Doniga Markegard, above center, with family members. (Photo by Federica Armstrong)The most significant raw milk legislation in memory—affecting 1,000 or more California home dairies—has begun a journey toward consideration, with an impressive head of steam behind it. 

The Home Dairy Farm bill (AB 2505) grows out of three years of negotiation between dairy owners and state regulators. It would sanction direct-to-consumer raw milk sales by all dairies with a maximum of three milk-producing cows or fifteen goats. The main regulatory requirements are that the owners arrange for annual testing for tuberculosis and brucellosis, and include a warning label on all milk, as follows: 


“Raw unpasteurized milk and raw dairy products may contain disease-causing microorganisms. Persons at highest risk of disease from these organisms include newborns and infants, the elderly, pregnant women, those taking corticosteroids, antibiotics, or antacids, and persons with chronic illnesses or other conditions that weaken their immune system.”


The legislation also sets out bacterial standards that the small dairies would be encouraged to regularly test for—for example, that the milk not contain more than 15,000 bacteria per milliliter or more than 10 coliform bacteria per milliliter.


The proposed legislation specifies that the milk produced by the small dairies can only be sold on a direct basis to individuals, without involvement of retailers, or of online selling efforts. It is similar to proposed legislation in Maine that has gotten a boost in recent weeks from expanded collaboration between small dairies and one-time opponents of the legislation, who last summer helped convince Maine’s governor to veto similar legislation.  (Both California and Maine allow retail sales of raw milk by permitted dairies.) 


The Home Dairy Farm bill grows out of three years of on-again-off-again negotiations between the Small Herd Working Group of small dairies and the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). The working group was formed when the CDFA, via local district attorney, filed cease-and-desist orders against a number of tiny dairies that were selling raw milk privately, via herdshare arrangements, without having met the costly requirements for state-mandated dairy permits allowing raw milk sales.


Over the last three years, various organizations, or “stakeholders,”  have become involved, including local public health officials and farmer groups, according to Doniga Markegard, owner of Markegard Family Grass Fed and a leader of the negotiating effort. “It was a really collaborative process with lots of stakeholders at the table,” she told me. While there has been admirable collaboration, there has also been hesitancy and division among the dairy owners as well as among the regulators.  A big bone of contention has been whether such small dairies should be regulated at all and, if so, how much. 


Markegard noted that the CDFA hasn’t indicated if it will support the proposed legislation. “They have provided input when we sent (drafts of the legislation) to them,” she said. 


Markegard said that she and other members of the working group “went and met with every member of the California Assembly’s Agriculture Committee and they were very interested in (the proposal). A lot of them see the potential here to be more preventative of outbreaks from small dairies.” 


From surveys the working group conducted, she estimates that about 1,000 home dairies would fall under the legislation. Another possibly few hundred that are larger than the three-cow/fifteen-goat maximums wouldn’t be covered, and presumably would continue with longstanding herdshare arrangements. Trying to adapt the legislation to cover such dairies “didn’t fly with the CDFA,” Markegard said.  


The raw milk producers clearly see the legislation as an opportunity to reduce the risk of regulator harassment via the cease-and-desist orders issued against a number of them; the orders can eventually lead to civil or criminal charges.


I suspect that the regulators also see this legislation as a potential way out of a dilemma–a way to deal with their growing “legitimacy” problem, as described in my previous post. As ever more California small dairies sell raw milk and ignore regulator warnings and orders that the dairies are violating state dairy laws, state legitimacy is undermined. Now, will the regulators be able to convince the powerful dairy lobby, which has to be concerned about the thousands of gallons of raw milk these small dairies are adding to the marketplace, to go along with the state’s need for legitimacy? Should be some interesting behind-the-scenes discussions going on.