After Nearly 300 Years, Can Lawton’s Farm Survive Local Regulators Out to Crush Raw Milk?
Lawton's Family Farm in Foxborough, MA, is one of the oldest farms in the U.S., the only remaining dairy of any kind in the Boston area’s Norfolk county. As such, it has survived revolution, hurricanes, economic depression.
But can it survive local regulators out to crush raw milk?
Lawton’s Family Farm got its start in 1732, when the Lawton family was bequeathed thousands of prime land by the Britain’s King George. Now in its 13th generation of the Lawton family, the farm has shrunk via divisions among family members and land sales to 25 acres. It sits less than two miles from Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots.
Since the 1980s, it sold its milk through conventional channels. Eight years ago, it began yet another transition in its long history-- from conventional dairy to raw dairy, which it completed in just the last few years, to avoid joining thousands of other conventional dairies around the country, the 90% that have disappeared since 1970 due to brutal consolidation and low milk prices.
But now it faces the biggest crisis in its nearly 300-year history as it finds itself face-to-face with forces that over that long history have usurped huge power over our lives: petty bureaucrats who have decided they don’t like the way the food the Lawton family produces. It’s an America far removed from that in which the Lawton family began farming--one in which a few people revel in small powers that allow them to shuffle papers and manipulate rules so as to deprive their neighbors of their very livelihood and of access to healthy local food, all the while earning nice paychecks and working toward comfortable retirement pensions.
Prior to moving the farm into the raw milk business, Terri Lawton, 33, spent two years as a dairy inspector for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. She left, she says, because “I didn’t want to make old men cry any more” when they had trouble keeping their dairies up to regulations and she had to penalize them.
I wrote a lengthy article about Lawton’s Family Farm five years ago, for the Boston Globe Magazine. At the time, the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources praised Terri Lawton for having “gone above and beyond” the state’s safety guidelines.
For reasons still not clear, the Foxborough Health Department decided it needed to intrude itself into the raw milk regulatory process--currently overseen by the commonwealth of Massachusetts--and is proposing tough new regulations for Lawton’s Family Farms' raw milk, beyond what the state requires. The new regs seem designed to create enough new expenses and uncertainty that Terri Lawton may well call it quits for the farm. In a letter to customers last week, Lawton wrote: "Our Health Agent is VERY anti-raw-milk and vows to get rid of your choice by making these regulations so extreme as to be difficult to maintain and sell….These town regulations will likely put us out of business."
I put in a call to the health agent, Pauline Clifford, last week, but she didn’t return my call. (Maybe you’ll do better: here is her contact info: email@example.com, 508-543-1207. On emails, please cc: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com;
Lawton wonders why the town is paying so much more attention to her than to the neighboring New England Patriots. ""You'd think they'd be more concerned with monitoring the food being served to 70,000 people at Gillette Stadium than the food I am serving to 200 people."
Not only has Lawton's Family Farm not had any illnesses from raw milk in its history, the entire state hasn't had a recorded illness at least since the late 1990s.
Massachusetts is one of about 20 states that allow raw milk sales from farms, in this case permitted by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. However, Massachusetts has an unusual variation in its dairy laws whereby individual towns can prohibit raw milk sales, and a few towns have done so back in the 1950s and 1960s, when a number of states did so as well. Foxborough, the town where Lawton’s Family Farm operates, has long allowed raw milk sales, similar to the towns where the remainder of the state's approximately 30 licensed raw milk dairies are located. It is unheard of for a Massachusetts town that allows raw milk production to initiate new regulations on top of the state's regulations, which require monthly inspections and testing of milk for cleanliness, and to want to take over dairy inspection responsibilities from the state’s staff of inspectors....until now.
Under the proposed Foxborough regulations, Lawton’s Family Farm would need to do the following:
- Test its milk on a weekly basis rather than the state's monthly requirement, and pay for all the new testing.
- If Lawton fails any test, it could be shut down for up to 30 days; the MDAR’s approach is to shut down a farm whose milk exceeds non-pathogenic bacterial maximums until the dairy produces a batch of milk that meets the requirements, usually a few days at most.
- Lawton would be prohibited from organizing a herdshare arrangement among her customers; Massachusetts has no laws on herdshares, but a few dairies have begun organizing them.
- Lawton would have to file an annual “plan review,” in order to renew her town-issued raw-milk permit, and the town could decide to reject her any December renewal time it wants.
- Perhaps most onerous, the farm would be required to regularly make available to the town its entire customer list. In the absence of any illnesses, it’s difficult to imagine why the town needs a list of customers....except maybe to pass them on to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been collecting such data. As you might imagine, Lawton customers aren't pleased. Kelly Bollman, a customer, said in a letter alerting other customers: "I find it invasive to require the farm to supply my name, address, e-mail and phone number to the Foxborough Board of Health along with what I purchase. If this is required in Foxborough for Raw Milk sales then all of the grocery stores in Foxborough that sell pasteurized milk should be held to the same standards. Shouldn't those who purchase pasteurized milk have equal treatment and be informed of the allowable amounts of antibiotics, hormones, GMOs and puss in the pasteurized milk they purchase?"
Finally, clever bureaucrats that these are, the proposed regulations stipulate that if any particular clause is invalidated (say, the herdshare provision), the rest of the regulatory package stays in effect.
Lawton says she has already had a taste of what life would be like under the proposed regulations. A few months ago, bacterial counts on her farm’s milk exceeded a state maximum, which necessitated a halt in sales. She blames the spike on a problem with cooling equipment. While her milk on a subsequent test two days later was well within state requirements, and the state okayed her re-opening. Foxborough’s Health Department objected to her being able to re-open so quickly, and kept her shut down for another six days by involving itself with the MDAR. Moreover, the town demanded a list of her customers, which she declined to provide, in the absence of either illnesses or the presence of pathogens in her milk.
The town in its introductory statement for the proposed regulations takes the classic regulator approach of the benevolent dictator handing out privileges: “Although the health risks from the consumption of raw milk have resulted in the total ban on the sale of raw milk in currently 17 states, the Foxborough Board of Health after careful consideration of all evidence presented at the public hearing, has determined that the adoption of this regulation imposing additional safeguards and sanitary requirements should be implemented to address the public health issues raised by the sale of raw milk to consumers.”
The underlying message: We won’t be as hostile as regulators in the other states, so we’ll allow raw milk, but only under nearly impossible conditions. The reality is that the statement about 17 states having “a total ban” on raw milk sales is completely inaccurate--among the states that don’t allow raw milk sales to the public, most, like Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia, allow herdshare arrangements.
Foxborough officials have been close-mouthed about the regulations. The town’s administrator pushed me off to the health inspector responsible for developing the new regulations, Pauline Clifford. As I said, she didn’t return my call.
But the officials will have to explain themselves this Monday evening. That’s when the three-person Foxborough’s Board of Health is meeting to vote on the regulations that could close Lawton’s Family Farm after nearly 300 years. The vote could well be close, so Terri Lawton is encouraging customers and other supporters to show up at the meeting, which begins at 7:45 pm. , at 8 Chestnut St. in the McGinty Room of the safety building/fire station in Foxborough. There is plenty of parking at a shopping mall across the street. (The town’s name is spelled both at Foxboro or, its official name, Foxborough.)
Foxborough’s local-crackdown approach is completely at odds with the trend in other New England states, led by Maine, which are adopting Food Sovereignty ordinances to allow private sales of farm products, outside of state and federal regulations.
Like in many of these conflicts, the outcome will eventually be up to farm customers and food rights supporters to communicate their outrage over bureaucratic maneuvering to destroy a local producer of nutrient-dense food.