Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Right to Choose

For a few of us, drinking a tall glass of milk from the cow we or someone close to us milked last night is as natural as eating the green beans we just picked from our garden. And if we don’t drink milk, then ladling off some cream to pour over our oatmeal or into our coffee is just the way it is. Goldie’s out there in the barn getting ready to have a little snack and to give milk again, and we’re eating breakfast and will shortly pull on our barn jacket and step into our barn boots and get on with the business of the day. Or our neighbor will. We don’t even think about it. It’s just the way things are, and it’s just the way they should be – down home, close to the bone, not even a conscious choice.

But for the majority of us that’s not the case. We get our milk or our coffee cream from the refrigerator case from the store, and for the majority of us that’s not a choice, either. It’s just the way it is. We don’t give it a thought.

Given a choice between store-bought and farm fresh milk, most of us would continue on our well-trodden path, that way of doing something that is so familiar we don’t need to take any of our scarce-afforded, already chock-full time to think about it. But, forced to make a choice? Now that’s another thing. The two sides part from the mainstream, and that’s good – it’s good to be informed and to make choices for one’s self and demand to be able to make those choices. But some swerve so drastically they become a fringe, a lunatic fringe given to hyperbole – which doesn’t prove their point – and hatefulness. That’s when we’re apt to get pompous about it, authoritarian and paternalistic and bossy and worried about others who didn’t make the same choice we did. Those people are doomed, we say – either from drinking the milk of many cows from many farms that has had the last vestiges of life boiled out of it, or from getting so dewy eyed about sweet little Bossy they don’t realize the deadly germs that may lurk in her milk.

...not a song, but a thread...

But the important thing here is to protect our right to choose. And that’s what the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 attempts to do. The name sounds like a song by Bruce Springsteen or an essay by Thomas Jefferson, doesn’t it? But no, it was written by Vermont farmers in cooperation with Rural Vermont, an organization that works ceaselessly in its quest to keep Vermont green and covered with farms, more power to them, and may they succeed. They’re the ones who worked with George Schenk, my old and revered friend of American Flatbread fame, a poet and an entrepreneur, a baker and a earth hearth maker, to allow your neighbor to sell up to 100 chickens to you and your favorite restaurant without the state or federal inspection which is prohibitive to small farmers. A preferable chicken any day to one stuffed into a cage under a roof all its born days.

But the main responsibility of the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 is to the farms, to help them become more viable and successful, which means producing good and healthy food to satisfy demand. If a dairy farmer who is pinched in all her dealings with middlemen and state and federal agencies when she sells her milk to be pasteurized and homogenized by Big Dairy interests, had the chance to sell unpasteurized milk right off the farm at an average of $5 per gallon to people who are clamoring for it, wouldn’t that make her life business a heck of a lot more satisfying? And wouldn’t that satisfy a demand in the community for farm fresh milk? Yes, indeed, it would.

So Rural Vermont and the farmers designed this bill to allow the farmer to sell as much unpasteurized milk as he could to people who came to his farm to buy it, and he could advertise, and he would abide by a set of standards to ensure milk quality and safety and submit to inspection twice a year by a committee of his peers and experts, who would in turn report to a state committee – neither of these committees to be governmental committees.

And here’s what happened to it, as far as I can gather. The House Committee on Agriculture took a really good look at it, listened to lots of testimony both pro and con, much of it from people who said raw milk will kill you or raw milk will cure you, then doubled the amount of unpasteurized milk a farmer can sell – to 50 quarts a day. In the process they realized that the ban on advertising was unconstitutional – First Amendment stuff, freedom of speech – so up go those roadside signs and notices on bulletin boards.

But the real sticking point was they could not decide if the Agency of Agriculture – whose charge it is to protect the public’s health – MUST be involved in oversight, at least by a thread. And then the bell rang, and it was time to send this bill to the Senate. And nothing, NOTHING, must interfere with that transferal.

