Virginia Ag Department Clarifies Policy on Herdshares


After two consecutive legislative sessions in which unsuccessful efforts were made that would have either banned or severely restricted herd share agreements, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) has clarified its policy on herd shares. In an email to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF), a VDACS official stated, “The agency has currently taken a hands off approach to herd shares as long as there is a legitimate contractual relationship conveying ownership between the consuming individual and the animal/herd. Value added products such as yogurt, etc. (again in the context of a contractual relationship between owner and consumer) are still on the table and I’m not sure where we are going with that but the agency is not taking any action regarding those types of products at this time.”1

Herd share agreements are private contractual arrangements in which someone purchases an ownership interest in a dairy animal (or herd of dairy animals) and pays a fee to a farmer for boarding, caring for and milking the animal(s). The owner has the property right to obtain raw milk from the animal(s). It’s legal to purchase ownership in a dairy animal and it’s legal to obtain milk from a dairy animal you co-own; currently, there is nothing in the Virginia Code on herd shares. Herd share programs have been thriving in Virginia for many years.

In 2017 an amendment to a food freedom bill was introduced that would have banned herd shares; the inducement for the ban was the legalization of the regulated on-farm sale of raw milk. The Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (VICFA) and others–including the bill’s original sponsor, Nick Freitas–was successful in killing the legislation.

In 2018 opponents of herd shares–such as Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council, and the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association–took a different tact; supporting the introduction of legislation in the Senate (SB 962) and the House of Delegates (HB 825) that would have officially legalized herd shares while attempting to intimidate both consumers and farmers from either entering into or continuing on with herd share agreements. Both bills required that shareholders assume joint liability if the herd or any milk produced by the herd was responsible for injury or illness; the way both bills read, giving raw milk to family or guests would be a crime. Both bills provided that violating any of the requirements in them would be first degree misdemeanors with criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and $2,500 in fines; everyday the violation continued would be a separate offense. Strong grassroots mobilization led by VICFA with help from the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF), FTCLDF and other organizations, carried the day; both bills died in committee.2

VDACS has long had a hands-off policy towards regulating herd share agreements but there have been reports of agency inspectors telling farmers that herd share agreements are illegal. Having a statement in writing from VDACS should help increase the sizable number of herd share programs in the state that already exist. The position of VICFA and its members has always been that the state has no jurisdiction over property rights in dairy livestock acquired through private contract, but there are others who were more hesitant to enter into herd share agreements without something in writing from VDACS on herd shares; they now have it.

In the past VDACS has been reluctant to acknowledge the legality of value-added products distributed through a herd share agreement, but recent precedent in other states shows the wisdom of VDACS current hands-off policy towards the distribution of raw dairy products other than milk.

In 2016 a Michigan court found a herd share operation not guilty of contempt for distributing butter and cream, among other product, to its shareholders; there was an injunction against the operation prohibiting it from violating Michigan’s dairy laws. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) had adopted a written policy allowing only the distribution of fluid raw milk through herd share agreements; in spite of the policy and plenty of evidence showing that other raw dairy was distributed through the herd share, the judge ruled that MDARD had not made its case that there were any violations of the state dairy laws. The case turned in favor of the herd share operation when one of its shareholders, Mike Lobsinger, successfully intervened as a party to the contempt proceeding. One of the arguments made by Lobsinger’s attorney was that, with the raw milk being his property, it was none of MDARD’s business if he had that milk processed into cream.3,4

In 2012 the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General issued an opinion finding that an “independent or partial owner of any hoofed mammal” may use a dairy product made from the milk produced by such animal for the owner’s personal consumption or other personal use.”5 Tennessee has a herd share statute recognizing that anyone who has an ownership interest in a dairy animal can use “the milk from such animal for the owner’s personal consumption or other personal use.”6 When the Tennessee Department of Agriculture claimed that the statute only allowed the distribution of raw milk and no other dairy product, State Senator Frank Niceley, the sponsor of the herd share bill that passed into law in Tennessee, sought the attorney general opinion.

Herd share programs are at the heart of Virginia’s local food system; the written statement of policy from VDACS should only strengthen that. Hopefully, it will help convince herd share opponents not to introduce legislation again in the next legislative session; if they do, the grassroots will be there once more to contest them.

[1] Email dated August 7, 2018
[2] Pete Kennedy, “Victory in Virginia – Bills Threatening Herd Shares Now Dead”, RealMilk.com, 6 February 2018. Last viewed 9/12/18 at https://www.realmilk.com/victory-virginia-bills-threatening-herd-shares-now-dead/
[3] Pete Kennedy, “Wild Day in Michigan: A Court Victory and A Raid”, Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund website, 13 December 2016. Last viewed 9/12/18 at https://www.farmtoconsumer.org/blog/2016/12/13/wild-day-michigan-court-victory-raid/
[4] James S. Jamo, “Opinion and Order”, MDARD v Hill High Dairy, LLC et al, File No. 15-574-CZ, 8 December 2016. [view PDF]
[5] Robert E. Cooper, Jr., “Owner’s Use of Milk and Licensing of the Sale of Eggs”, State of Tennessee Attorney General Office, Opinion No. 12-04, 13 January 2012
[6] Tennessee Statute 53-3-119

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