Cowshares vs. Licensed Dairies

Herd-HerdshareVsLicensedDairy-600x626By Sally Fallon Morell

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 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.

Sally Fallon Morell

Sally Fallon Morell is the author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (with Mary G. Enig, PhD), a well-researched, thought-provoking guide to traditional foods with a startling message: Animal fats and cholesterol are not villains but vital factors in the diet, necessary for normal growth, proper function of the brain and nervous system, protection from disease and optimum energy levels. She joined forces with Enig again to write Eat Fat, Lose Fat, and has authored numerous articles on the subject of diet and health. The President of the Weston A. Price Foundation and founder of A Campaign for Real Milk, Sally is also a journalist, chef, nutrition researcher, homemaker, and community activist. Her four healthy children were raised on whole foods including butter, cream, eggs and meat.

7 thoughts on “Cowshares vs. Licensed Dairies

  1. When I post at either place (WAPF is in the comment section, FTCLDF is in the form of a contact page thingy) I don’t really care who answers as long as they know the correct answer. If a farmer has his own herd and runs one extra cow (for someone else) does he need to have a license to run that cow or milk that cow for the person who actually owns the cow?

  2. Would it still be considered a cowshare if there’s only one cow and one owner of that cow involved? Would the ranch owner still have to obtain a license just for one person to have a milk cow (cowshare) on his ranch? The milk would not be co-mingled because he raises his own cows for beef, not milk. The only milk cow would belong to the cowshare person.

    This would be if one party bought a milk cow and the rancher pastured it in the months possible to do so, and then fed it whatever the cow owner provided (like hay grass or alfalfa, mineral and salt licks, etc) otherwise? Also the cowshare owner would be picking up the milk himself right at the ranch; it would not be delivered by the rancher to another location.

    The rancher would not be bottling the milk in his jars; the cowshare owner would provide personally cleaned jars and lids, etc., and the rancher would simply fill them and cool them as quickly as possible, so would this type of agreement constitute a cowshare and require a license?

    • My understanding is that there is plenty of legal precedent (centuries) for one person to pay another to take care of their livestock. It’s called an agistment legally, but you see the terms herdshare, cowshare, goatshare, farmshare, milkshare…it doesn’t matter if it is one animal or many, and one owner or many. But please contact the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund ( for actual legal advice about it. I am just giving my understanding based on my reading.

      • I’m not questioning paying the farmer for his time, I’m questioning whether he would need some special license to keep one extra cow, especially if no one even knew about it?? I’ve tried asking FTCLDF and it’s like sending an email into cyberspace. No one ever answers, sorta like when you post a question at WAPF. You get nada. I’ll have to try to find out from someone within my own State, I suppose.

        • Are you posting a comment on the WAPF site? Comments are mostly for discussion among readers and WAPF staff rarely answers them (they simply don’t have the staff to respond to the hundreds of comments the website gets) but they do answer emails directly to I do my best to respond to comments here because there are far fewer of them but I get behind.

          Are you asking FTCLDF by comments on the website or emails via a contact page/form?

        • Reply from Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund: “In our view, cowshares are legal in South Dakota, no license required. The South Dakota Department of Agriculture might have a different opinion but I have not heard of them taking an action against a shareholder dairy. Unless someone gets sick, health departments don’t usually go after one-cow dairies. Email FTCLDF directly at” Hope this helps.

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