Raw Milk in California’s Humboldt County

by Cindy Ashy

Humboldt County is one of only three counties in California, along with Kings and Trinity, to maintain a ban on the retail sale of certified raw milk produced in California. Humboldt County also requires compulsory pasteurization on all commercial milk products produced and distributed in the county.

Title V, Division 1, Section 512-4 of the Humboldt County Code reads: “All market milk, skim milk, and other fluid milk products sold, offered for sale, distributed or in possession for sale in the County shall be pasteurized as provided in the Milk and Milk Products Act of 1947 (Division 15 of the Food and Agricultural Code). This section shall not apply to any milk or cream produced and sold from dairies having fewer cows or goats than that defined as a ‘dairy farm’ in said Milk and Milk Products Act. Nor shall anything in this section be construed to prevent the delivery or sale of Raw Grade ‘A’ milk, not conforming to this section, to a milk products plant for the purpose of pasteurizing the same” (Repealed and Re-Enacted by Ord.1921,§1,01/08/1991).

Title V, Division 1, Section 512-5 of the same county code makes a violation of Section 512-4 a criminal act, punishable by up to a one thousand dollar fine or up to ninety days in jail for each individual violation!

ADVOCATING FOR RAW MILK

Toward the end of 2009, raw milk advocates in Humboldt County, spearheaded by Ursula Hunter, began approaching individual Humboldt County supervisors requesting a repeal of the ban on raw milk. In their discussions, they stressed the health benefits of raw milk and the importance that people be free to make their own decisions about what they eat. Six-term Supervisor Bonnie Neely agreed to let the raw milk advocates make a public presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors and she placed this item on the agenda for the August 24, 2010 board meeting.

Prior to the August 24, 2010 meeting, more than twenty-five hundred people in Humboldt County signed a petition asking the supervisors to repeal the ban on raw milk. The local raw milk advocates also invited Mark McAfee to give part of the official public presentation and to be part of the private meetings held with various officials in the county. McAfee is the founder of Organic Pastures, the largest certified raw milk dairy in California. He is also nationally known as an expert on raw milk.

There was a packed house when the raw milk agenda item came up, even though it occurred during business hours, and many people who wanted to attend had to be at work. Numerous citizens came to the microphone to add spirited comments, and the vast majority wanted the ban on raw milk repealed. Supervisor Neely made a motion to refer all the information received from the advocates to staff and have them report back to the board at a later time. The motion passed with a three-to-two vote.

At a later meeting, on January 11, 2011, several staff members from the Humboldt County Health Department gave a report essentially supporting the FDA party line and expressing deep concerns for the potential “risks” of drinking raw milk. Each one of them strongly urged the board to keep the ban on raw milk in place. Some dairymen and the Humboldt County Agriculture Commissioner also urged the board to keep the ban in place. Even though the supervisors stated many times that no action would be taken that day, a motion was made by Supervisor Jimmy Smith to maintain the status quo and keep the ban on raw milk in place. The motion passed with a five-to-zero vote.

Raw milk advocates were vocally upset by the fact that a vote had been taken when they were promised no vote would be taken. A lengthy discussion ensued about whether or not the vote really meant anything. At one point, Chairman Mark Lovelace stated, “Taking this action is essentially no action. . . it doesn’t change the ability of any supervisor to revisit this issue if they so chose.” All of the supervisors publicly vowed to remain open to hearing more from the raw milk advocates.

While raw milk advocates were understandably deflated by the results of those meetings, there is renewed interest in taking this issue back to the board and demanding even louder that the ban on raw milk be lifted. This issue is definitely not going away as it remains a major sore spot among a large segment of the Humboldt County population. Plus, the 2016 election is looming, and the ban on raw milk could easily become a key election issue.

MISSING FROM THE PUBLIC RECORD

With no payment from any source and a great deal of personal expense, the raw milk advocates spent thousands of hours working on the raw milk issue before they gave their public presentation at the August 24, 2010 meeting. An important part of this effort was preparing a thick packet of information on raw milk for the educational benefit of the supervisors, county staff and the public at large. They assumed the packet they worked so hard to produce would become part of the public record.

