The First Cowshare Program

Herd-TheFirstCowshare-600x626By Neysa C. Garrett

Niels Drustrup, a Danish farm boy who immigrated to America in the 1890s, may have been the originator of the concept of share ownership of cows. In 1929 Drustrup bought what he called “a small subsistence farm,” 33 acres of prime bottom land along the Delaware River in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. On it were a stone farmhouse circa 1765, a nice red barn, and various outbuildings, sheds, hen houses and root cellars. He planted orchards, grew field crops and bought two flocks of chickens–Rhode Island Reds for eating and White Leghorns for laying–some pigs and a cow.

Shortly after moving there, the stock market crash changed lives all over the country, and Bucks County was no exception. Many of the neighbors lost their jobs in the paper mill across the river in New Jersey. Poverty was everywhere. Drustrup had two cows by that time in order to have a steady milk supply for his family. They were “of the best accredited kind” and were tested annually for tuberculosis and bangs disease. He had extra milk and began selling it to his neighbors.

Children came to the kitchen door with their own pails after milking time. Milk was sold for six cents a quart in summer and seven cents in winter. This was five cents a quart below the local dairy price, a significant savings at that time. The commercial dairy, angry at being undercut by an outsider, reported to the State Health Department that Drustrup was selling milk without a proper milk house. Two inspectors came to visit and told him he was breaking the law.

Drustup, a career Navy man and World War I hero, did not appreciate being told what he could and could not do. During the very depths of the Depression, he found it outrageous that the government would try to stop families from saving money on food.

Reams of vituperative correspondence issued from his typewriter. “I understand that the governor will be forced to call a special session of the state legislature to provide funds to keep the Pennsylvania poor from starving to death, as the federal government expects the state to pay part of the cost. It may be that, sometime in the future, the state will allow poor country children to buy milk from a farmer at a price their parents can pay. I hope some of the gentlemen who were responsible for passing this vicious milk law will live to see the day when they’ll know the difference between six and eleven cents.

“The Department of Health stated in a former letter that milk from healthy cows, warm right out of the milk pail, was not dangerous to the public health. I consider it a social crime that a poor family should be prohibited by the state from going directly to the farmer and buying milk, minus the bottling and distributing cost. You doubtless know, half of the children in the county only receive a small percentage of the milk they need. A couple of neighbors, whom you prevented from getting milk from me, now use canned milk, and this with healthy cows before their eyes, cows whose milk sells for six cents a quart. No wonder they do not hold the health department of their state in high regard!

“Since the law, as yet, does not prohibit an owner of cows from using his own milk, would a group of neighbors be allowed to use the milk from partly owned cows without interference from the state health department? The proposition is as follows: I would form a cooperative cow-owning society, selling shares in my cows; I to feed, house and milk them; the other shareholder to pay for the feed, housing and labor, in proportion to the milk they received” (June 28, 1934).

Happily, the Secretary of Health agreed that this proposition was a possibility. He was probably quite relieved to be rid of the pestering farmer, writing, “Your question concerning cooperative ownership of cows very likely should be submitted to the Attorney General’s office. However, as far as this department is concerned there is nothing in the Milk Sanitation Law which would prohibit several persons from purchasing an interest in the herd of cows for the purpose of obtaining milk for their own use” (July 5, 1934).

After receiving this permission, Drustrup went ahead with his share ownership plan. His daughter, a senior at Frenchtown High School, typed up the stock certificates, and was paid $1.00 for each one she typed. In their farm records book, it was known as the Cooperative Cow Ownership Plan. Over the years there were a total of 22 shareholders, many of whose names are still prominent in the area.

A sample share certificate reads: “For the consideration of one dollar ($1.00), I hereby sell to _________, one three hundredth (1/300) part ownership in my milk-cows. Labor and feed for the cows will be paid for by the co-owners, in proportion to the milk they receive. The co-owners will bring their own containers for their milk and will be given some at milking times. Majority owners of the shares will rule as to the selling, feeding and care of the cows.”

Interestingly, the issue in 1934 was not pasteurization or the lack of it, but sanitation. The real issue, however, seems to be the growing idea that the government had a right to regulate farmers. “It has been the policy of the Department of Health to be very ***** with the small dealer, but has insisted that a milk house be provided on each dairy farm in order to have a place set aside from other farm activities, in which to care for the milk and to store cleansed milk containers and utensils” wrote T. Appel, Secretary of Health (May 11, 1934).

Since Drustrup could easily have afforded to build a milk house, I imagine his cow ownership plan was born more out of a refusal to do as told and a basic distrust of bureaucracy. It was the Milk Control Act of 1929 that required a milk house when milk was sold for human consumption. Some distributors got around this law by labeling milk “for animal use” but the law was amended in 1933, removing the phrase “for human consumption” and closing this loophole.

Drustrup interpreted the law as one that favored large producers. He wrote, “There is some justification for the public belief that the State Health Department is more concerned with protecting the big milk producers and retailers. . . than they are with the well-being and health of the poor man. There is no one who does not risk reasonable milk laws to keep the commercial dealers from going too far” (11 May 1934).

He continued selling milk in this way for several decades, finally giving up his cows after his family was grown.

This article appeared in the Winter 2006 edition of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

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