Foxboro, MA, Rallies Behind Lawton’s Family Farm, Defeats Questionable Local Raw Milk Regs
Ed Lawton began to get good vibes when he went for a haircut hours before the Foxboro Board of Health meeting Monday evening. “The barber told me I had one hundred per cent support in the town. And then he didn’t charge me for the haircut.”
As he strategized with several supporters just before the meeting, Lawton knew the vote would almost certainly be two-to-one....he just wasn’t sure whether the vote would be for the dreaded tough proposed town regulations of Lawton’s Family Farm, or for continued regulation by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, which he and his daughter, Terri, strongly preferred.
For the first nearly hour-and-a-half of the meeting--which had been moved to a middle-school auditorium after 150 people overflowed a meeting last month, forcing a postponement--it wasn’t clear how things would go. But the 300 or so people who attended this meeting made clear their wishes.
First they jeered Eric Arvedon, the Foxboro Board of Health member who initiated the proposal to put the home of the New England Patriots, a town of 16,000, into the raw milk regulation business. “We hear you,” he said, trying to placate the crowd. “But there have to be some guidelines.” He tried to defend one of the most contentious proposed local regulations-- that information about customers would need to be provided the town in the event of a high bacterial reading, but it wasn’t clear in his assessment what would be required and under what circumstances in terms of customer data. He also said the $3 million of liability insurance required for raw milk wasn’t an absolute requirement--Lawton’s would have to post notices at the farm if it didn’t have the insurance.
But then he made a startling admission: “We are not farmers. We are not dairy inspectors, or farm inspectors.” He made another startling admission when Ed Lawton stood up and told him the town didn’t have the authority to regulate the farm’s raw milk cheese--that he “didn’t realize” it was already federally regulated. And when he noted that the town’s regulations wouldn’t permit herd shares, he said, “I don’t know what a herd share is.”
Well, then, given all the knowledge and expertise deficiencies, why did he want the town to take over regulation of Lawton’s Family Farm and its raw milk production? “Raw milk is a ready-to-eat potentially hazardous food.” He said the town regulation initiative was driven by “some high bacterial counts” at Lawton’s that had led to two temporary halts in milk sales earlier this year.
Then one of Lawton’s customers, Lonnie, offered testimony on Lawton’s behalf. “I feel very strongly that the existing raw milk regulations (by the state) are working.” Loud applause. “In the past ten years, you are more than three times as likely to become ill from produce than from raw milk.” Even louder applause.
“Please,” Arvedon pleaded. “This is a working draft. We are trying to make a draft we can all live with.” Nothing doing.
All kinds of supporters of the Lawtons were waiting in the wings to testify against the town’s approach. Roger Noonan, president of the New England Farmers Union. Douglas Gillespie, executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation (yes, a Farm Bureau official helping defend a raw milk dairy). A neighboring town’s health inspector. A state representative.
Doug Stephan, a raw milk producer from nearby Framingham, MA, and himself the subject of a similarly contentious local debate four years ago, said, “I came here to support the Lawton’s Farm....I have 300 Jerseys in Framingham....The government, together with the corporations, have ruined the dairy business. The only way to do it is the way Lawton’s and we are doing it.” He added: “You have to have a good relationship with the Board of Health. If you do not have a good relationship, it will not work.”
To which Ed Lawton took the microphone again: “We don’t have the relationship. The relationship won’t work.”
Two more Lawton’s supporters spoke in favor of the farm and its raw milk. An hour-and-a-half had gone by. Six more people stood in line at the microphone near the stage, waiting to speak. The Board of Health members could see the writing on the wall. Before the third person could take the microphone, Board of Health member Paul Steeves interrupted. He moved for the board to approve a resolution “allowing the sale of raw milk in Foxboro....with no stipulation about regulation except for the state.” Board chairman Paul Mullins seconded the motion, to loud applause, and within a couple minutes, the whole battle was over....but not before the two board members who had voted to save Lawton’s from town regulation awkwardly explained their decision to acquiesce.
Steeves waved a thick pile of papers. “These are just some of the emails we have received,” he said, anger rising in his voice. “Horrible emails, mean-spirited. Some very negative voice mails were left. It was uncalled for. We have been referred to as Gestapo. That being said, if you want to drink raw milk, have at it. If you want to sky dive, go ahead.”
Paul Mullins, the chairman, said, “We have heard your voice....I don’t want to be the Gestapo. I ride a motorcyle. That is dangerous.”
With that, the meeting was over, and Ed Lawton could breathe a sigh of relief. “The farm was on the line tonight,” he told me afterwards. He marveled at all the people that had come out to help save it.
Kristin Canty, producer of the documentary, Farmageddon, said afterwards the harsh emails to town officials shouldn’t have been a big surprise. “They were talking about taking people’s food. That will upset people.”
One of the more intriguing statements made at the Foxboro hearing came from Michael Hugo, chairman of the Framingham Board of Health, about the board’s transition in its thinking about raw milk. That town had several hearings in 2009 to consider revoking its ban on raw milk stemming from the 1950s, so as to allow dairy farmer Doug Stephan to transition from selling conventional milk to processors to selling raw milk directly to consumers.
“At first, everyone on the Board of Health was opposed to raw milk. We had three public hearings. The first was very contentious. By the third one, we began thinking, maybe we should allow it.” At that third hearing, the town passed its own regulations “to be more restrictive than the state.” He said he has heard that some customers seek out Stephans’ milk because its farm must abide by tougher bacterial limits. At least once a year, Stephans is briefly shut down by the town because the farm has exceeded the limits, he said.
“The lesson I came away with was that the Board of Health has to find a way to make it work.” Afterwards, Hugo told me: “These farms are treasures. We can’t lose them, because we will never replace them. The land will be taken for subdivisions and shopping malls.”
Nice to meet a transformed public health person.