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