For the past sixty years, there hasn’t been much good news for America’s small dairies. Thanks to rising land costs and intensifying price pressures, the bucolic sight of cows grazing in the countryside has become ever less common. Since 1970 alone, the number of dairies has plunged an astounding 88 percent, to 75,000, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The consolidation means that factory-style dairies with between 1,000 and 5,000 cows have become increasingly common.
The one bit of encouraging news for small dairies has been the growing market among health-conscious consumers for unpasteurized milk and dairy products like yogurt, butter and cream. There may be a half-million or more raw-milk drinkers in the United States, with the number growing “exponentially,” says Sally Fallon, co-founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation, which encourages consumption of raw milk for its healthful enzymes, bacteria and proteins.
Small dairies have rushed to meet this need via a completely new business model. Instead of selling milk in bulk to processors who offer take-it-or-leave-it prices of $1.50 to $2 a gallon, some small dairies sell directly to consumers at whatever price the market will bear, typically from $5 a gallon to as much as $10 a gallon. At those prices, dairy farmers actually begin thinking in terms of a long-forgotten word: profit.
In New York state, which regulates direct sales of raw milk to consumers by issuing permits to dairies, the number of raw-milk dairies with permits has doubled to twenty from ten in 2005. The same sort of minirevival has occurred in other states that allow raw-milk sales direct from the farm, like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. In California–one of the few states that allow sales of raw milk via Whole Foods Market and other retail outlets–the largest raw-milk dairy, the 350-cow Organic Pastures Dairy Company, has seen its annual sales climb by 25 percent annually, to more than $5 million.
Arguing that raw milk isn’t safe and that consumers must be protected from its dangers, some government regulators and legislators are targeting small raw-milk dairies for tough enforcement actions, focusing most intensively on dairies in New York and California.
State regulators have supplemented inspections by obtaining search warrants, pushing restrictive legislation and even threatening to throw dairy farmers into jail. They’ve been encouraged by the US Food and Drug Administration, which in a sixty-four-slide PowerPoint presentation posted on its website last March, exhorted “everyone charged with protecting the public health to prevent the sale of raw milk to consumers….”
Barb and Steve Smith see New York’s ever-harsher tactics against their tiny Meadowsweet Farm as closely related to the rising demand for raw milk. They obtained a raw-milk permit in 1997 because they were desperate to extricate themselves and their nine children from the commodity bondage that dominated their lives from the time they purchased the farm in 1995. “We figured by selling milk to the processor we were getting about $1 an hour for our work,” says Steve.
The raw-milk option was slow going until 2005 and 2006, when demand began rising sharply. Anywhere from twenty to thirty customers would regularly visit their lonely outpost near Lodi, most of them from Ithaca, the home of Cornell University, which is about forty-five minutes away.