Heavy Fog
Creative Commons License photo credit: minniemouseaunt

This opinion editorial that I wrote, recently ran in Lancaster Farming, a trade publication that goes to many farmers on the East Coast of the United States.

According to Chuck Fry 2nd VP of the Maryland Farm Bureau, in 2009 Maryland may lose 30 percent of their nearly 600 dairy farms, due to the faltering economy and falling milk prices. Pressure on farmers to produce more milk will cause a glut and further depress prices. Yet, farm industry representatives were curiously resistant to change at a March 17, 2009 hearing before the House Health Committee in Annapolis on two bills that would legalize the distribution of raw milk to consumers.

Are these losses acceptable in order to preserve the status quo?

There is one way to avert disaster:  Restore the rights of farmers to legally distribute raw milk pursuant to private contracts with consumers—a right denied to farmers since 2006 when the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene redefined cow boarding agreements as a sale of raw milk.

The passage of HB 1080, would help enterprising farmers break free of this downward debt spiral by enabling them to 1) raise capital through the sale of an ownership interest in a cow or herd, 2) create a monthly income stream by boarding livestock for owners and charging monthly fees,  3) make more money with fewer cows.

Bobby Prigel, 4th generation dairy farmer whose herd currently numbers 180, testified that cow boarding , “is an opportunity for Maryland farmers to be  paid for their expertise in animal husbandry rather than being tied to the fluidity of commodity prices.” Prigel is among the Maryland farmers who support the cowshare bill.

The passage of HB1080 would satisfy the growing demand for fresh farm milk and at the same time reduce the glut of raw milk destined for pasteurization, thereby helping to stabilize conventional dairy prices.

Industry leaders worry about liability, public health issues. Pete Kennedy, attorney and Interim President of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund says that, “cow boarding agreements, in particular, are less likely to generate lawsuits than a typical transaction because of the close bond formed between the farmer and shareowners.” A grade A dairy farmer in Virginia, who has operated a  cow boarding program for the last 8 years, says that public health can be protected by certification and testing programs and that her insurance premiums have not increased as a result of her boarding program.

This Virginia farmer without a boarding program would have to milk 60 cows to make the same income that her 20 boarded cows produce. She says the program has been a godsend.

Consumers who wish to buy local will support start-up farms and traditional artisan dairy farming. The buy-local trend is encouraging more young people than ever before to consider farming as a career. Yet the current cost to enter the field is prohibitive. HR 1080 provides an alternative business model that will allow many farms to become financially viable.

Kimberly Hartke is publicist for the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition education non-profit, and the Farm-to-Consumer Foundation, which teaches farmers how to conduct direct sales.  She and her husband own 2/26’s of a cow named Aster in her home state of Virginia. Visit her blog Hartkeisonline.com.

NOTE: This bill failed to get out of committee. See related posts.