So what we have is not enough to free a small farmer from Big Dairy interests, but just enough to enable an even smaller farmer to sell enough milk to get by. All, though, every last one of them, want an overseer made up of their own peers, to make sure that a “dirty” farmer does not cast shame upon all of their good efforts by causing illness. They so totally distrust government bureaucrats, who often act as bullies, but they will sooo have to get over it, because it looks like the Agency of Ag MUST and WILL be involved, at least by a thread, not that the agency, itself, is all that keen on adding a whole new level of jurisdiction to its manpower and budgetary duties. So. Let it be a thread.

...those who care...

Not everyone is worried and disappointed. “I would be mortified,” said Stacey Elliot of Chittenden, “if anyone got sick from MY milk! We’re so careful about how we milk, how we take care of the animals and their health, and most small producers feel the same way. So the lack of oversight doesn’t really bother me because I know I’m doing a really good job.” Stacey and her husband, Tim, have a tiny but busy farm in Chittenden, with chickens, pigs and, since the promise of doubling the amount of milk and the right to advertise, TWO cows. “We’re almost selling out of Godiva’s milk, so we went out and purchased a new Jersey last weekend.”

At the present average of $5 per gallon charged by most farmers for unpasteurized milk, even 87 gallons could bring in close to $500 extra per week which, though a pittance in farm money parlance, could go some way towards healing the sting of those constant breakdowns of machinery that are such an aggravation in the farmer’s life.

“But,” says, Lisa Kaiman of Jersey Girls Dairy in Chester, who is the sine qua non of the unpasteurized milk revolution in Vermont, “it doesn’t go nearly far enough.” Lisa milks 20 to 22 Jerseys morning and night, 4 at a time in her pristine milking parlor and sells most of the milk to an organic dairy – “And I don’t make a cent,” she claims – and the rest to enthusiastic customers who drive up her rutted road to buy the milk Farm Fresh. Lisa spent an enormous amount of time working with Rural Vermont formulating the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 over the last 3 or 4 years, and she is desperately disappointed that she won’t be allowed to convert to selling all of her milk from the farm. At least this year. Everyone concerned is hoping against hope that ALL of the Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 will become a reality in 2009.

Lisa’s little Jerseys are beautiful and calm and friendly. Perhaps I became overzealous as I petted one’s big golden head and neck, for she wrapped them right around me and nearly lifted me off my feet. Lisa laughed. “She wants to climb right into your lap,” she said.

John Pollard’s story is slightly more dire. He plunked his dozen or so sweet little hand-milked Jerseys down on an isolated Mount Holly farm last year, and does not sell their milk to Big Dairy, but only to his own so-far-short list of farm fresh milk customers. His milking parlor is so clean I wondered where he milked his cows! I would have no qualms about spreading a gingham cloth and picnicking there.

But he doesn’t seem discouraged, and he does have hope for next year. “Legislators are hearing that more and more people are demanding the personal freedom to choose their own food and a year from now I think they’re going to hear it even stronger.”

I spoke to some passionate drinkers of unpasteurized milk. Jaynie Smith in Springfield, told me, “I buy my milk from Lisa because I know how she treats and feeds her cows and also how careful she is when she milks.” Jaynie was a registered Sanitation and Health Inspector in Massachusetts before she moved to Vermont, and it’s ironic that she describes herself as “... a bit of a germaphobe before I got trained. But the more I learned, the more I realized how important it is to build up our immunity, both by eating live foods and by exposing ourselves to the real world and not this sterilized world so many people embrace.” She’s not happy that the testing and standards have been stripped from this year’s milk bill. “I think that the testing was the public's safety net from preventing just any farm from selling their milk. There are many many farms that I have visited that I wouldn’t think of drinking milk out of their bulk tank.”

