Raw milk farms seek to prevent crackdowns
Due to a recent government crackdown on raw goat’s milk herdshares across the state and nation, many farmers are taking action to preserve their right to freely grow and consume food for personal use.
“When [the government is] stopping herd-share farms, they’re stopping private businesses where it’s private people making their own private decisions and getting all their produce from their own animals,” says Michael Hulme, owner of Evergreen Acres Farm in San Jose.
One morning in June, the Evergreen Acres Farm received a letter from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) informing them that their herdshare was illegal. The letter promised a minimum of six months’ prison time and up to $10,000 in penalties if the farm did not “cease and desist.”
The Evergreen Acres Farm is one of many across the state and nation that partake in a herdshare. Herd shares are private agreements between individuals that allow people who do not have the ability financially, or otherwise, to own their own herd of goats. These individuals enter a contract with a farm, such as Evergreen Acres, that they pay to board a share of a herd of goats.
Following receipt of the cease and desist letter, Hulme met with the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s (DA) Office. “The [DA] said, ‘This isn’t a threat, but if you continue to do what you’re doing, we will put you in jail,’” says Hulme.
While there is nothing on the law books that says herd-shares of this nature are illegal, there is also no law to specify their legality. In response, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against the CDFA and the County of Santa Clara.
As a result of such crackdowns, several farmers in Santa Cruz County have appealed to the local electorate to speak out in support of food sovereignty.
Supervisor Neal Coonerty will be sponsoring a County Resolution in support of food sovereignty for herd shares at the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting on Sept. 13. He says another unnamed supervisor may join him in presenting the resolution.
Mali McGee, who co-owns and operates the Milk Mama Goat Farm herdshare in Bonny Doon with her partner Dustin Jensen, brought the issue to Coonerty’s attention.
“What we’re asking is … to maintain these rights that we have to private agreements, and the access to foods that we want to eat,” says McGee. McGee says that local farms involved with herd shares sense the issue closing in on the area and decided to take preventative action appealing to the support of the local electorate before Santa Cruz farms are ordered to cease and desist.
The resolution is a public statement of support for herd-share cooperatives in Santa Cruz County, and the full text is available to read online at Milkmamagoatfarm.com.
Coonerty says he supports the issue of food sovereignty, which he defines as the right to grow and consume food in a non-commercial manner. Though the resolution will state Coonerty’s verbal support of food sovereignty in the county, Coonerty is considering adding the issue to a future agenda.
“As long as it’s not dealing with the sale of agricultural products—if it’s the sharing amongst owners of products and they’re making their own decisions—I think it’s perfectly within all regulation of laws, and people should have the right,” says Coonerty. “I think the CDFA, who are the people who overreacted on the LBAM, light brown apple moth, by spraying the entire county for it, I think have overreacted again on this issue.”
Steve Lyle, director of Public Affairs for the CDFA, says the CDFA does not see herd-shares as private contracts, but rather as commercial transactions of dairy products, which in turn require certification. “We see it as a commercial arrangement and a food safety issue,” he says. “Raw milk is legal in California. … The only issue we would have would be if distribution was happening outside of the regulatory system provided by statute.”
Across the Internet, bloggers and news sources alike have questioned the motives behind the crackdown on herd-share dairy farms.
According to statistics at the Center for Disease Control, dairy products are among the least commonly reported carriers of food-borne illness. Hulme says he suspects underlying political motives at play in the sudden crackdown on raw milk herdshares.
“Data is obviously not what they are basing this on,” says Hulme of government regulatory agencies cracking down on herdshares. “We are supposedly a risk to the public. But, I don’t serve the public. I have people coming to me privately and contracting with me privately, which is perfectly legal and constitutionally allowed, and it’s something which they have no right to stop, which is why we’re suing them.”
McGee says she thinks big dairy feels threatened by the increased interest in small herdshares and raw milk cooperatives.
Scalability and Intimidation
Many small farms partake in herdshare as an alternative to commercial certification and sale of dairy because the requirements for certification are financially unattainable for most small-scale operations.
McGee says she and other small farms seek to work with government regulatory agencies in the future to draw up potentially scalable certification regulations in the future.
Lyle says the CDFA is willing to hear from small farms and individual farmers. “The laws that are on the books right now are laws that we’re obligated to enforce,” he says. “We’re certainly interested in exploring the issue of looking for ways that compliance can perhaps be obtained. We take that very seriously.”
McGee notes that of roughly 20 herd shares in Santa Cruz County, she can think of three that would discuss the issue publicly due to the fear tactics of government agencies like the FDA, CDFA, and local DA offices.
“Saying they’re going to give you years in prison [and] $10,000 fines for milking a goat and giving the milk to somebody is ridiculous,” says McGee. “We’re not doing anything wrong.”
McGee says an example of governmental fear-mongering is the SWAT-style raid by federal agents on the Rawsome raw food-buying cooperative in Los Angeles on Aug. 3. The raid was the second to hit the cooperative. The farm and its owner are charged with producing milk without a license or permit since 2007.
“If you look at the photos, they come in with guns … that kind of violence and fear tactics is really inappropriate to use on somebody just trying to make it by and provide food they want to share with others,” says McGee.
A “Milk-In” rally was held on Wednesday, Sept. 7 at the Downtown Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market. The rally featured the appearance of live goats in an effort to raise awareness for the food sovereignty issue prior to the Board of Supervisors meeting the following week.
“To some extent buying your food directly from a farm is a little bit of a fringe movement, but I think this kind of government interference in private lives should be of concern to anybody because if the government can tell you what milk to drink, what can’t they do?” says Sarah Lopez, who co-owns a local pasture-based egg operation.
Coonerty notes a trend of interest in locally grown food, farmers’ markets, and small farmers as pertaining to the issue of food sovereignty.
“There’s a real food movement going on here,” he says, “and I think it’s part and parcel that if people produce their own food they have the right to consume it without the government coming in and cracking down on them.”