Steve Atkinson Decides That When It Comes to Raw Milk, If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

Greenwood_Milking.jpgLast seek, Steve Atkinson, owner of Greenwood Farms in Newburg, MO, received a letter from the Missouri State Milk Board. It stated, he says, that “it was illegal to sell raw milk” from his four cows without a permit, as he had been doing for a few years, and in order to receive a permit, he’d need to have his milk inspected and build an automated bottling plant.


The letter wasn’t a complete surprise, since Atkinson had heard of other sellers of raw milk receiving similar letters. So Atkinson (who is a contributor to this blog) had been doing some investigating, and discovered:


  • Setting up a bottling plant “is expensive,” costing on the order of $100,000 or more.
  • No other dairy has been licensed to sell raw milk in Missouri, apparently because of a dearth of applications.
  • The bacteria criteria for raw milk appear very doable, based on his own private tests of his dairy’s milk.

Steve’s reaction was different from the reaction of some farmers I have reported on previously who have been hit with government interference. “What everyone is doing in fighting the regulations is good, but that is not the tack we like to take.”


His approach is to try to comply with the regulations. He has informed his approximately 25 raw milk customers that he is shutting down raw milk sales, probably until early 2008, when he will have the bottling plant completed. (The photo above shows milking at his farm.) He'll likely have to borrow the money to complete the plant.


“I have to keep my eye on my primary goal. If it takes me years to do that (because of tied up in fights with the local agriculture officials), I may defeat my goal.”


His primary goal is to make his farm self-sufficient for his family, which includes two adult children who have moved back to the farm in recent years. And because he is 63 years old, he figures he doesn’t have a huge amount of time.


To achieve self-sufficiency, he has calculated that he needs to increase the size of his dairy herd to 12 or 14 cows from the current four. “It’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “Being in a community with your adult children all living together is a unique thing.”


Beyond self-sufficiency, he sees a clear business opportunity: to be Missouri’s only licensed raw milk seller, making milk available to customers coming to his farm, as well as hopefully via farmers markets.


Until now, he’s had to support his farming habit by working as a dentist. He recalls during the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic grabbed public attention, there were calls for dentists to take aggressive steps to guard against patient infection, such as by repeatedly sterilizing all tools and wearing plastic gloves. Many dentists fought the push for new rules, but he decided to embrace them, and alert patients to his AIDS-fighting techniques. “My practice became one of the most successful in Missouri,” he says.


He’s hoping to apply the same principle to raw milk.


How will he guard against regulators who, once he has a permit, decide to make life difficult for him for whatever reason? Well, for one thing, “When they come to take samples for testing, we’ll do split samples and send ours to our own lab.” And if they harass him further, "I'll fight back," he says.


While Steve is optimistic about his new path, his 25 customers aren’t. “They are angry at the government. Some of them want us to do a cowshare, so we won’t be subject to inspection. But I think they might come after us for that. Besides, all the paperwork seems more than I want to get into.”


So his customers will have to find other milk, or just wait a few months.


Is Steve being pragmatic, or naïve? Only time will tell for sure. Some of the New York farmers who have gotten into trouble over highly questionable listeria findings in their milk would probably think he’s being naïve.


One thing that is clear, though, is that regulators around the country are clamping down, coming after smaller farms, rule books in hand, demanding compliance with all regulations, whether it be for pasteurization or slaughtering meat or registering under the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The days of informal arrangements between farmers and customers may be gradually drawing to a close.




I’d just like to add something to the discussion on my previous posting about the comparison between laws regulating seat belts and food.


A lawyer once explained to me that in the legal scheme of things, driving is “a privilege.” There is no constitutional or other legal guarantee of a right to drive a car. Thus, the government can issue or withdraw the privilege at its whim. From that perspective, seat belt laws become just another condition of receiving the privilege (in addition to maintaining inspection standards, driving safely, etc.)


I don’t think the “promote the general welfare” clause of the Constitution’s preamble is meant to supersede the subsequent contract clause I discussed. More likely “public safety” will be a key factor in the coming legal tests. As the “buy-direct” movement gathers steam, the argument for safety may unofrtunately carry more weight in the minds of legislators and judges, ever mindful of being blamed for not doing enough, despite what consumers themselves want.


God help us if, as David says, The days of informal arrangements between farmers and customers may be gradually drawing to a close. Sadly, he may be right, because those sorts of relationships have been scuttled in every possible way and in every possible venue, by power brokers who recognize that they either cant make money or cant exercise control when consumers and suppliers have a face-to-face relationship. I mourn the direction of America in that regard, and am terribly saddened that Americans seem blind to the change. I attribute it to being relatively well off financially, and lazy, which breeds complacency, and makes us an easy mark.

But food is differentits a flash point for concerns about freedom, causing them to draw a line in the sand over government dictates and business bullying. (Why else would Steve Atkinsons customers be angry despite the fact that Steves plan still provides them with the product they want?) I have high hopes that food freedom will become a lever that the grass roots uses to turn this trend around. I appreciate Steves position, and in fact believe that, at least in the short run, compliance is the safest route for him and his family. But its just that sort of compliance that feeds the bureaucrats, and strengthens the devil of third-party control of our lives.

A friend yesterday shook his head over the avalanche of civil lawsuits that have become an identifying mark of American life. What happened to just apologizing? He asked. Well, the answer is that systems cannot provide real human relationships, so their apologies cannot be trustedthey will never be more than paper (as is true, for that matter, of everything a system says). We must restore relationships if we are to become human again. Reinstituting local economies, local control, and face-to-face meetings with consumers and producers is a great way to get there. Promoting farmer-consumer relationships is a great way to get started. Relying on, or God help us, encouraging, distant third parties to certify, direct, and control, is 180 degrees in the wrong direction.