That observation is worth following up. “Pasteurization ... gave farmers license to be unsanitary,” Nathanael Johnson writes in his excellent article in the April Harper’s called “The Revolution Will Not be Pasteurized”. Read it to get a new perspective on the synergy between human bodies and microbes, especially those provided to us by raw milk, which Johnson calls the “ur-food”. He quotes an expert as saying, “bacteria are... so important (to us) that researchers studying the microbes living inside us say it’s unclear where our bodily functions end and the functions of microbes begin.” Think about that. Does a wound heal, does an eye blink, because our body functions that way or because it benefits a body of microbes – those very microbes that are being pasteurized out of our food supply – to make it happen?

Jaynie has a nice perspective on pasteurization. “Pasteurized milk is a mixed bag,” she says. “It’s like a Petri dish – you’re basically sterilizing everything, and hoping that it won’t get contaminated after sterilization, because it’s a bacteria breeding ground, there’s no competition. Raw milk has it’s own fighting-back capability.” And that’s no laughing matter: two people died in Massachusetts just after Christmas from drinking contaminated pasteurized milk. This is liable to happen more often as we continue to put more trust in zapping our food to kill bad bacteria, and pay no attention or little to the processing of it.

David Gumpert wrote an article for the Sunday Boston Globe a few weeks ago called “Got Raw Milk?” and conducts a lively conversation about the subject on his blog, thecompletepatient.com, He says, “The CDC doesn’t seem to know which foods cause the 76 million (annual, food-borne) illnesses, but based on various studies, the main culprits are deli meats, hamburger, seafood, and various prepared foods from restaurants and fast-food outlets. I don’t hear anyone proposing to prohibit children from consuming any of these foods.”

Why do some continue to see only danger instead of benefit in unpasteurized milk? “Our public health and medical establishments continue to operate under assumptions stemming from outbreaks of illness a century and more ago,” Gumpert writes. “The reality today, thanks to refrigeration, improved sanitation, mechanization, and a serious commitment to quality by a segment of dairy farmers, is much different, and much less threatening.

“Of the benefits of raw milk, most proponents agree that milk in its natural state is full of beneficial enzymes, vitamins, proteins, and bacteria - most of which are altered or killed off by pasteurization. A growing body of evidence from university research conducted around the world suggests these nutrients help counter conditions as diverse as asthma, allergies, colitis, and diabetes.” In other words, all the chronic illnesses that have crept up on us over the last fifty to 100 years.

One of the tenets of the original Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2008 stipulates that consumers should buy their milk directly from the farmer, and suggests some guidelines to look for when you visit the farm. Make sure that cows graze on pasture when possible and are fed hay when in barns during winter; that cows receive minerals as supplements or from mineralized soils and plants; that grain feeding is a minor dietary component; that teats of cows are clean and dry before milking; that cows are milked in a clean barn or milking parlor; that milk is kept chilled; and that farmers are working “in tune with nature” to ensure the absence of pathogens – that is, cows are not pushed to produce large quantities of milk, the soil is fertile, and cows live in a low stress environment.

Indeed, when I spoke to Chuck Gregory, who has written several letters to the editor of the Herald warning of the dangers of raw milk, he said that he had grown up drinking raw milk and had never been ill from it. His concern, he said, “is for young parents who latch onto the latest fashion, thinking it sounds cool, and say ‘oh, let’s go get some raw milk,’ never thinking to inspect the cows and the milking process.” Which of course we all agree with, but it is a good reminder.

As is this: the goal of increasing the amount of raw milk that can be sold in Vermont is not to take pasteurized milk off the shelves, or to convert pasteurized milk drinkers to unpasteurized, but to give consumers the choice and the right to buy from their local farmers those foods they choose to consume. Prohibition of any food, whatsoever, creates cognitive dissonance in this brain!

Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the Senate approves the slim bill this year, and that both Houses buckle down with Rural Vermont to finish it next year, to provide a wholly satisfying Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act of 2009!

Thank you, Rural Vermont.

this column originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on 4/01/08

1 comment:

SPN said...

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"Lovely column!"