Missouri State Representative Belinda Harris has been working to protect and support raw milk issues in the state, most recently speaking at a meeting of the Missouri State Milk Board, noting that products like raw milk allow small and start-up farms a way into business that might otherwise be too expensive. It’s worth pointing out that even the Board’s own data, as presented in a chart on their front page, clearly show that dairy in Missouri is rapidly declining. Yet our officials seem to be circling the wagons to protect a shrinking and narrow field, instead of opening up to new and innovative ways to connect consumers and farmers.
I know I’m hitting this hard lately, but wanted to share the letter I sent recently to Belinda Harris, because I think it relates a larger point that is often forgotten in the fight over just raw milk:
Dear Representative Harris,
My wife and I run a small, certified organic vegetable farm in northern Boone County, selling at farmers markets and to local restaurants. We also keep dairy goats for our own home use, and regularly make cheese and yogurt, though we do not drink the milk raw. I also spent 2009 working one day a week at a local goat dairy to gain more experience in full-time dairy management. I have noticed your efforts in the past to support legal raw milk in Missouri, and was prompted by the latest round of news to write you.
While we do not drink our own raw milk, because we think there are some dangers associated with it (and prefer cheese & yogurt anyway), we are adamantly in support of farmers’ right to sell it and consumers’ right to buy it. We do not feel the government has the right to prohibit a willing transaction between adults when there is no harm beyond those conducting the transaction. We also feel that the dangers of raw milk are really no worse than raw meat or fish, which are legal to sell and consume in Missouri (think sushi restaurants and rare steaks). A customer can legally order a bloody rare steak in a restaurant with no knowledge of how the meat was raised, butchered, handled, or prepared in the kitchen, with only a simple government warning on the menu that meat should be ordered well-done for safety reasons (the same is true for sushi). Yet the same customer is told that raw milk is inherently dangerous, even when purchased from a known farm with known methods. This is thoroughly illogical; why can’t the same warning labels used on meat and fish be used on milk, and give customers and farmers the same rights as diners and chefs?
I also want to call your attention to another, usually overlooked, aspect of this debate. While raw milk sales are currently legal in Missouri, that’s all you can do as a small farm. We are forbidden from selling pasteurized milk, yogurt, cheese, or other milk products without having a full-scale certified dairy operation. This, despite the fact that making yogurt and many forms of cheese inherently pasteurizes the milk (through heating), while others can be aged sufficiently to eliminate pathogens (per FDA standards) thus rendering the final product safer than the raw version. I have a long waiting list of people who have begged to purchase the cheese we make in our home, yet are always denied because we insist on following the law, however absurd. I can give my cheese away, but the second my neighbor gives me money for it, I become a criminal and a threat to public health. This is absurd.
I noticed that you have argued for raw milk sales as a way to support and grow small farms. I agree. However, I believe this needs to be taken a step farther. I would like to see legal changes to allow small and part-time producers like myself to make and sell dairy products direct to the final consumer without needing inspection or certification, just as the raw milk law is written now. This is the way small farms operated for generations in America, and centuries in Europe, without killing off the population. This has been proposed in several other states (I believe Maryland and Vermont), as a way of encouraging small producers and farmers to get a start in the business; it could easily be written to enact further restrictions as the businesses grow to a size or distribution model where inspection and regulation is more relevant.
In the meantime, small farms like are forced into a set of unappetizing choices if we wish to make all or part of our living from dairy animals. We can sell the most (relatively) dangerous of all dairy products, raw milk, but nothing else. We can sell nothing at all. We can go black-market and attempt not to get caught selling perfectly safe cheese and yogurt to the many customers who want it (I’m quite sure this happens regularly). Or we can invest massive amounts of time and money building fully certified dairy facilities which are not practical at our scale, especially for part-timers or those just getting started. None of these are appealing or beneficial to Missourians or our rural economy, and some force honest people to not make a living or make it illegally.
In conclusion, I thank you for your support and advocacy for small farmers and dairies, but please consider the overall situation in small Missouri dairy and not just raw milk. Please help us make a living selling cheese to willing consumers who know our farm and our methods better than the government does. Please help remove the label of criminal and public health threat from those of us living and farming in the ways of our ancestors and those who built this state and country.
Eric Reuter Chert Hollow Farm, LLC