Thursday, October 26, 2006

Aging nicely and the raw deal for raw milk

The caerphilly is aging nicely. It should be ready in a couple of weeks. I have a new Sarahmore drying. Tomorrow I will salt it, let it sit some more and then into the cave it shall go for 3-4 weeks. This is getting to be a habit.

Rant time:

If you're curious about why raw milk and its providers are hard to find, take a look at this editorial about a cow-share program in Michigan that was stopped.

Business Week editorial:

States Target Raw-Milk Farmers

Michigan is the latest to bust a provider of unprocessed milk-and its
heavy-handed tactics may put three small farms out of business
by David E. Gumpert

For several months over this past summer and fall, Michigan
authorities tracked Richard Hebron, 41, and his weekly truck hauls the
140 miles or so from Vandalia to Ann Arbor. To gather evidence, an
undercover agent infiltrated an organization that was making private
purchases from Hebron.

On the morning of Oct. 13, the authorities closed the loop on their
complex sting operation. Just outside of Ann Arbor, a state police
officer pulled over Hebron's truck during its weekly run, served
Hebron with a search warrant, and with several other agents began
removing goods from the truck.

Back home in Vandalia, a state trooper accompanied by four
plain-clothes agents knocked on the door of Hebron's home, presented
Hebron's wife, Annette, with a search warrant, and fanned through
their small three-room house, removing their computer, business
records, and product samples. Later that afternoon, in Ann Arbor, four
additional agents, also armed with a search warrant, rummaged through
a warehouse that was Hebron's destination when he was pulled over,
seizing more business records.

Expanding Investigation
The trigger in this huge investigation? No, it wasn't drugs, stolen
goods, or terrorism. It was, of all things, raw milk and its various
byproducts, including cream, buttermilk, yogurt, butter, and kefir.
The Michigan Agriculture Dept., which oversaw the investigation
together with the Michigan State Police, sees the situation as a
simple matter of enforcing the law. Unfortunately, when it comes to
raw milk, the law is no simple matter.

"We've had an investigation for several months now," says Katherine
Fedder, director of the Michigan Agriculture Dept.'s food & dairy
division. The investigation, she says, began with a report from a
local public-health department last spring about children who had
become sick who " had consumed unpasteurized milk." She noted, though,
that the children's illness was never traced back to raw milk or any
other specific food. In any event, a department inspector joined the
co-op to purchase milk and expand the investigation.

"Our concern is that there's a violation of the Michigan law to
distribute misbranded products and unpasteurized dairy products out of
an MDA-licensed food establishment," Fedder says, adding that the
investigation of the computers, records, and milk products confiscated
will likely take "a few more weeks before we have a clarification."
Then, Hebron and/or the co-op could be charged with "a whole variety
of things" under a Michigan food law and a dairy law.

Crippled Co-op
Hebron is a farmer with about 110 acres, where he raises beef, cattle,
and chickens. He also manages the four-year-old Family Farms Co-op
with two other farm families, through which all three farmers sell
their products at the Ann Arbor outlet, as well as two outlets in
Detroit and seven in Chicago.

One of those farm families, an Amish couple with eight children, owns
the 70 milking cows that produce the cooperative's raw milk (milk that
isn't pasteurized or homogenized). The Amish farmer doesn't have a
phone or other modern conveniences and couldn't be reached. Hebron
says the farmer has requested Hebron to speak both on the co-op's and
the farmer's behalf and not to publicize his identity. This farmer is
essentially out of business for the time being, and has had to throw
out all his milk produced since Oct. 13.

The entire co-op is crippled, since the farmers are without their
computer, fax, or business records. And already three Chicago retail
outlets, unsettled by news of the Michigan officials' actions, have
told Hebron not to bother returning with additional products. "This is
what we do for a living," says Hebron. "We don't get unemployment

The experience has left the Hebrons shaken. "They treated us pretty
much like we were drug dealers," he says. Moreover, it's not clear if
any of the co-op members will be charged with a crime and when the
co-op may be able to resume its normal business.

Worse than Russia?
The Family Farms Co-op thought it had dealt with the Michigan
prohibition against retailing raw milk, which is similar to
prohibitions in many other states, four years ago, when it set up the
co-op. Under the arrangement, the co-op leases cows from the dairy
farm and then sells shares in the herd to co-op members, each of whom
pays $20 a year for their share. The co-op members purchase milk for
$6.50 a gallon, which goes back to the dairy farmer in the form of a
boarding fee for the cows.
"It has to be this way, because it's illegal to sell raw milk retail"
in Michigan, says Hebron. Michigan law allows for people who own and
board dairy cows to consume their milk, though.

After I listened to Hebron tell his story about the state police and
agriculture inspectors refusing to let him make a call home after
confiscating thousands of dollars worth of fresh farm products from
his truck, and then serving a search warrant on his wife and rummaging
through the farm family's home, I asked him, "Could you believe this
was happening in the United States?"

"No," he said. "I have a customer in Chicago who says he's from
Russia. He thinks this is worse than what happens in Russia."

Crackdown Factors
This harsh Michigan action bears an eerie resemblance to the case of
Organic Pastures Dairy, a producer of raw milk, which California
agriculture officials shut down for more than two weeks (see, 9/28/06, "Getting a Raw Deal?"). California
authorities went after Organic Pastures when four children became sick
from E.coli bacteria, but an exhaustive investigation turned up no
evidence of E.coli at the dairy. In comparison, even though 200 people
were sickened by E.coli from California spinach, none of the
California spinach farms were shut down.

What's behind these crackdowns by major states against producers of
raw milk? I suspect it's a combination of two forces at work.

First, there's the simple matter of growing demand from consumers
seeking food with as little processing as possible, who want to buy it
from local farm producers (see, 10/16/06, "The
Organic Myth"). Organic Pastures has seen its revenues climb 35% to
40% annually since it switched to selling raw milk in 2000. Similarly,
the Family Farms Co-op has grown from nothing to nearly 1,000 members
over the last four years.

Out of Proportion
Second, as raw milk and organic milk (milk which is pasteurized, but
obtained from cows fed organic feed, with no hormones) become more
popular, large dairies are becoming concerned and exerting pressure on
agriculture officials to crack down on the raw-milk producers. Just
take a look at the Web site to get a sense of the
conventional dairies' concern.

Regardless of what anyone may think about raw milk, the heavy-handed
enforcement action by Michigan authorities just feels
inappropriate-way out of proportion to any possible violation of the
law. It smacks of a speed-trap approach to law enforcement, except
here the penalty isn't just a fine, it's the livelihood of three
family farms.

(Note: I will be following the unfolding situation at Family Farms
Co-op, much as I have the Organic Pastures situation, at my blog,

Gumpert is author of Burn Your Business Plan! What Investors Really
Want from Entrepreneurs and How to Really Start Your Own Business. His
Web site is

No comments: