Lots of fun yesterday at the fund-raising event for the Raw Milk Network of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Delicious home-cooked food (egg nog, quiches, salad, an array of homemade desserts) and wonderful people (more on that in a bit).
Cliff Hatch, owner of Upinngil Farm, which hosted the event, gave the 25 or so participants a tour of the farm, with its 20 cows, who graze on some 20 acres of lush pasture. He told us how he’s gradually expanded over the last ten years from two cows that were just supplying his family and a few friends with raw milk to a thriving operation.
The center of the operation has become a small farm store, where he sells raw milk along with cheeses, kefir cultures, and other such goodies. It’s become a replacement for the town’s general store, which closed a few years back. A cute train that runs near the ceiling (pictured below) keeps the children entertained. He’s done it all without taking on the risks of debt.
The attendees included raw dairy and cheese producers, veterinarians, a student, another journalist. Cliff had lots of heads nodding when he observed at the end of his tour: “It’s crazy to think that we can’t milk seven cows safely. It’s not that complicated. To say that it’s inherently dangerous is like an argument from the Middle Ages.”
Following my talk, about the challenges dairy farmers face with regulators, there were lots of questions about my take on the regulatory process, and the wide gap between regulators and raw milk dairies/consumers. I pointed out that, despite the signs of a renewed crackdown in Wisconsin and Georgia, there have been some signs of thawing, of a new understanding of some of the issues. One example I used was my posting on the recent series on the Marler blog about pasteurized vs unpasteurized milk, which acknowledged the differences between raw milk from conventional dairies and raw milk intended to be sold raw. A number of the attendees were skeptical about my effort to see the raw milk glass as half full rather than half empty.
Then I leave the session, and see this cute posting on the Marler blog, saying I deny the existence of illnesses from raw milk, and I have to think the skeptical attendees have a point.
Sylvia Gibson took the words right out of my mouth in her comment following my previous post: “Wow, David, Must have missed the post where YOU said raw milk outbreaks do NOT happen.”
The exchange between Lykke and Sylvia that follows Sylvia’s observation are insightful as well in highlighting the communication problems over raw milk safety. You think you’ve said something conciliatory, and the other side hears it as hedging. You think you’ve said something positive, and the other side hears it as negative.
But getting back to the Marler blast, I’ve said it more times than I like to count, most recently in connection with the Wisconsin illnesses, that people can become ill from raw milk. Now, Bill Marler knows I’ve said that. So you have to ask the question: Why would he choose to ignore my statements that completely contradict his headline?
I think there are a number of issues, one of which is what the illnesses that have occurred, or may have occurred, really signify. Do they signify a serious health problem? I say no. Do they signify that some raw dairies could do a better job of producing clean milk? Very possibly. The dairy owners I’ve met are nearly unanimous in their desire to produce clean safe milk, and work very hard to do that. Yet I’ve argued as well that state agriculture departments and public health authorities could help on this score by providing assistance and guidance, instead of harassing and fighting to shut down raw dairies.
I discuss at some length in my upcoming book the realities of the safety and regulatory issues. It’s not simple stuff.
Unfortunately, it all gets back to my contention that the disagreements about raw milk have much less to do with public health than they have to do with politics. When you are fighting a political battle, you try to paint your opponents as extremists. If they try to adopt a more conciliatory approach, you work extra hard to portray them as extremists.
Being reasonable and flexible means dealing with nuance and complexity. If you are against such reasonableness, then you try hard to keep things simple, and simplistic.