By Deborah Stockton
Reprinted from the VICFA Voice Newsletter
(Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association)
Redmond Salt CEO Creates Cowshare Ban in Utah Bill
On March 12, 2007, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr., signed into law HB311, a bill legalizing sales of raw milk at retail stores in Utah, effective July 1, apparently making it more available to some people. Yet the bill’s provisions are bad for small farmers, bad for raw milk drinkers–and would-be drinkers, and bad law in principle. It is a rotten bill and reveals again the tendency of regulations to favor large businesses and hurt small ones.
HB311 bans cow and dairy shares; requires those who sell raw milk retail to be 51% or greater owner of the store where the milk is sold; and forbids the sale of raw milk where pasteurized milk is sold–that is at virtually all retail food stores. The bill essentially creates a legally enforceable monopoly on raw milk retail sales in Utah for a single large dairy, Foote Family Farms, owned by Rhett Roberts, CEO of Redmond Salt and creator of HB311. Between eliminating cow/dairy shares and the severe restrictions on retail sales making it virtually impossible for any new retail dairy sales to begin, Roberts has effectively written out the competition.
Where did such a strange, destructive bill come from?
The story begins several years ago, when Roberts’ store, “Real Food Market,” was found illegally distributing raw milk. The milk was produced at Roberts’ Foote Family Farm in sparsely populated southern Utah and shipped to the store in Orem, in Utah’s northern heavily populated Wasatch Front. The law at the time–and in effect until July 1 of this year, dictated that raw milk could only be sold at the licensed dairy farm where it was produced. Told by the Utah Department of Agriculture to stop, Roberts asked for a waiver, but was denied. Roberts then contacted his state representative, Bradley Johnson (who has since left the General Assembly) and engineered a meeting to address his situation with members of the Dept. of Agriculture. Present at the meeting were Roberts, his attorneys, Rep. Bradley Johnson, Commissioner of Agriculture Leonard Blackham, the Division Director of Agriculture (who has since left the department), Deputy Chief of Agriculture Kyle Stephens, and Attorney General Counsel for the Department of Agriculture Steve Ward.
According to Ward, during the course of the meeting, an “arrangement was hammered out with concessions on both sides,” such that Roberts would be distributing milk–to a limited degree, from the Orem store, while the Department of Ag “looked the other way.” When I asked Ward if the arrangement were illegal he said, “I can’t answer that, it would violate attorney-client privilege,” the client being the Dept. of Agriculture. When I asked if it were unequivocally legal, his answer was the same.
Though many close to the situation have known of this “arrangement” for years, it came to my attention when an exchange of emails about HB311 made the internet rounds. One such email came from Utah and included a letter from Ann King (dated January 22, 2007), of Real Food Market, to Real Food customers responding to customers’ requests for how they could help get HB311 passed. Toward the end of the letter King wrote:
“A few of you currently pick up milk in Orem. Please do not mention that. Most representatives are unaware of the arrangement we have with the Department of Agriculture and we do not want to confuse the issue. If the bill does not pass, all consumers will have to drive to the farm to purchase the milk.”
After reading this, I decided to look into it, and I called the Utah Department of Agriculture. I was referred to Commissioner Blackham, and when I read this paragraph and asked for an explanation, he laughed and said, “Oh, we chose to look the other way.”
I asked if this had been a formal waiver and he said no. I asked if Real Food Market/Foote Family Farm had gone through a formal process to receive this special arrangement and he said, no, and was no longer laughing. When I asked if the arrangement had been put in writing, he said no, it was all verbal, but he said he had had counsel. I asked if it had been counsel from the state and he said yes. I asked what counsel had advised and he didn’t answer me but mumbled something to the effect that, “it [the special arrangement] was what we decided to do.” I asked him if this set a precedent and he said no, there was no statute involved. I said I didn’t mean a statutory precedent, I meant if someone else asked for a similar “arrangement” would he grant it and he said, no, we would challenge it, because the new legislation fixes it.
Only the new legislation does not “fix” it, it makes the situation worse for everyone except Foote Family Farm/Real Food Market, the sole beneficiaries of the new bill.
Blackham said there was “some question” about whether Real Food Market was acting as an “agent” for Roberts’ employees to pick up milk at the Orem store, but rather then “go through the courts” to clarify that what they were doing was legal and open that option for all raw milk producers–or eliminate it for all, they chose to “look the other way” and allow this as a “temporary” situation with no time constraints–”A sort of ad infinitum temporary arrangement,” I said. “You could characterize it that way,” responded Blackham. Similar arrangements were not offered to any other raw milk dairies.
The email from Ann King would appear to be evidence that customers other than employees were routinely getting milk at the Orem store. A source in the Orem area says it was fairly common knowledge that considerable quantities of milk to considerable numbers of customers were being moved this way.