David: I disagree with your gloom concerning the demise of "informal" arrangements. Just because regulators are swarming does not mean that every small farmer can/should plop down six-figure outlays just so they can expect more of the same discretionary enforcement initiatives, now with much more to lose. There are different compliance approaches. One of them certainly is, assuming you have the resources, to ante up the entrance fee and hope for the best. I certainly hope Steve succeeds in his approach, and I'm the last to criticize him. Indeed, it might be the way I would choose to do it in the circumstances. We can't give up the fight for more choice at lower levels of cost and regulation, however. The rules, and their often-arbitrary enforcement, must bend to the twin realities that the food choices which industry brings us are sickening, and the food choices that have been available since the dawn of agriculture (and before) are simple, reliable and healthful. In fact, with modern technological aids of refrigeration, stainless steel, and testing, the simple ways are better than ever.

Steve's customers are probably not only upset at the disruption to their supply, but when Steve is ready to sell again, he will undoubtedly have to raise the price of the milk to help cover the cost of this equipment. Just like everything the government tries to "fix" it ends up costing consumers more money and does nothing to fix the REAL problems. "Grass Roots" takes on a whole new meaning when you apply it to the food movement.

Totally off topic..were burning down in Southern California. Anna lives in San Diego County. Shes right in the midst of the evacuation areas. This morning I heard, in one specific area, they were evacuating 250 people.

Anna..I hope you and your family are O.K.


Yes, I also hope that you and your loved ones are safe, Anna.
And my heart goes out to all the people in San Diego County that have lost their homes, or been evacuated. I lived in Poway for 10 years, and we never had any fires remotely as bad as the ones that are now raging.

I fail to see how this can be a good thing. This will only embolden regulators and threaten the raw milk supplies of other MO consumers. Expensive regulations such as these have nothing to do with safety and everything to do with anti-competitiveness and raising the bar to entry. He is gaming the system. What he is doing will pay off big if the state shuts down his competition, leaving him standing as the only supplier.

Thanks very much for the worries about me and my family during the San Diego County fires. The air was getting really bad Monday and my husband is out of the country at a protein society meeting, so when the evacuation call came (I didn't realize it was volutary at that time), my son and I, plus the two cats, and the few things I could fit in one of our (small) cars, did evacuate for two nights to a location a few miles north and closer to the coast. We went with another family and their animals to their parents' very small condo; I was glad to have the company and haven. We came home yesterday to a intact property only covered in soot and ash, as the fire stopped its advance on the eastern edge of my community. But at one point there were predictions it would burn to the coast and our home could have been right in the path. Of course so many others are not so fortunate and will have a lot of work rebuilding their homes and communities over the next few years. If the weather remains good, the worst of the damage is over, though the fights with the insurance companies will start soon, I'm sure. I've seen it happen with others I know who lost homes in previous fires.

I had a laugh when I spoke to my mother yesterday. She said my aunt figured even in evacuation I had grabbed my organic egg supply on the way out and was serving them up to everyone for breakfast. Yup!!! I even brought the raw milk and butter.

Anna.Im glad to hear all is well. Today and tomorrow Murrieta and Temecula schools are closed. The air quality is awful. Smoke from three different fires has accumulated in our community. The sky has been haunting. Hopefully by the weekend, the fires will be under control and the air pollution will diminish.

Oh the life in Southern California: fires, earthquakes and droughts.

Oct. 26, 2007 RAW MILK

Missouri Statute # 196.935 guarantees that a person may buy and have delivered for his own use raw milk or cream from a farm.

The Atkinsons are the third family to be told, in 2007, that they should not sell the ungraded raw milk to which MO citizens are entitled, by law. The first family was warned in June 2007, the second in early October 2007, and now, late October 2007.

The Missouri Milk Boards position is that the raw milk referred to in the statute is actually supposed to be graded milk produced under regulation (rules and directives). Read the law and see for yourself.

Alternately, the Missouri Milk Board claims that all raw milk which is not graded is considered Manufacturing Grade milk to be sold to processors such as cheese factories. This doesnt make sense, since the citizens who are entitled to buy for their own use- their raw milk and cream from the farm, arent manufacturers.

In addition, the Missouri Milk Board refers to two non-binding Attorney General Opinions in setting its policies. Neither of these opinions denies a citizens right to buy ungraded raw milk or cream from a farm in fact one clearly reinforces that right. Neither opinion even implies that raw milk or cream from a farm should or must be graded. One opinion states that graded milk must be produced under regulations. Nothing wrong with that. The other opinion holds that although citizens may buy and have delivered raw milk or cream from the farm premises where it originated, the farmer may not distribute from a separate location such as a farmers market.

In all cases the basic legal principle is that a statute controls or holds sway over any regulations. If the Missouri Milk Board has promulgated regulations which contradict the statute, the statute is what citizens and enforcement agencies are supposed to follow. The statute is the law, voted on by the elected officials of the legislature and signed by the governor. The Milk Board is overstepping its authority when it tries to obstruct legal commerce and by denying citizens the right to follow their law.

The Missouri Milk Board has no policing power, but can refer a case to the County Prosecutor (via the County Health Department), or to the Attorney General, either of whom may bring charges of misdemeanor.

WE COULD USE a new non-binding Attorney Generals Opinion. This is posed in a question format (which must be asked by someone of significance such as a legislator), and is answered by the Attorney General. The question to be asked should be, In Statute 196.935, are Missouri citizens entitled to buy and have delivered for their own use, ungraded raw milk and cream directly from a farm?

The Atkinsons have worked hard towards obtaining their Grade A standard, and have almost completed the requirements. It is unfortunate indeed that the Missouri Milk Board claims that in the meantime, their customers must be denied their legal supply of ungraded raw milk.