According to the advocates, this packet contained full length copies of peer-reviewed research papers supporting the health benefits of raw milk and published in respected scientific journals like the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet. In addition, the packet contained other evidence on how drinking raw milk has improved the health of many people, official records from the CDC showing how clean certified raw milk production is in California, and other compelling information on raw milk.

In August 2015, when a copy of this packet was requested multiple times from Humboldt County, it could not be found by Tracy D’Amico, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ administrative assistant. She was very accommodating and looked for the packet at least three times. In fact, D’Amico sent copies of everything she found in the folders for both the August 24, 2010 meeting and the January 11, 2011 meeting, but none of the materials from the raw milk advocates’ packet were included in this official public record! Kathy Hayes, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors’ clerk, also checked and could not find the packet.

Since the packet of information was part of an official presentation to the board, put on the agenda by a supervisor, this is a very serious omission. It should have been included in the public record so that anyone at any time could review the information. The archived video of the August 24, 2010 meeting clearly shows nine copies of the packet being given to the board during the official presentation. Thus, there is no doubt that the advocates gave their materials to the board. Copies of the packet were distributed before the meeting as well. Materials provided by staff, dairymen and doctors are included in the public record so it is not an issue of the entire contents being lost. It appears only the materials provided by the raw milk advocates are missing.

WHY THE BAN PERPLEXES MOST PEOPLE

According to the latest estimate by the United States Census Bureau, the total population of Humboldt County is only 134,809. However, even with this relatively sparse population, there are a total of seven natural food stores in the county, with four of these offering a selection that rivals the best natural food stores in metropolitan areas. Furthermore, most of these natural food stores have been in business a long time, and they stay very busy.
Given the stats above, it is obvious that the Humboldt County citizenry shows a high propensity for natural food as they vote for it loud and clear every day with their pocketbooks. Therefore, when like-minded new residents move to the area, they find it quite surprising when they can’t buy certified raw milk at any of seven natural food stores, and they can’t even legally buy it from a farmer in the county. According to several employees at both locations of the Natural Food Co-op (Arcata and Eureka), tourists passing through also find the raw milk ban in Humboldt County a real head-scratcher when they see how devoted the community is to natural food.

What are the reasons this ban still exists?

UNFORTUNATE TIMING?

To many, it is perplexing why the Humboldt County supervisors voted on January 11, 2011 to maintain the status quo and keep the ban on raw milk in place. While their decision was purportedly due to perceived health risks, a careful examination of the official record, a reconstruction of the timeline, and dozens of interviews reveal that other factors likely played an even bigger role in their decision.

According to court documents, Humboldt Creamery led for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 21, 2009. At the time of filing, Humboldt Creamery owed creditors about fifty-five million dollars. On August 27, 2009, Humboldt Creamery was sold at auction to Foster Farms for nineteen and one-half million dollars. This left them with no assets with which to pay the remaining thirty-five and one-half million dollars due creditors!

The bankruptcy of Humboldt Creamery followed on the heels of the sudden resignation of Rich Ghilarducci, who held the position of CEO for twelve years. A financial scandal soon emerged as it was determined that Ghilarducci had overstated the creamery’s inventory and accounts receivables while understating the accounts payable—that is, he “cooked the books” and had evidently been doing so for years. Ghilarducci was sentenced to thirty months in federal prison.

The community felt the pain in the aftermath of this troubling situation. Humboldt Creamery had been one of the biggest employers in the county and many people were suddenly without a job. Most of the fifty to seventy dairy farmers in Humboldt County had contracts with Humboldt Creamery to process their milk, but during this fiasco, they weren’t paid for about two months. It was also uncertain for a while whether Humboldt Creamery, considered a vital economic engine for the county, would survive at all. To make matters even worse, many of the investors in Humboldt Creamery who lost dearly after the bankruptcy were local people who live in Hum- boldt County. Reverberations of this financial and moral devastation were felt throughout the whole county.

