Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund
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Defending the rights and broadening the freedoms of family farms and protecting
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DIY, Dump-It-Yourself: Raw Milk

By Dar Ward |

Recently a farmer showed up at the Wisconsin Capitol to dump his milk in protest. The state has been making him dump his milk because they fear he is selling it raw (it is unclear if he actually is selling raw milk), which is illegal in Wisconsin. So he decided to dump it on the Capitol lawn, not only in protest of his loss of income, but also to make a statement that raw milk ought to be legal to sell in Wisconsin. 

I am a proponent of local, organic food. I have been since my days working at the now defunct Magic Mill Natural Foods. But raw milk is not something of which I’ve ever taken much notice. My thoughts have run along the lines of, if other people want to drink raw milk then good for them, but I’ll take mine pasteurized. 

And so I wouldn’t normally have taken much notice of the protest on the Capitol. But something happened in mid-October that changed my awareness about raw milk. 

In college I was engaged to be married to a wonderful man, Eric. We dreamed of a happily married future together as physicists. Then actual life happened and I broke it off to pursue a life of dating women and advocating for bicycling while he became an organic farmer (well, a farmer with a computer problem). Pesky life, it always gets in the way of the best laid plans. 

In October Eric was minding his stand at the farmer’s market in Athens, Georgia when inspectors came to check the meat being sold through his Athens Locally Grown network. See, as I mentioned, Eric has a computer problem. The problem being that he has to work with computers all day in order to finance the farm, which though he works at it like a full time job, doesn’t make enough money to support itself or his family. Or to pay the medical bills from his daughter’s risky birth half a dozen years ago. In any case, always resourceful, Eric has turned his computer problem to his advantage, and has helped create one of the country’s first internet farmer’s markets, Athens Locally Grown. He basically brokers the purchase of local produce, meat, milk, eggs, and whatnot between over a 100 farmers and the public. Then he and like-minded folks staff a pickup table. And that’s where he was when the state inspectors showed up. 

The meat they were there to inspect was just fine, but they got curious about the milk that was sitting in a refrigerated truck nearby. They didn’t have a search warrant, but they boarded the truck anyway, and upon seeing that it was raw milk from South Carolina, seized the entire shipment of 110 gallons. Well, they wanted to seize it, but being as they weren’t there to check milk in the first place, they weren’t prepared to seize it. So instead, they told Eric that he couldn’t distribute it to the customers who had already paid for it (paid for it technically in South Carolina, where it is legal to buy raw milk, via the internet) and that they would meet him at his farm in a few days to witness the dumping of the milk. And indeed the milk was dumped a few days later, though several hours later than scheduled (which we postulate was to diffuse the considerable protest that was mounting and reduce the chance of TV coverage) with a little bit of theatrics, which Eric is good at. The local papers took note and friends taped the incident (part 1 and part 2). 

The whole situation brings into question several issues: First, can a state agency search a vehicle without a search warrant or the permission of the owner? If you buy something on the internet, which state does the sale count for, the state the buyer is located in or the state the seller is located in? If it is the seller, can the State of Georgia regulate the sale of milk in South Carolina? Was there a crime committed here, and if so, by whom? My buddy Eric only helped facilitate the sale with a website, he didn’t actually produce the milk, sell the milk, or buy the milk. Was it a crime to transport raw milk across state lines? If so, isn’t that a federal crime, not a state crime? So how does the State of Georgia have jurisdiction?

The state’s answer to Eric’s considerable disgruntlement was that he and his buddies have to get the law in Georgia changed, which I suspect there is now a movement for to do. Though I’m not sure if farmers who run full time operations and have day jobs have the time or resources to press for such things, especially when it is mostly small farms that are interested in raw milk. Big agriculture probably couldn’t produce safe raw milk if they wanted to due to the size of their operations and the necessary practices of big farms. So the lobbyists for agriculture are unlikely to be pushing for raw milk to be legal any time soon. It would cut into their profits. 

States that allow the sale of raw milk tend to require that it actually be cleaner (to have less bacteria) than pasteurized milk. This seems like a reasonable compromise on the issue. If you are worried about the safety of raw milk, require it to be tested and to be pristine. The ironic part of the situation is that that raw milk from South Carolina was required to be cleaner than the pasteurized milk sold in Georgia. So the argument that this is about public safety is absurd. If it is public health that Georgia (or any other state) cared about, they likely would not let us purchase 90% of the food (or non-food) that we eat. 

I hope that raw milk becomes legal in Georgia, and in Wisconsin. There’s been enough spilt milk already.

Dar has lived in Madison since 1993, is an alternative transportation planner/advocate, and is former executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin. Dar also plays drums in Seven Stone Weaklings, a retro-punk cover band, and is the author of the novel, Becoming Alec.


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