Small Farmer Speaks Out about Raw Milk Access in Massachusetts

brigitte-ruthman

Brigitte Ruthman nursing her young calf, Ruby Mae

My Testimony before the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, May 10, 2010

By Brigitte Ruthman, Joshua’s Farm

These are the remarks I prepared for the hearing, my actual oral testimony may vary slightly from this text.

I own a small farm in Sandisfield, a small Berkshire County town which once had dozens of dairy farms. There are no others dairy cows here or in any neighboring town. People bring their children here to show them what a cow looks like.
I might be the only person in The Commonwealth to have launched a dairy enterprise in the current mine filled landscape. I brought back land that hadn’t been farmed in years, and am negotiating for the use of adjoining pastureland which is for sale as house lots. It is beautiful, historic high ground the state has rejected for protection because the soil type isn’t a priority.

My personal investment in this business is now over $60,000. I am nurturing a small herd of milking shorthorn cattle on pasture.

All of the raw milk dairies in the state have retrofitted existing milkrooms. New construction built to meet confusing requirements are prohibitively expensive under your regulations and must include a septic system for even one cow, impermeable walls in certain designated areas, a drainage system, hot and cold running water, and refrigeration and bottling systems. Not all of these rules are necessary to provide a safe product.

I am confused by why this hearing was called in the first place. No one was sickened, nor has anyone ever been sickened by real milk. Although I am not dependent on buyers clubs, your proposed changes are troubling and serve to further erode the ability of small dairies to survive. If this pops up arbitrarily, what’s next? A ban on cow share? A crackdown on manure piles?

Your department dispatched a press release Friday night, backtracking on plans to ban buyers clubs. Your press releases have been filled with what can and can’t be discussed at this hearing, leading to confusion. Isn’t “can’t” what delivered passionate farmers to this very place about 235 years ago to wrestle free from strangulating taxes and regulations?

I must assume then that my remarks fit somewhere in your commitment, as of Friday only, to look at raw milk through a broader lense. To wit, I refer to your words “a broader inquiry into the milk market as it relates to raw milk pursuant to general laws.”

Let me be clear. Farmers I know– the few left– welcome regulation and testing to confirm what we have already assured through good herdsmanship– that this product is safe. It’s a strong statement in an age of liability. You have the chance to work with a public increasingly impatient with “can’t.” and want to exercise their civil and constitutional rights to make their own decisions.

It is therefore troubling to us that mysterious exigencies are compelling you to create more- not fewer rules. With all due respect to Mr. Gumpert, who just said leave the system the way it is because it’s fine- I offer that it is not fine.

If I walk a cow from my farm down the road to Connecticut, her milk taken on Connecticut land would fall under another set of rules- I could perhaps sell it through a retail business for instance, not so in Massachusetts. The rule book you sent me is two inches thick- filled with rules that are open to interpretation.

Please treat farmers as individual business owners deserving individual scrutiny. It might be okay to waive a required $20,000 septic system if you have a clean milking area, and low bacteria counts where effluent is efficiently removed.

In Vermont, where I once worked on a dairy that sold to Agrimark, no milk ever had to be thrown away even though it should have been occasionally when part time milkers left dirty trails. We knew it was okay to drop the milking claw- the suction apparatus that adheres to the udder to collect milk- into the gutter where it sucked up manure into the bulk tank. We often wondered if city people knew they were drinking sanitized manure.

There is Revolution in the air. If you fail to allow reasonable access, this market will be driven underground. You see the passion of buyers here today. Already, milk is flowing in these towns and being distributed like bootleg whiskey in Prohibition. It is not a situation anyone wants- and sets up risks for irresponsible behavior. Responsible farmers want to be held accountable.

Take the opportunity to go further than your withdrawal of the planned ban on buyers clubs. Make is easier for small farmers who believe in what they are doing to meet the demand for real milk. You will not place the public health at risk. Remember, this is Massachusetts.

Brigitte Ruthman is the owner of Joshua’s Farm in Standisfield, Massachusetts.

Learn more about the plight of small farmers by reading the related story, Joshua’s Farm vs. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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