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News

Raw Milk Soiree

Online Story from Lancaster Farming

Tracy Sutton
Northern Editor - Lancaster Farming

BETHESDA, Md. — Mark Nolt has a friend in Lyn Rales. The Washington-area socialite threw a legal defense fundraiser for the embattled Mennonite dairyman who is appealing charges levied against him for selling raw milk without a permit. Last Saturday Rales held a soiree to “spread a little sunshine” for the Nolt family at her Bethesda home and raised $12,000.

It began with a college term paper. Several years ago Rale’s son Matt took an interest in sustainable agriculture while a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. He interviewed Nolt and wound up coming to Pennsylvania to shadow Nolt on his farm. From there a friendship blossomed and Nolt found a new community of customers for his products in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. A collective of neighbors still gets together and does runs to the Cumberland County, Pa. farm for raw milk, cheese, and butter. At thanksgiving, Matt sells turkeys for Nolt out of his pickup truck in the front yard.

Lyn Rales doesn’t understand the fuss about raw milk. “I’m informed, I read about things.” It isn’t as if Mark Nolt is pushing raw milk upon her. “I make an effort to go get it.” Rales asserted her confidence in the products she buys from Nolt. The farm is “clean as a whistle.”

What about those permits?

“The regulations are to help big farmers and hurt the small. It’s making it impossible for him to help his family.”

To Rales, the issue is about consumer choice. “If you can buy cigarettes, why not raw milk?”

Her guest Kristin Golden concurred. “People don’t feel confident in the food they buy.” They want to buy direct from the farm.

“Ultimately, it’s a freedom of food choice,” said invited guest speaker, Virginia farmer Joel Salatin. What’s needed is “an emancipation proclamation for food.” He waved toward the room filled with smartly dressed Washingtonians and a smattering of Mennonite dairy farmers enjoying an artful buffet of local farm produce and jugs of cold raw milk. “This is the Underground Railroad. The government needs to get out of the way.”

Amos Miller, a dairyman who sells raw milk and friend of Nolt’s from Bird-in-Hand, Pa. came to support the event. Miller said he is not in favor of the permit system for raw milk, because it could “open the door to big markets” who wouldn’t sell a natural, grass-fed product. He thinks farmers should focus on educating consumers.

Miller’s concerns with the current permit system are: “One, you can’t sell raw milk yogurt and kefir. Two, you can’t sell across state lines.” Personally, he understands Nolt’s civil disobedience argument that if you don’t agree with the tenets of the permit system, and refuse to sign it, then you can’t be a hypocrite. To sign the permit and then only abide by certain aspects of it is “not honest,” Miller said.

The fundraiser was held on a sunny afternoon in Rale’s expansive garden, itself a small-scale experiment in sustainable backyard farming. Guests wandered past raised vegetable beds while Rale’s chickens fluttered around their feet. Doris Dixon, a friend of Rale’s described how Rale had purchased the home next door to expand her garden and make room for the chickens, who clearly enjoy a free-range lifestyle (on some pricey suburban real estate). “When the gardener turns over the soil, they just come running,” exclaimed Dixon.

Farmer friends of Nolt donated food for the fundraiser. Miller brought eggnog and Wilmer Newswanger brought a large assortment of raw milk cheeses.

The event featured two notable speakers on sustainable agriculture, Joel Salatin, recent author of “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal,” who is also widely known as the farmer featured in Michael Pollan’s best seller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Sally Fallon, founder of the Weston Price Foundation, a natural foods nonprofit. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an offshoot of the Weston Price Foundation, is representing Nolt in his appeal.

Fallon said the fact that the state is “coming after” Nolt is a “testament to how popular raw milk is.” She described the permit system as “arbitrary.”

“We’re going to look back at this era and wonder how we could be so backwards,” said Fallon. “It’s irrational not to sell directly to the public.”
Matt Rales, speaking of his friend Nolt, told the crowd, “Mark doesn’t want help from anybody. We should appreciate a guy who isn’t looking for a handout. He’s bringing us this great food.”

Rales currently works at Polyface Farms, Salatin’s farm in the Shenandoah valley and introduced his boss.

Salatin, a self-described “Christian-Libertarian-Environmentalist-Capitalist” framed the debate as one of personal liberties. “The authority to license means only the greater can license the lesser. We are bowing to the government about what we feed ourselves.”

“Food safety is a matter of faith,” exorted Salatin. “Will you put your faith in your neighbor? Or in a nameless, faceless government agency?”

To sell raw milk legally in Pennsylvania by permit, farmers must allow on-farm inspections by the state. Chris Ryder, a spokesman for the PDA, when asked to comment on Nolt’s appeal and continued refusal to obtain a permit, said that the state believes “the charges are accurate and justified.”

Meanwhile, Nolt’s neighbors, Wilmer and Arlene Newswanger stood in for Nolt at the fundraiser. Wilmer Newswanger said Nolt was “overwhelmed right now” but very appreciative of the group’s efforts.