There are any number of reasons why the negotiations over herdshares taking place in California—between owners of small dairies and the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture– over the last few months should not work.
Many tiny dairies dispensing raw goat’s or cow’s milk through such operations feel as a matter of principle that they shouldn’t have to negotiate a right that is already theirs—the right to contract with neighbors and friends for milk and other dairy and food products.
Even if they aren’t so principled, many shy away from making their presence known to the CDFA. They figure that no matter what comes out of these discussions—even the least onerous regulatory structure—they’d rather not be on any more government agency lists than are necessary. Assuming the CDFA never gives them trouble, who knows what other authorities the agency may send their way.
Those that are open to negotiation and regulation worry that it’s nearly impossible for the regulators to be fair. So against raw milk are most of the regulators, in this view, there is no way they will negotiate in good faith.
Despite all these obstacles, CDFA’s chief veterinarian and director of animal health and food safety services, Annette Whiteford, is optimistic a workable solution can be found to the issue—an issue that only became an issue when the CDFA began issuing cease-and-desist orders last year against small dairies operating herdshares.
“There seems to actually be quite a bit of common ground and I think we will find some compromise solutions,” she explained in an email response to several questions I posed. “Our goal is to have some sort of a tangible result in the near future. We are staying focused on ‘doable’ objectives.”
The small dairies involved in the negotiations are less enthusiastic than the chief veterinarian. Michael Foley, a member of the herdshare negotiating group and a small farm owner worries about the “the onerous facilities requirements that have accumulated in California, while retaining testing and inspection requirements.”
Whiteford acknowledges that the legal status of herdshares in California is a murky issue. “First of all, there is nothing ‘illegal’ about a ‘herdshare.’ In fact, in California, unlike most states, raw milk is legal. We are trying to find out exactly what currently regulated food safety standards cannot be met by very small dairies, some of which are operated as herdshares or under boarding agreements. We are in the process of listening to suggestions from small dairy herd owners, public health officials and other interested parties related to how best to increase access to products from these small farms while ensuring that public health is maintained. “
Prime among the suggestions being offered by small dairies that are part of the working group is that the state exempt from any regulation dairies with some small number of goats or cows—perhaps three or fewer.
Says Foley,: “Our proposals include an exemption from regulation for very small operations — the ‘family cow’ exemption, paralleling exemptions in a number of states; an exemption for herdshare arrangements, recognizing their purely private character as does current Tennessee law; and reduced requirements for very small commercial dairies…”
Foley worries that without an exemption, tiny dairies will shy away. “A testing requirement would be too expensive for people with just one or two lactating cows to deal with,” he says.
Foley estimates there may be more than 1,000 tiny dairy operations dispensing raw milk in some type of herdshare or private sale arrangements, and that many won’t come out into the open without an exemption. “And that means they won’t be able to share knowledge easily, find better ways to do what they’re doing, and be responsible to the larger community. California can’t police all these folks and shouldn’t want to. What they’re doing is what rural people have done forever and should be respected, not pushed into the closet.”
In other words, whatever the working group agrees to, if anything, would need to be approved by the legislature via additions to the dairy laws, since herdshares currently aren’t covered. Coming to agreement won’t be a simple matter, though. Foley acknowledges that there are among herdshare operators a significant number that don’t approve even of the “exemption” idea. “I’ve been in conversation with some farmers who are also law scholars, and they warn that the term ‘exemption’ is dangerous, because it grants jurisdiction to the regulators, along with the (temporary) ‘exemption”’ He feels the Tennessee law “simply recognizes and codifies this lack of jurisdiction” by the state for raw milk availability for personal use.
Another model being explored is that of Idaho, which has new code that exempts small dairies from Grade A dairy requirements for facilities and equipment, but imposes Grade A requirements for the quality of the raw milk, which includes bacteria limits. Cow and goat owners must apply for a permit from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk to the public.
In their position statement to CDFA, the herdshare operators contend that, “Health risks are nearly non-existent on very small family farms and the number of people with two or three cows/goats is high. To criminalize this group of law abiding citizens would put an incredible burden on the state and local sheriffs, who do not have the resources to enforce unnecessary laws.”
Pasteurization became necessary, the position statement suggests, because of the industrialization of agriculture, including milk production. “The laws for milk safety were developed in response to the dangers of the swill dairies of old, and those laws continue to be relevant today in protecting consumers from dairy produced in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). These CAFOs produce a product that can be rife with dangerous bacteria and therefore require strict facility and pasteurization requirements to kill the pathogens within their milk.”
I sense in Whiteford’s response, a desire by CDFA to not take on the huge task of closely regulating so many tiny dairies operating as herdshares, as well as an interest in getting this matter off the CDFA’s table, via new legislation that could address the issue. I hope I’m not being too much an optimist, but I do know that if this matter could be resolved via negotiation between dairy owners and regulators, it could serve as an important precedent. We certainly could use some positive precedents.
Mystery solved. The “brucellosis” scare in Massachusetts was a false alarm. The farmer, Robert Kilmer, doesn’t have brucellosis, nor do any of his cows. I had actually heard about preliminary results Tuesday evening that the testing was coming up negative, but wanted to wait for final results before posting anything. Now, Food Safety News is saying it has emails from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health giving the all clear. Kilmer’s farm is no longer under quarantine, and it can resume raw milk sales.
I suppose Kilmer will need to do more digging about his own physical symptoms.
And maybe he can ask the agencies for an apology. According to an email quoted by Food Safety News, an official of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources stated: “All in all this has been a trying experience, but the cooperation and willingness to take the steps needed by MDAR, DPH, USDA and most importantly the farmer has helped immensely.” I would expect that is the closest Kilmer and other raw dairy farms in Massachusetts are going to get to an apology for blaming the dairy’s raw milk for illness. And he’ll have to accept the fact that all those incorrect reports will continue coming up every time someone googles under brucellosis in Massachusetts or his farm’s name.