Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Raw deal good for backyard dairies

Small-herd exemption opens local market for unpasteurized goat milk


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

Richard Barney and Leslie Moore produce goat milk on their farm in southern Blaine County. Here, Barney tends to 4-month-old goats as they drink raw milk from a bucket.

Milking cows and goats is still an informal household affair in many parts of the world—milk is taken fresh and consumed nearby without much fuss. But health codes in developed countries restrict the sale of milk that has not been produced and processed according to strict guidelines.

Those guidelines rankle some small-scale dairy producers in Idaho. It takes expensive equipment to meet the "Grade A" requirements of the Idaho Agriculture Department.

Pasteurization, the heating of milk to kill harmful bacteria, is the standard practice to ensure that milk is safe for sale in Idaho. However, a growing segment of the population would rather drink raw milk. They claim that pasteurization also kills beneficial bacteria.

Add this to the emerging "local food movement," an ethos that favors the farmer nearby, and you have a formula for activist dairy farming.

In fact, some people in the Wood River Valley have been violating the law to purchase raw milk on the black market from small-scale "backyard" dairies in Blaine County. Some have found creative ways to move the raw-milk market underground, saying the milk was for soap-making, or just building a network of consumers by word of mouth at farmers' markets.

In March, the Idaho Department of Agriculture passed a "small-herd exemption" for raw milk producers that is bringing above board some of these illicit raw-milk producers. The exemption allows dairy farmers with three cows or fewer, and seven or fewer goats or sheep, to produce and sell raw milk without spending $50,000 or more on equipment to bring their facilities up to standards previously required by the state.

"There is considerable demand for raw milk out there," said Idaho State Department of Agriculture Dairy Bureau Chief Marv Patten, who worked with the dairy industry, consumers and health officials to establish the rules for the exemption. "This is a way to bring backyard sales out into the open and provide sideboards around it to protect consumer health."

Idaho already had rules for raw-milk production, but they were only followed by three licensed dairy farms that invested as much $250,000 in stainless-steel piping, brick and mortar buildings, specific drainage equipment and other details required of a "Grade A" facility in Idaho.

Many smaller dairies could not afford the investment, yet needed to sell their milk in order to survive. Despite the state's prohibition, raw milk, cheese and yogurt from unlicensed dairies was showing up at farmers' markets and being sold to upscale consumers in the Wood River Valley.

Jillian Greenawalt operates the 20-acre Green Goat Farm in Gooding. Her "hand-capped" bottles of goat milk can be found at farmers' markets in Hailey, Ketchum and elsewhere. She opted for the small-herd exemption this summer.

"The requirements for making a Grade A dairy were insanely expensive," she said. "Now the animals pay for themselves in terms of grain and feed, which is great."

Greenawalt was hand-milking her goats until last spring when she invested in a vacuum-pump automatic milker.

"It cuts down on the milking time, but you spend that time sanitizing equipment," she said.

Greenawalt and other dairy producers working under the small-herd exemption are required to have their animals checked annually by a veterinarian for tuberculosis and brucellosis. A Department of Agriculture worker tests their milk monthly on site for levels of E. coli and other bacteria.

Proponents of raw milk believe it can be used to treat digestive problems, restore the immune system and that it is especially good for children. Hailey Montessori teacher Rachel Webster weaned her son on raw goat milk three years ago.

"I believe God intended us to consume food in its natural state," she said. "Raw milk is a nutrient-dense food full of beneficial enzymes and bacteria, which support our immune system. It is a healing food. And it tastes great."

Webster gets her goat milk from Leslie Moore's Cottonwood Farm near West Magic Reservoir in southern Blaine County, about 20 miles from Hailey. Moore's seven goats wander through her house and around her property, spending most of their time in a hayfield surrounded by state and federal land.

"They come back when they feel like it, always in time for milking," said Moore, who has been selling goat milk the last few years to pay for pet food, or trading it for meat and eggs. She milks by hand into open buckets and then strains the milk through coffee filters. The herd is milked and the milk refrigerated within 20 minutes. She gets 6 gallons per day from her goats.

"I only sell milk between consenting adults," Moore said. "It's not about the money, it's about the love and about food security. It's about being sustainable."

Moore said she sells her product to eight families in the Wood River Valley, including the patients of one doctor who prescribes raw milk for colicky babies. Her goats mix into a backyard farm where chickens eat scrap milk. The chickens then help the garden with their manure.

"You have a triangle of things helping each other. Goats are good at weed control and they don't overgraze if they are not confined to one spot," said Moore. "Idaho is very wise to realize that small is also beautiful. You don't have to do this with big capital and big investments. The market is there. With Michelle Obama, the foodies are in ascendancy."

Moore said she plans to get certified under the small-herd exemption as soon as she has the time.

"I have been too busy making cheese and yogurt," she said.

Patten said 20 small dairy herds have registered with the state since the exemption began in March and that no health problems have been reported from them. These small-herd producers are allowed to sell at grocery stores and farmers' markets, but not at restaurants where consumers may unwittingly consume unpasteurized milk products.

"This exemption will provide an opportunity for 4-H kids and others who want to dabble," Patten said.

With raw goat milk going for $6 per gallon, it will also provide some needed cash for small-scale farmers.

Conversely, some larger dairy operations are scaling down in the current economy, one that increasingly favors buying local.

Peter Dill owns St. John's Organic Farm in Emmett, Idaho. He raises grass-fed organic beef and milks 30 dairy cows to produce raw milk. He has been shifting production from organic pasteurized milk to raw milk in recent years due to demand.

Dill obtained one of the first raw-milk dairy licenses in Idaho three years ago, since the Department of Agriculture rules for raw milk were revised in the 1990s. He said he welcomes the small-herd producers.

Dill said he is sizing down due to a number of reasons and that the dairy industry in Idaho has generally been in "overproduction" in recent years.

"Smaller scale tends to be higher quality," Dill said. "The chance of it being fresher is better. Being able to talk to your farmer about farming practices is better, and spending money locally is supporting your neighbors. ... Raw milk is a developing market. We are watching to see where it goes."

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com




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