An unfortunate side effect of the Washington state affair has been some unkind remarks on the part of licensed raw milk dairy owners against cowshare dairies and against the Weston A. Price Foundation for encouraging this model, some even suggesting that the whole affair was the fault of the Foundation’s endorsement of cowshare and herdshare agreements.
It is important to reiterate the goal of the Foundation’s Campaign for Real Milk, that is, universal access to clean raw milk from healthy cows. To this end we have been pragmatic, taking whichever steps are necessary in various states, depending on the legal situation in that state. In states where raw milk sales are illegal, cowshare and herdshare agreements have provided raw milk to literally thousands of families without adverse incidents, sparking a rural revival and forcing health officials to take a new look at the arguments against raw milk. Under these arrangements, the cowshare owner is the inspector, not the state.
Cowshare agreements are not “illegal dairies” as some have called them. On the contrary, the practice of hiring farmers to keeps one’s livestock dates back hundreds of years in British law. There is even a special legal term for this arrangement, called an agistment. The keeper of the livestock is an agister. State governments may not like these arrangements, and may take steps to stop them in the name of public safety, but that does not make them illegal. As cow sharing farmer Kathryn Russell points out, the U.S. Constitution allows us to enter into contractual agreements and provides us with a Bill of Rights, not a Bill of Public Safety.
And to be accurate, these arrangements should not be referred to as dairies. Most state laws define a dairy as a place where milk is sold, either to individuals or to a dairy company. Cowshare agreements do not constitute the sale of milk, in spite of claims to the contrary.
Furthermore, the fact that a dairy is licensed does not guarantee freedom from harassment, entrapment or even sabotage by state officials. While many individuals working in agriculture departments are fine and honest people, and have worked with small raw milk dairies in a positive and helpful way, the history of raw milk has been a sad tale of underhanded dealings, made-up crises, entrapment and even outright thuggery. Raw milk farmers have a reason to be careful when inspectors arrive, and to insist on their legal rights.
Even in states where raw milk sales are legal, agister arrangements provide an excellent business model for farmers just starting out, for consumers in remote areas, or even those concerned about the inconsistent availability of raw milk from licensed dairies.
Because of the recent E. coli incident in Washington state, we will work with state officials through the Micro-Dairy Task Force to come up with legislation that permits even the smallest dairies to become licensed. It will be necessary to go along with rules for licensing cowshare arrangements as well, although we believe that the premise that cowshare arrangements should be licensed could be successfully challenged in court.
Criticism among raw milk providers can only hurt this movement. As Benjamin Franklin once remarked, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.” The Foundation supports the provision of raw milk to the people through as many avenues as possible—licensed dairies, unlicensed on-farm sales (where legal), pet milk sales, cowshare programs and herdshare agreements. We create customers for all of these raw milk providers through numerous articles on our website, and help customers find raw milk sources through postings on realmilk.com. We are working with numerous experts and task forces to provide guidelines so that small farmers can provide the safest possible product. (Raw milk is already inherently safe compared to other foods.) These guidelines focus on maintaining healthy herds and testing the milk, not on building large and expensive facilities.
We would especially like to thank Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures Dairy for his support of safe raw milk, however it reaches the consumer. He has been tireless in his defense of raw milk producers—whether they be licensed or cowshare operators. He understands the principle of strength in numbers—the more raw milk customers and the more raw milk providers there are, the greater our chances of success. We are happy to support all grass-based raw milk providers, whom we invite to work together with us toward our goal—universal access to clean raw milk from healthy animals.