To anyone who values farming and locally produced food, the story of the Massachusetts dairy industry is a depressing one. Since 1950, the number of dairy farms has declined more than 97 percent from the 6,760 that once flourished. In an effort to prevent further losses from the 179 farms that remain, since 2007 Massachusetts taxpayers have been providing them either direct aid or tax credits of between $3 million and $4 million annually.
There has been one slim ray of hope in the Massachusetts dairy picture, though, and that has been the growth in the number of specially licensed dairies supplying unpasteurized, or raw, milk to growing legions of consumers who believe the unprocessed stuff not only tastes better, but is healthier than the pasteurized variety.
A 2009 study by the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association found that not only has the number of such dairies increased sharply (from 10 in 2006 to 27 today), but that the revenues generated by the dairies tend to remain in local communities. Since the milk is sold directly to consumers (at $5 to $8 a gallon) there is no economic spillage to out-of-state corporations like Dean Foods, inherent in conventional distribution and retailing models. "It is worth noting that the money earned from the sale of raw milk, like all local products, has a lasting effect in the communities where it is sold," the study noted. "These farmers employ their neighbors, purchase products from their local stores, and contribute to the tax base of their towns."
The other encouraging aspect of the raw milk revival has been a complete absence of illnesses associated with raw milk – a concern raised frequently by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control — for well over a decade, likely due to the monthly inspections of raw dairies carried out by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR). By contrast, pasteurized milk from Whittier Farms in Shrewsbury was linked to a listeria outbreak that caused the deaths of three elderly men and the miscarriage of a pregnant woman's fetus in 2007.
Despite the economic promise of the raw milk business in Massachusetts during a time of contraction and malaise in many industries, state agriculture and public health authorities have targeted the business for added tough regulation that could take the bloom off the raw dairy rose. The MDAR in January launched a campaign to shut down so-called buying clubs, really car pools and transport services, that have been operating for years with MDAR knowledge to make deliveries to raw milk customers who live far from dairies. Many of the dairies are in Central Massachusetts, more than an hour from, say, the Boston area. These car pools and services aren't like conventional distributors since they don't mark up the milk and charge only a delivery fee.
The problem with the MDAR's campaign is that by shutting down the buying clubs and carpools, the agency threatens to put a crimp on the profits of many raw dairies. On May 10, some 50 consumers and farmers testified at an MDAR hearing on the crackdown, nearly all in opposition to the MDAR's push against the buying clubs. Consumers spoke about how raw milk has improved the health of their families. Pam Robinson, an owner of Robinson Dairy in Hardwick, testified that the push to shut down the buying clubs could well put her farm out of business. That was in line with the finding of the NOFA/Mass. 2009 survey in which 12 raw dairies said such sales were vital to farm survival. When dairies sell to big processing companies that pasteurize milk, the farmers receive perhaps $1.50 a gallon, while selling milk directly to consumers yields $5 to $8 a gallon.
The new official pressure against raw dairies seems a violation of the classic rule, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." MDAR has promised a public inquiry into possible further regulation of the raw milk business in Massachusetts. Local dairies selling raw milk face enough difficulties, such as high land and labor costs and a tough economy. They shouldn't have to fight with state officials. Certainly state agriculture and public health regulators can find other real problems to focus on, as opposed to nonexistent ones. Since when can we afford to trash real jobs and economic growth?
David E. Gumpert is the author of "The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights." He is based in Needham and has a blog at www.thecompletepatient.com.