Given the events described above, it is surprising that many people in the community do not fully realize how the timing of these events line up with the efforts made by the raw milk advocates to get the ban on raw milk rescinded. In many ways, the timing could not have been worse.

Humboldt Creamery led for bankruptcy only one year and five months before the raw milk advocates gave their public presentation to the board and formally asked the Humboldt County supervisors to rescind the county ban on certified raw milk. Moreover, their presentation took place only one year after Foster Farms bought Humboldt Creamery. The dairy community and many others in the community were still reeling from financial and moral devastation.

CRYSTAL CREAMERY

Foster Farms has chosen to keep “Humboldt Creamery” as a brand name but the creamery located in Humboldt County is now officially under the umbrella of Crystal Creamery, the milk division of Foster Farms. Crystal Creamery touts itself as the largest dairy in California, and it is looking to expand even more. Further, the Foster Farms corporate culture may be a far cry from the former Humboldt Creamery’s “fiercely independent” spirit that Rich Ghilarducci described in a 2006 interview with the North Coast Journal.

From the archived video of both the August 24, 2010 and January 11, 2011 meetings, it is clear that Humboldt County locals, including the supervisors, county staff, and citizens still refer to the creamery as “Humboldt Creamery” and still think of it as an independent entity, although county records refer to by its official name, Crystal Creamery. Proponents of the raw milk ban repeatedly referred to the “brand recognition” of the milk produced in Humboldt County.

PUBLIC COMMENTS REVEAL THE TRUE REASONS

With the events described above in mind, it is instructive to now go back and review the public comments made by local dairymen, county officials and supervisors at both the August 24, 2010 and January 11, 2011 Humboldt County Supervisor board meetings. In doing so, it begins to make more sense why it may not have been the best time to ask the county supervisors to rescind the ban on raw milk in Humboldt County. These comments also show that the purported reasons that most of the supervisors gave (perceived health risks) may have only been an excuse to delay action, take no action, or “maintain the status quo,” when in fact the overriding reasons were actually related to the recent devastation suffered by the Humboldt dairy industry.

For example, at the August 24 meeting, Jeff Dolf, Agricultural Commissioner, Humboldt and Trinity Counties stated: “I can appreciate the passion that people speaking for raw milk have for raw milk. My concern is for the dairy industry. I am concerned that if we were to change our county ordinance and there was an incident, or something happened, because of the strong brand identity that Humboldt County has with its dairy products, it could be devastating for our dairy industry. You are aware that the agricultural commissioner compiles crop statistics for agricultural products in the county. I’m sorry to report that last year the value of our market milk was down sixteen million dollars. If there was to be a change of our ordinance, and if there was an incident involving Humboldt County raw milk, I’m really very concerned for what’s left of our dairy industry and I believe that our ordinance helps to preserve that industry.”

He made a similar and equally strong statement at the January 11, 2011 meeting.

In a breach of protocol, but with the chairman’s permission, on August 24, 2010, Supervisor Jimmy Smith called two of the local dairymen to the microphone before other citizens who were there to make public comment, even though they were not on the agenda. Said Jim Regli, dairyman in Ferndale, California: “. . . I’m not speaking for all those dairymen but I have spoken to quite a few and they want this ordinance to remain mainly because of the fear of something happening to our market if someone consumes milk that is not pasteurized. Because of that fear, I hope this board keeps this ordinance in place.”

Regli emphatically emphasized the word “Fear!” and others repeated this word as well. It seemed to be a theme.

John Vevoda, another dairyman from Ferndale, referred to the Humboldt Dairy situation: “In light of what happened in 2009, and the majority of the dairymen really lost, you try going two months paying all your bills and not getting any income, we can’t afford something like that again. Public perception is they don’t care if it’s raw milk, pasteurized milk, what it is, it’s milk and we have worked extremely hard in the last year to build up our reputation outside of our area. Our organic milk now goes to the Los Angeles area, and if they were to find out that something bad happened up here, it could kill us. With that said, I’d like you to consider that in your decision.”

