and some isolated individual nastiness on this blog of late, much of what’s happening is positive. Debating and discussing it just gets rather intense sometimes. I’m hopeful some of that will ease up as people step back for a moment before hurling some of their bombs.
Given all the issues I just discussed, the timing couldn’t be better for the introduction of a new book about how to organize a food club, “The Food Club and Co-Op Handbook”.
Written by Kentucky food club organizer John Moody, the handbook is full of up-to-date and practical suggestions for individuals thinking about organizing food clubs. (And John has truly done it, including facing down the regulators who came calling earlier this year at his food club. )
Among his suggestions:
1. If you are private, act that way. “Private membership that is truly private – no day passes, no walk-off-the-street and join up out of the blue, no allowing anyone to just come and go in your group’s space or pickups…”
2. Be up to date on food regulations. “For instance, raw milk cheese is currently legal in the U.S., but has a sixty-day aging rule and usually state specific regulations. The federal sixty day aging requirements may be increased in the coming years. Clubs need to stay aware of and oppose policies such as these that harm both their farmers and their health.”
3. Deal with members in a consistent and business-like way. He provides excellent information on technical financial details like markups, margins, and costs. He advises food club operators to be absolutely consistent about such things as member payments, as in upfront payments means no credit, no advances, no paying later.
4. Deal with farmers in a consistent and business-like way. A big part of a food club’s success depends on farmers who have a realistic view of the business landscape. He advises farmers: “Your discount to clubs that are placing large orders with you should be at least 25 percent so they can offer products to their members at least at your regular retail price. Most stores will be asking a 40-50 percent discount from suppliers, so consider working with clubs a deal!”
5. Watch out for hidden regulators. Moody’s book has a very timely section on “Avoiding unwanted members and undercover agents,” with suggestions on how to interview prospective members as to whether their real interest is in good food, or simply collecting information about the club for legal purposes.
6. And last, but not least, pay attention to food safety–handling meats and vegetables, and keeping both the facilities and the administrators dealing with the food clean and in sanitary condition.
And the previous is just a small sampling of the book’s nuggets. I thought at first this book was ahead of its time. But events are moving so quickly, with so many new food clubs being organized nearly every day, that this book may be right on time. Add to that the fact that it’s very clearly written, and only $12, and I think Moody has produced a winner.