State puts raw-milk classes on hold

MONTPELIER — Two years ago, dairy farmers and advocacy groups across the state celebrated a victory when the state passed Act 62, the Raw Milk Bill, allowing farmers to sell small amounts of raw milk directly to consumers.
But in a move that farmer advocacy group Rural Vermont says is counter to the interests of Vermont dairy farmers, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms and Markets this month warned the group that it — and the dairy farmers it works with — could face a lawsuit if it continued to run its dairy processing classes, which teach participants how to make butter, cheese and yogurt from raw milk. The agency alleged that, since the law states that farmers can sell raw milk — that is, milk not heated to the point of sterilization — for fluid consumption only, farmers are knowingly violating the law.
For now, Rural Vermont has suspended its dairy classes in order to protect its farmers from a suit, but executive director Jared Carter said the temporary suspension does not mean the classes are gone for good. Instead, the group is fighting back, asserting that it is within Rural Vermont’s legal right to continue teaching the classes.
“I’ve gotten 200 e-mails since yesterday from consumers all over the state saying, ‘Who’s going to tell us what we can and can’t do in the privacy of our kitchen?’” said Carter.
For Mike Eastman, who sells raw milk from his Addison dairy farm and has provided milk for Rural Vermont classes in the past, the classes provide consumers with choices.
“If you want your milk, cheese and butter coming from grass-fed animals, the only way you’re going to get it is by buying from (a local farm) and making it yourself,” he said.
Carter, a trained lawyer himself, said that although the classes use raw milk and introduce consumers to producers, all teachers of the classes make sure that no milk is sold at any of the dairy processing classes. The only money that changes hands during the workshops, he said, is a donation to Rural Vermont that supports its programs and continued advocacy.
He said that the Agency of Agriculture is overstepping its bounds with its claim that the classes violate the law, impeding the class participants’ right to free speech.
But Daniel Scruton, dairy chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said free speech is not the issue here.
“We don’t object to the idea of teaching people how to make cheese,” said Scruton.
He said that the agency takes issue with language on Rural Vermont’s website that promotes the classes as a way for farmers to boost raw milk sales.
Since the classes are often held on farms, Scruton said that participation in the classes could place those farmers in a position of liability if a participant were to get sick from making cheese.
He also said the agency takes issue with the fact that the classes are conducted most often in unlicensed, uninspected facilities and that class participants are eating what they produce.
Under current Vermont law, cheese made from raw milk must be aged for 60 days in order to render it safe.
The issue is not new, he said.
“We’ve been talking to them for a long time,” said Scruton. “They’ve been aware of our concerns since shortly after the bill passed. At this point, it went from being a discussion to a letter of warning.
“We’re very much in favor of farmers doing value-added on their farms,” he added. “Our role is to make sure it’s done safely and within the statutes of the law.”
Carter, for his part, maintained that his organization would continue fighting for a way to continue teaching the classes using raw milk, but added that he was willing to make concessions like changing the language on the website.
“We respect the law, and we’re willing to find a way to move forward,” he said.
A GROWING INDUSTRY
Carter said that Rural Vermont is trying to propel forward an industry that has grown by 25 percent over the past year — by his estimates, farmers in the state now pull in just shy of $1.2 million each year from raw milk sales. Instead of being routed through a dairy processor, that money goes directly to the consumer.
“That’s not small potatoes for dairy farmers,” he said.
And in the two years that the sale of unpasteurized milk has been legal, Carter said he has seen no documented cases of sickness.
“According to the (Centers for Disease Control), even if you account for consumption rates, deli meat is 17 percent more likely to get you sick,” he said.
Vermont’s milk laws, too, set a high standard for farmers who want to sell unpasteurized milk, requiring them to consistently prove very low bacteria counts in their milk before they can sell it.
“The raw milk law sets very stringent requirements,” said Carter. “It’s a heavily regulated industry.”
Even so, he said, Vermont is not far in front in terms of raw milk laws — 10 states already have laws in place that allow farmers to sell their raw milk through stores, rather than directly to consumers.
So Carter said the organization will continue fighting, both for the dairy classes — one of which was scheduled to be held at Pine Meadow Farm in Cornwall in March — and for overall raw dairy legislation.
 “We’ll mobilize folks if need be,” said Carter, “whether it’s taking to the streets, taken to the halls of the legislature, or taken to the courts.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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