At the January 11, 2011 Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting, newly elected Supervisor Virginia Bass requested that two of the dairymen in the audience come to the microphone and give a summary of their opinion from the previous meeting and state whether that had changed. Neither of them had elected to make public comment during the public comment period, and they were not on the agenda.

John Vevoda stated that when the Humboldt Dairy went down in 2009, “. . . we didn’t get paid for about a month and half.” He went on to say, “. . . so we don’t want to take any chances. We’re not big gamblers. We’re all small dairymen and we can’t afford if someone were to get sick to lose the marketshare that we have now. Most of our milk is shipped out of the area, at least on the organic side, and we have an extremely good reputation. We don’t want to jeopardize that.”

The majority of all milk produced in Humboldt County is now certified organic.

At the January 11, 2011 board meeting, Supervisor Smith stated the following as he made his motion to maintain the ban on raw milk in Humboldt County: “. . . I stood by these guys when their industry was extremely strained and they’re still not out of the woods. . . but it’s in trying to maintain a strong industry that’s here as a big component of our economy so with great respect to your comments Mr. Chairman, I’m going to move that we retain the status quo as recommended by our staff.. . . that’s the motion, maintain the status quo and keep the ordinance in place.”

IS THERE MORE TO THE DAIRY FARMER SIDE OF THE STORY?

Milk is a highly perishable product. Therefore, if a dairy farmer can’t sell his milk right away, it goes bad or they have to sell it as powdered milk for a tiny fraction of its true value. To solve this issue, the vast majority of dairy farmers have a contract with a creamery, which sends a truck to their farm on a regular basis to pick up the milk and the creamery pays them for the milk. On the negative side, this means they essentially have one “customer” and they are beholden to that one “customer” for their livelihood.

The contract that a dairy farmer signs with a creamery almost always states that they cannot sell (or even give away) milk to any other business or individual. If they do so, they are considered in violation of their contract and they may lose their contract. If this were to happen, the dairy farmer may be stuck with hundreds of gallons of milk every day and no where to send it or sell it. Crystal Creamery (formerly Humboldt Creamery) works this way for most, if not all, of the dairy farmers they work with.

If a dairy farmer criticizes this policy publicly, or even merely says he or she would like to sell a portion of their milk to another source, this puts them on tenuous ground with their one big “customer,” and they naturally worry they may not have their contract renewed. This can also potentially happen if the dairy farmer publicly supports the idea of other dairy farmers selling raw milk, if their creamery is not in favor of this idea (most are not).

If a dairy farmer loses his or her contract with their creamery, they stand to lose not only their livelihood but also their way of life, a connection to their family history, and their ability to leave a legacy to their children and grandchildren. Many of the dairy farms in Humboldt County have been around for several generations, some going back to the 1800s. Humboldt dairy farmers come from industrious hard-working families who have been an integral part of the community for a long time, with deep-rooted personal stakes in the county.

As raw milk advocates continue to work on rescinding the ban on raw milk in Humboldt County, it will be very important to understand things from the perspective of the dairy farmers and others who have expressed “fear” in allowing certified raw milk to be sold and produced in the county. Perhaps there are ways to help allay those fears and accommodate everyone going forward, especially since Humboldt County is now further removed from the crisis that occurred in 2009 when Humboldt Creamery went bankrupt and was sold to Foster Farms.

AN IMPORTANT POINT

It should be noted that certified raw milk dairies in the state of California do not have to worry about a contract with a creamery because they are required to have their own creameries and bottle their own milk! There are also very strict standards in place, and actively regulated by California officials, to ensure a highly sanitary process, as evidenced by the stellar track record of certified raw milk dairies in California.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Many farmers and consumers living in Humboldt County have expressed a strong desire for certified raw milk dairies in Humboldt County. In fact, it is fair to say that they are begging for this industry to be born, and they correctly point out this cannot happen without rescinding the ban on the sale of raw milk in Humboldt County.

