Dairy Herdshare Told to Cease Operations by Massachusetts Dept. of Agriculture
Former 1st Assistant Attorney General Takes the Case
by Kimberly Hartke
Brigitte Ruthman is 50 years old, a career journalist who now lives on a small 36 acre farm near the Sandisfield State Forest in Massachusetts. As a young girl she became fascinated with farm life, she begged her father to allow her to work on a number of farms in Connecticut, and Vermont. The lessons she learned as a teenage farm hand stayed with her. As she describes, the farm work “stung her with an infection she couldn’t ignore–a love for cows.”
Brigitte worked as a reporter for 30 years, even served as a bureau chief, and still works as a journalist today, while farming part-time in Sandisfield, population 800. On her farm she produces and sells eggs from a flock of 80 heirloom hens, Auracanas, Bantams and Barred Rocks. She raises a few pigs and has several cows.
Brigitte senses that in Massachusetts, demand for raw milk is exploding, and so is the persecution and bullying of small farmers.
At one time, she looked into becoming certified to sell raw milk. The inspector came to her farm and told her she did many things wrong. So, Brigitte requested the rules for a class A dairy be sent to her. She was mailed a book 2 inches thick of regulations that the even the inspector didn’t seem to understand. To a start-up farmer like Brigitte, the hurdles were literally impossible to leap.
Ownership Contract Enables Farmer to Move Forward
Ruthman contacted Pete Kennedy, of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), and he recommended that for her situation, the best alternative was a herdshare program. She joined FTCLDF and she used the legal documents they provided.
Her one milking heifer, Daisy, provides way more milk than her small farmsteads needs. With a herdshare contract, Brigitte can sell part ownership in Daisy and invite other owners to share the boarding costs. Each cow owner becomes an owner of the resulting milk.
To date, Brigitte has only 3 investors in Daisy, a state trooper, an engineer and a retiree she describes as “an intellectual”.
It seems the ag officials in Massachusetts don’t like her sharing her cow with others. On August 8, a cease and desist came order through the mail, a second one was waiting for her at the post office, plus, a third copy was hand delivered to her door. The regulators apparently don’t approve of private contracts, and sent their disapproval in triplicate.
In their order, the government cited her farm’s listing on the realmilk.com site. This website helps consumers learn about the dietary benefits of grass-fed cow and goat milk, and lists farms in each state where these dairy products are available. This Campaign for Real Milk is a project of the nutrition education non-profit, the Weston A. Price Foundation.
The day I interviewed Brigitte, someone had just called her asking about raw milk. “I am not at liberty to say. It makes me so angry that I am not free to say what I do.”
To her knowledge, she is the only one in Massachusetts to have started a dairy farm from scratch. She has the only dairy cows in her town which once had hundreds, and there are very few in neighboring counties. Other raw dairy farms in Massachusetts were retrofitted from conventional grade A dairies. There are about 23 of them.
The Passionate Homesteader
Brigitte is fiercely proud of the green pastures she has created. She started the farm in 1996 out of nothing. She cleared the land herself over a period of many years and fenced in the field. Next, she built a house in such a way as to preserve the field. After extensive research she bought the best milking shorthorns she could find, an heirloom breed with a great temperament, they also make great beef cattle. Brigitte then built her barn from old timbers from a demolished 1700 barn. She found and restored old stanchions from 1940′s. The antique stanchions in her milking area make the barn look like something out of history.
Daisy cost $1000, she was best calf Brigitte could find. She raised her from a newborn, because it was less expensive than buying a full grown heifer. Her plan was to get a good breeding calf, and grow her farm slowly. She bred her for the first time last summer, on April 6 Daisy had a calf at 4:00am. It was a difficult delivery, a huge calf. No vet was available to come and help, there aren’t any vets anymore because of the lack of dairy farms.
She had to deliver the calf herself, with only the distant memories as a teenage farmhand to guide her. It was a harrowing experience, but she was rewarded with a healthy female calf, a sign to Brigitte that her dairying efforts would prosper.
“Ruby Mae is the most beautiful calf ever. She is being fed raw milk and is thriving,” exclaimed Brigitte.
She splits Daisy’s milk between the calf, Ruby Mae during the day, and the pigs in the evening, and the rest goes to Brigitte’s household and her three investors.
Regulations are Strangling Farm Start-ups
The law in Massachusetts is that a farm must be a licensed class A dairy to sell either raw or pasteurized milk. The rules do not address herdshares, as is true in many states where herdshare programs are operating. It is technically not illegal because drinking unprocessed milk from a cow you own is legal in all 50 states.
It would cost Brigitte $80,000 to become a licensed class A dairy. At this point, she has already invested everything she could scrape together, even working three jobs, which was $60,000. “No banker would loan me money for one or two cows,” she demures.
According to Brigitte, the words from the officials in Massachusetts are “the harshest words I have ever heard as an American citizen.” And, all because she sought a legal way to enter into farming that was affordable and scaled to her size farm.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts vs. The Smallest of Farms
On Monday, August 23, Brigitte’s attorney, Doug Wilkins of Cambridge, the former First Assistant Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, sent a letter and complaint, presenting the Commonwealth with its own challenge. Wilkins requested a withdrawal of the cease and desist order, and asked for a hearing or informal discussion with the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources to explore “reasonable measures that would allow farmers to supply the demand for cow shares.”
In his letter and complaint he referred to his client as “the smallest of businesses”, and the officials as being harsh and out of their jurisdiction, saying, they “have no statutory authority to regulate the sale of a cow or any interest therein.”
The officials responded the day after they received it, by rescinding their cease and desist order, but reiterated their demands in the rescission letter.
While she awaits her conversation with the Ag department officials, Brigitte is abiding by the order, and it is killing her to have to dump her milk.
The fate of one very earnest female farmer and her beloved, hard won farm, and the future of herd and cow share in Massachusetts will be determined by the outcome of the discussions both parties are heading toward.
Kimberly Hartke is the Publicist for The Campaign for Real Milk and the Weston A. Price Foundation. She and her husband are the owner of 2/26′s of a cow named Aster in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Raw dairy and other traditional foods are helping her overcome chronic knee pain.
See also, Brigitte’s prepared testimony for the May 10 Public Hearing on Farm Buying Clubs.
Take Action! If you believe the interests of the citizens of Massachusetts would be better served by the state finding a way to support sustainable small dairy farms rather than regulating them out of business, send your letter to:Scott J. Soares, Commissioner and cc: Michael Cahill, Director of Division of Animal Health
both at the same address:Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources 251 Causeway Street, Suite 500, Boston, Massachusetts 02114