When the Utah bill first surfaced, many were excited that raw milk would be available in retail stores in Utah, it seemed like a step ahead. Then VICFA member Kathryn Russell read the bill closely and posted her observations to a an email group, prompting considerable discussion including questions to Roberts about his position and his role in orchestrating a bill that banned cowshares and severely constrained his competition. Following is an email (dated February 8, 2007), from Sally Fallon President of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and a response from Rhett Roberts.
SALLY FALLON: I am skeptical about this bill. It would outlaw cowshares. I think I see a strategy emerging here–pass legislation “legalizing” raw milk sales but banning cowshares. Then make it very difficult to obtain a license to sell raw milk, thereby keeping out many small farmers, and even all farmers (which basically happened in California for a period).
The Attorney General in Michigan told the Dept of Ag (MDA) that they had no jurisdiction over cowshares. So now the MDA is talking nice about putting something about cowshares in the legislation, so they would have jurisdiction.
Cowshares are such a wonderful model for a small farmer to get started. And actually, I don’t think bans on cowshares could hold up constitutionally, but if course it would be very long and expensive to pursue this in court.
Rhett Roberts’ response follows:
I wanted to alleviate your concerns about the Utah raw milk legislation. It will actually be a great win for raw milk. This is legislation that we have initiated and are orchestrating. (1) We have spent the last year and a half working on it in cooperation with the Depart of Ag, Depart of Health, Dairy Industry and Farm Bureau. As you’ll remember, we operate the largest raw milk dairy in Utah and the only grass based, non grain dairy. We also operate Real Foods Market – a Weston Price based retail store.
Raw milk has been available for sale in Utah for the past few decades with “sale and delivery at the farm.” There are currently 4 licensed raw milk dairies in the state. The current legislation will not change anything in regard to what is happening at these dairies.
There are no current cowshare programs in Utah that I’m aware of. While it makes sense to have cowshare options in states where there are no other means of obtaining good raw milk, there isn’t a need here as it is already available. The state department of agriculture works cooperatively with these licensed dairies and imposes no undue difficulties on them – just as they haven’t with us. The other dairies are small 10-15 cow/goat operations and they have made it work. For a cowshare program to develop here just to avoid licensing and regulation would only serve to hurt the cause in the long run.-*
The current legislation simply expands the distribution possibilities for raw milk. Because of the heartfelt, although somewhat misguided concerns about the dangers of raw milk from many, the standards for transported milk in this are fairly strict. We support this as they are doable and in time, with a good safety record, will build public confidence. The legislation will basically extend the reach of the farm and allow for milk to be transported to and sold from farm owned retail outlets or milk depots, making milk available for people in all areas of the state. We have hundreds of families who have come to us expressing interest in obtaining good raw milk – this change will begin to make it more reasonably accessible to these families and many more whom we haven’t heard from. This milk will be retailing at about $5.99 a gallon – so this will be able to be done cost effectively – at a cost significantly less than what is being done in CA and some other areas.
We have the full and genuine support of the department of agriculture – they have been very cooperative. Also the overwhelming support of the Farm Bureau – passing the annual meeting with a 95% + vote. We have the earned the trust and confidence of the top officials at each of these organizations – and of top legislators as well. There is a feeling of cooperation going forward rather than a “hope it fails” or “out to get you” attitude. And we have worked to get the Health Department and the Dairy Industry to a “no opposition” position as well.
Again, there are no hidden agendas. This has come about on our initiative and we have been orchestrating it – the bill contents, legislative sponsorship, etc… It will be a great victory – an opening a little further of the door – for good raw milk here in Utah. And in turn, the building of public confidence for it everywhere.
Please feel free to give me a call if you have any further questions or concerns. And thanks again for all you and the Weston Price organization are doing for the health and well-being of people across the world. We’re happy to be involved in the crusade…
Rhett Roberts (801) 361-9893
Real Foods Market
Foote Family Farms
Roberts’ letter is full of misleading and false statements, not the least of which is, “The current legislation simply expands the distribution possibilities for raw milk.” How does banning cowshares and making it impossible for anyone else to sell retail “simply expand distribution possibilities”? On the floor of the Utah General Assembly, during the debates on the bill, Rep. Melvin Brown said, “I don’t usually vote for raw milk, but I’m voting for this bill because the restrictions are so strict it will make it impossible for any new raw milk dairies to open.” This statement was recorded and posted on the Assembly’s website audio files.
The 51% ownership requirement is convenient for someone like Roberts, who happens to own a retail food store where he can sell his milk, but simply eliminates that distribution possibility for smaller dairies, especially those just starting out, who would not only have to meet dairy regulations, but would have to invest in owning retail space and meeting that set of regulations as well. Fine if you have an extra million dollars in your pocket.