Dairies under threat: Despite ‘buy local’ trend, herd shares fight for survival
February 02, 2012, 05:00 A
By Sally Schilling Daily Journal correspondent
Buying local continues to be a leading food trend in the California, and many small farmers are expanding the ways they sell produce locally. The Bay Area has a growing number of farmers’ markets and many Community Supported Agriculture programs. CSAs allow communities to invest in local farms and receive weekly produce baskets in return.
While local produce growers are flourishing in the California, small dairy operations are being threatened.
Doniga Markegard is a family farmer and strong advocate for local food sources in San Mateo County. She has a program similar to a CSA but instead of produce, she sells shares in her grass-fed cattle and cows. In exchange, herd share participants get meat or raw milk from the animals.
Markegard, whose herd share consists of a four dairy cows, has found California Department of Food and Agriculture regulators waiting at her gate.
“And for no reason,” she said. “It’s a violation of our right to grow our own food and go into private contracts with our neighbors.”
Markegard believes enforcing California’s “one-size-fits all” dairy regulations is an attack on the local food movement. She argues that if small dairy farmers are forced to comply with the same expensive equipment requirements as large-scale dairy operations, they will be forced to shut down.
Small Dairy Herd Working GroupMarkegard, whose farm is near Half Moon Bay, is a part of a working group formed to resolve the issue of regulating small dairies in California. The Small Dairy Herd Working Group consists of California farmers, health inspectors and dairy representatives, and the CDFA.
Many dairy herd share operations throughout California that are without dairy licenses have received “cease and desist” letters from the CDFA. The working group was formed in response to the farmers’ outcry over the letters.
“The governor and [CDFA] secretary consider improving food access a priority and we felt the small dairy herd issue offered an opportunity to explore options, “said CDFA Veterinarian Annette Whiteford in an email to the Daily Journal.
Instead of requiring small operations to meet the same requirements as commercial dairy operations, Markegard said, farmers in the working group are drawing from herd share regulations established in other states to formulate a new system. They are drafting a three-tiered proposal; with varying levels of regulation according to the size of the dairy.
According to Markegard, the working group is looking at a Tennessee ordinance that exempts herd shares — and other similar agreements, such as 4-H, in which you board your animal on someone else’s property — from dairy licensing. The debate is over whether these types of agreements should be considered private contracts.
Are herd shares private contracts?
Last year, San Jose goat farmers Mike and Jane Hulme were accused of illegally selling their goat’s milk through their herd share because they did not have a dairy license. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is bringing their suit against CDFA.
In a press release, Farm-to-Consumer stated: “An official from CDFA informed the Hulmes that while it was legal for goat owners to board their goats at the farm and to have the Hulmes milk the goats, the owners could only drink the milk from their goats at the Hulmes’ farm; once they left the farm with the milk, Evergreen Acres had become a dairy processing plant and was violating the law since it did not have a license.”
Current California law requires all milk producers who sell milk to get a license and comply with CDFA requirements of health and safety and equipment, said Gary Cox, general counsel to Farm-To-Consumer. However, California law has yet to distinguish if herd share operations are in fact selling milk or if they are private contracts.
Cox, who is working on the Hulme case, argued that herd shares should be allowed to fly under the radar.
“Some people have sold their herd of cows or goats to third parties. They sell the cow but keep them on their property,” said Cox. “The farmers are not buying or selling milk, therefore they do not need a license.”
Conversely, large dairy operations view these dairy herd share agreements as a way to bypass legal obligations.
“[Herd shares are] a novel way to get around the regulatory regime,” said Mike Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, the largest dairy trade association in the West.
Members of WUD, which own anywhere from 20 to thousands of cows, want all producers to play by the same rules, said Marsh.
Although the herd shares are very small scale, Marsh said enforcing regulation is a matter of equity that is necessary in many industries.
“I’m also a certified public accountant,” he said. “Whether I do tax returns for one person or hundreds, I’m licensed by the state of California.”
Health risks are another concern.
“Our membership works to deliver a safe product with licenses and inspections,” said Marsh. “Having everyone subject to the same regime just makes sense.”
The milk exchanged in herd shares is typically raw, which is of particular concern for members of the health community.
“Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized to remove harmful bacteria,” said Dr. Gil Chávez, the deputy director of the California Center for Infectious Diseases. “Some of these bacteria can cause serious lifelong illnesses, including kidney damage and death.”
Finding a compromise
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in December urging the CDFA to create an exemption for small dairy operations.
“What we are trying to do is support agriculture, both commercial and organic,” said Supervisor Don Horsley. “The Markegard farm fits in with that, with organic poultry, cattle and milk.”
He advocates for modest sanitation and hygiene standards to be regulated in herd share operations.
“I think it’s important because disease can be passed through non-pasteurized milk,” he said. “If that were not the case, we would not need pasteurized milk.”
Customized regulations are needed to keep small dairies economically viable, Horsley said.
“The regulations should be reasonable, not forcing them to go out business,” he said. “I’m just asking that the state work with Markegard types so that they can operate and the public is protected.”
Kate Haas, who owns two milking goats and a cow, is hopeful that the working group will be able find a solution for small dairies.
“We have regulation that’s nonsensical,” said Haas, whose family farm is near Pescadero. “Farmers selling [milk] off their farms makes sense. It’s what our grandparents did.”
If all dairies continue to be forced to play by the same rules, then it remains illegal for Haas to take her own goat’s milk to her grandson in San Francisco.
“I think most people agree that we should be able to make private contracts amongst ourselves,” she said.
The working group will be meeting in Sacramento later in February.
The Small Dairy Herd Working Group will be hosting a workshop to raise awareness in on Feb. 3, in Pacific Grove, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.