In her public comment before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on August 24, 2010, Liz Lux stated, “In Humboldt Country, we enjoy some of the freshest air and cleanest water in the world. We have rolling hills of green and sun drenched dewy pastures. We have a community of people who use discretion in choosing which foods to consume. We have a history of supporting dairy farmers in this great land of Humboldt County. To me, this sounds like a recipe for the freshest, most delicious, and healthiest of conditions on which to build a raw milk dairy farm.”

Lux’s comment was met with resounding applause. Several other speakers talked about the economic advantages of allowing certified raw milk dairies in Humboldt County. One speaker from Eureka asked the supervisors, “Why would you want to stand in the way of dairy farmers from entering a growing niche market?”

In an interview, Mike Fraga, who runs a goat farm in Arcata, expressed an interest in starting a certified raw milk dairy. In fact, he has already looked into what’s involved in doing so in California and he seems to have a good grasp on the details of what that entails. Fraga currently has about three hundred goats. He milks approximately sixty percent of these goats and sells the milk to the Cypress Grove Chevre creamery, which in turn, produces several types of popular goat cheeses. Fraga also stated that he has enough land to expand his business should he decide to do so.

The Jose Homem Dairy, located in Arcata, has expressed a desire to sell certified raw milk too if the ban on raw milk is lifted. Several others have privately expressed a similar interest but they are hesitant to express this publicly at this time, some of them believing it could affect their creamery contracts or their relationship with other dairy farmers in the county. However, they seem to think it would become much easier to express their opinions openly if just one certified raw milk dairy were to become established.

Fraga points out that it would be easier for someone with a smaller operation to get started selling certified raw milk because the investment in the new equipment needed would be much lower. He also points out that a certified raw milk micro-dairy, with just a few cows or goats, could be used as a financial stepping stone for expanding into a larger certified raw milk dairy.

Mark McAfee has personally pledged, both publicly and privately, to help anyone who wants to start a certified raw milk dairy in Humboldt County should the ban on raw milk be lifted. Multiple people in the raw milk community report that McAfee has been exceedingly generous with his time in the past. One person commented privately, “For Mark, it’s not just about business. His whole heart is in it and he truly wants to help people.” Thus, there is ample reason to believe that McAfee is sincere and will follow through on his promise if the opportunity should present itself.

David Lippman, general manager of North Coast Co-op (now retired), publicly stated at the August 24, 2010 meeting, “Our membership includes thirteen hundred families in Humboldt County. We get constant regular requests from our members and shoppers for raw milk. I would simply urge the board to give people in our county the same choice that they have in almost every other county in California.”

Rick Littlefield, owner of Eureka Natural Food Store, stressed freedom of choice in his public comment at the same meeting, “We almost never get involved in political issues but we see this as more of a personal right. . .so on behalf of our customers. . . why would our county supercede the state and federal government in this case. Now nobody’s blaming you because you didn’t pass this, it’s been here for over fifty years, but it is time to let it go!” Huge applause followed his statement.

In a recent interview, Littlefield continues to stress freedom of choice. To that end, he points out that the right to make decisions about your own health has been a battle since the formation of our country when physician Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, advocated for this right to be included in that document. His motion failed by only one vote! We continue to fight for this right in various iterations, including the right to drink raw milk!

(Read Part 2 here)

References

  1. jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/_pdf/research/clf_reports/RawMilkMDJohnsHopkinsReport2014_1208_.pdf, page 9. Accessed May 17, 2015.

About the Author

Cindy Ashy is a freelance writer living in northern California. Trained as a biologist, Ms. Ashy’s specialties include natural health, the natural world, cutting edge science, and investigative journalism. She can be reached at (360) 325-1081.

This article was first published in the Fall 2015 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.