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Along the raw milk tour

New legislation allows farms to sell directly to consumers — with some precautions

By Olga Peters | The Commons

Photo 1
OLGA PETERS

Gay Foster, who owns Hollyhock Farm in Putney with her husband, Dan, shares a moment with a young buck. The Fosters are in the process of complying with a new state law that will let them sell the raw milk from their goats directly to consumers.

PUTNEY—Samba juts her head over the fence and sniffs. Gay Foster scratches the French Alpine goat’s neck.

“She’s my queen bee,” says Foster, who grew up in a farming town and always wanted to be a farmer. Three years ago, the Foster family took the leap.

On the 10-acre Hollyhock Farm, Foster, husband Dan, and their children keep five goats, 50 laying hens, a large raspberry patch, and a vegetable garden. Foster sells pickles and jams wholesale to local stores.

Hollyhock Farm recently branched into goat’s milk and cheese. The farm is in the early stages of complying with a new law that allows farmers to sell up to 40 gallons of raw milk daily directly to consumers.

The Fosters await test results of water samples from their farm, one of the stipulations in the law designed to promote consumer safety — a cautious balance that addressed concerns expressed by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and Vermont Department of Health, which cooperated in crafting the bill but nonetheless view the concept of letting farms sell raw milk as a potentially dangerous health risk.

More profitable for farmers

“We are working towards our non-existence,” says Brian Moyer, director of Rural Vermont, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting issues relating to agriculture. Rural Vermont has promoted raw milk as a product that can create a stable stream of income for small farmers.

Raw milk production, in general, is less costly than pasteurized milk. By selling their product directly to consumers at retail prices, farmers keep more of the profits.

In September, Hollyhock Farm participated in the Raw Milk Open Farm Day, which Rural Vermont has organized for the past two years as a way to promote the milk, the law, and the participating farms.

But for some, the unpasteurized milk provides a wholesome and traditional way to feed a community.

“[Farming is a] combination of homesteading and growing things for the surrounding community. That sense of service is what you need to think about when you start,” says Sophia Lloyd of Hope Roots Farm, Westminster, another farm that participated on the statewide tour.

Interns Lloyd and Jenny McCharen prepare the farm kitchen for the afternoon dairy workshop. Participating farms host dairy workshops as a way of introducing raw milk to consumers.

Located in the middle of Westminster on 10 acres, Hope Roots shares its land with another farm. Farm owner and caseworker Bianca Fernandez has farmed six years for herself. Before that she worked for six years on other farms.

Fernandez has two Jersey cows, laying hens, meat birds, and a farm store. She remains a farmer because she wants to grow her own food and loves animals, she says.

Hope Roots does not turn a profit, but is working towards generating profits.

The cows produce 1½ to 2 gallons a day, and Fernandez has begun producing yogurt.

The “Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk Bill” regulates the sanitary standard farmers must meet.

Sanitation and health

Consumers are allowed to tour the farm and view the level of sanitation first hand. Farmers must keep daily transaction records. A warning listing the potential risks of drinking an unpasteurized product must be posted.

Kelly Loftus, communications director for the Agency of Agriculture, says the agency is pleased with the law.

The agency worked with legislators to draft a bill balancing farmers’ need to increase their income with health concerns associated with raw milk.

“This is a potentially dangerous product,” Loftus cautions.

Prior to the raw milk bill, farmers used the milk privately and sold the product informally, with no oversight. Legislators insisted on recordkeeping, more testing of the milk, and more oversight — all steps in the law designed to protect consumers.

“I think protecting consumers protects dairy producers in the long run,” says Loftus.

Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist of the Vermont Department of Health, describes the department’s stance: “people shouldn’t drink raw milk.”

But both the health and agriculture agencies recognized there was a demand for raw milk and grudgingly collaborated with Rural Vermont and the Agency of Agriculture to help craft the new law to give oversight and control.

Kelso notes that even a cow that appears healthy and tests healthy on a given day can intermittently shed pathogens such as tuberculosis or listeria.

By law, farms must display a sign that reads, “This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause illness particularly in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems and in pregnant women can cause illness, miscarriage or fetal death, or death of a newborn.”

McCharen, pointing to the warning sign in Hope Roots’ farm store, says the farm is committed to researching the science relating to bacteria in milk. Lloyd and McCharen seek better information about the benefits of raw milk so they can produce a better product and serve as a better resource to their customers.

In contrast, Rural Vermont’s Web site describes raw milk as “a natural and beneficial alternative to processed milk.”

“The pasteurization and homogenization process destroys important vitamins, enzymes, and fatty acids, and alters proteins and immune factors that are inherent components in farm fresh milk,” the site continues.

“[We] like to be informed about the reality of bacterial science because the poster is a product of legislation,” McCharen says.

‘Everything you can’

“Every Farm Needs a Team”: The hand-painted red and white sign hangs above the door to the store at Taylor Farm in Londonderry, another farm along the tour.

Mimi Wright, cheese maker, baker, and sister of farmer Jon Taylor, offers samples of the farm’s award-winning Gouda.

Taylor Farm supports itself with multiple streams of income. Milk, cheese, a retail store, hayrides and sleigh rides all pay their way.

Jon Taylor originally began making cheese because he loved his cows, Wright says. He was not making enough on milk sales so he looked around for another way to earn money.

Wright is amazed at the number of young people who want to serve and, instead of joining the Peace Corps, become farmers.

Raw milk sales have picked up, she says. Customers from as far away as Albany, N.Y., come to the farm.

“With this business, you have to do everything you can,” says Wright. “It all adds to what we have to offer.”

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