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Got Raw Milk? It Oughta Be Your Choice

Rick Green

Article from The Hartford Courant

This fight over the sale of raw milk is much larger than whether to pasteurize or not.

It's about encouraging the small farmers who produce our food. It's also about young people such as Melynda Naples, the 26-year-old entrepreneur who operates Deerfield Farm, a raw milk dairy in the rolling hills of Durham.

I visited Naples shortly after 7 one recent morning, where she was shoveling manure, cleaning teats and udders and making sure her 15 Jerseys were clean and properly milked. That was before she was off to deliver the milk to a handful of local stores that sell it.

In the middle of all these McMansions and lives disconnected from the land, we've got Naples, a working mother of two creating a food product that local people consume. State officials, however, have asked the legislature to ban the sale of raw milk in stores in response to health concerns, a move that could shut down Naples and other dairies if they are forced to sell their products only on the farm.

"Local milk is important," said Naples, one of about 14 raw milk producers in Connecticut among the 150 licensed dairy farms. "It's very important actually knowing where your food comes from."

That's the real issue. I understand the good intentions of Agriculture Commissioner F. Philip Prelli. Last year a community-run raw milk dairy in Simsbury was the source of a dangerous E. coli outbreak sickening 14 people, most of them children.

"Our greatest fear," Prelli told a legislative committee the other day, "is that an uninformed consumer or consumer with a casual knowledge of the risks of retail raw milk will think raw milk is safe or even more beneficial than pasteurized milk for their children."

But aren't there lots of risks wherever you turn? We barely blink at government-sanctioned sales of liquor, cigarettes or lottery tickets, but all three can and do ruin lives.

Those worried about unpasteurized milk might read what journalist and former Connecticut resident Michael Pollan and others have written about the production of fast-food burger meat at factory farms. It's almost enough to make one want to ban the Big Mac. But fast food is a choice and that's none of the government's business, right?

Raw milk advocates are passionate, arguing that their product, properly supervised, is safe for most people. I don't drink it, but I did as a kid. That's my choice.

Naples' 5-year-old dairy business offers a glimpse of a life in which we produce more locally, instead of relying on megafarms. Her cows eat grass, don't live in pens and are free from growth hormones. She uses antibiotics only when her animals get sick. That's more than you can say for the producers of most of the milk you'll find at the supermarket.

Bill Duesing, executive director of the state chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said there's an essential philosophy behind the raw milk producers and other small farmers.

"Know your farmer. Know where your food comes from," he said. "That's one of the tenets of the new agriculture food movement."

I called Mark Winne, who served as director of the nonprofit Hartford Food System for 25 years and who now lives in New Mexico, where he writes and consults about how we produce the food we eat.

"What about the person who grows an acre of tomatoes? Do we come in and make sure every one of those tomatoes is perfectly clean and doesn't have a speck of bacteria?" asked Winne, whose book, "Closing the Food Gap, Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty," was published last year. "Pretty soon you are not going to have any farmers left."

It's fair to require stricter labeling and testing of raw milk. But Naples is right when she says that consumers should be responsible for what they purchase.

After all, "we drink the milk and my little kids do, too," she told me.

Government should be helping young and creative farmers like Naples, not driving them out of business.

• Rick Green's column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at courant.com/rick.

Copyright © 2009, The Hartford Courant

 

 

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