By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
Update: Spring 2018
Joel Salatin said, “If this is not reminiscent of David and Goliath, I don’t know what is,” referring to the defeat of two bills posing a major threat to the future of herdshare programs in Virginia. Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council and the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association all supported the legislation, but grassroots mobilization against the bills led by the Virginia Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (VICFA) won out with an assist from members of the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) and other food freedom advocates.
Herdshare 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. Herdshare programs have been flourishing in Virginia for many years.
Last month, legislators carrying out the agenda of industrial agriculture introduced House Bill 825 and Senate Bill 962 in the Virginia legislature. While the bills officially legalized herdshares [currently there is nothing in the Virginia Code on herdshares], they were an attempt to intimidate both consumers and farmers from either entering into or continuing on with herdshare agreements. Each bill stipulated that violating any of its requirements would be first-degree misdemeanors with criminal penalties of up to one year in jail and twenty-five hundred dollars in fines; every day the violation continued would be a separate offense. Both farmers and consumers could have been found guilty of a crime for not turning over copies of their contracts to government agencies. Both bills stated it was illegal for anyone besides the party to the herdshare contract to receive raw milk; in other words, giving raw milk to family or guests would be a crime according to the wording in the bills.
To scare consumers away from signing contracts, there was a requirement in both bills that the herdshare agreements contain a clause stating that shareholders assumed joint liability if the herd or any milk produced by the herd was responsible for any injury or illness. HB 825 and SB 962 each required a label on all raw milk containers with a consumer advisory warning about the dangers of consuming raw animal foods. Why would shareholders need a label on their own property? Why should they be forced to trash their own property with an advisory?
Reaction to the bills’ filings was swift. Farmers and consumers bombarded legislators with phone calls, emails and in-person visits to the capitol. VICFA kept people apprised of the bills’ status and mobilized the local food community to attend the hearings on the bills. Herdshare farmers like Dwayne McIntyre of Goshen Homestead, Jacques and Kim Fuhrmann of Our Fathers Farm, the Wilkes family of Honey Brook Farm, Tim and Joy Alexander of Avery’s Branch Farm and Scott Wilson of Full Quiver Farm all made a difference in building opposition to the legislation.
On February 1, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources held a hearing on SB 962; around one hundred opponents of the bill packed the hearing room. Senator Mark Obenshain, seeing the writing on the wall with the opposition to the bill, took out a number of SB 962’s more onerous provisions but opponents weren’t buying the revised version of the bill. Their message throughout the testimony opposing SB 962 was clear: no regulation, period!
VICFA member and herdshare pioneer, Christine Solem, began the opponents’ testimony by angrily warning the committee that she would “fight this all the way.” Twice, Solem took herdshare lawsuits to the Virginia Supreme Court in the 1980s with the court implicitly recognizing that herdshare agreements were legal.
Mark Wilkes of Honey Brook Farm commented in his testimony that the bill “was a solution in search of a problem.” VICFA president Anne Buteau backed up that statement in her testimony by pointing out to the committee that, in the thirty years of herdshares operating in Virginia, government officials investigating the one foodborne illness outbreak attributed to raw milk distributed through a herdshare did not go public with the information because, as they stated, “the nature of the herdshare programs are such that we were confident that we would effectively reach those who were truly at risk for illness.”
Herdshares are closed-loop arrangements with a high level of traceability. Virginia government officials have all the authority they need under existing law to conduct an effective investigation if there is a suspicion of foodborne illness.
Senator Richard Black agreed with Wilkes and Buteau, firing up the crowd when he remarked, “I don’t know what problem it’s addressing. People like a free life in rural areas and don’t want government peeking over their back and telling them what to do.”
Once the testimony was over, the committee voted eight to seven not to report the bill out of committee. Delegate Barry Knight, the sponsor of HB 825, knowing how difficult it was going to be to pass a more burdensome bill than SB 962 (HB 825, unlike the Senate bill, gave government broad rule-making power) moved to withdraw his bill; on February 5, a House Agriculture subcommittee struck the bill by an eight to zero vote.
VICFA’s mission “is to promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.” VICFA co-founder Salatin, Solem and other VICFA members such as the late Katherine Russell, helped create a “don’t tread on me” culture that is present throughout Virginia when it comes to farmer-to-consumer unregulated commerce, particularly with herdshares. Those in the local food movement there don’t ask the government for permission to exercise their rights; they want the government to leave them alone.
VICFA operates on a shoestring budget but members like Buteau, Solem, past president Lois Smith and Suzi Croes will spend the time it takes to protect herdshares—the crown jewel of the local food system in Virginia. They continue to be effective in keeping herdshares away from any regulation; in 2017 VICFA helped kill an attempt by Farm Bureau to ban herdshares. When it comes to establishing and protecting unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer commerce, it is a model organization for those in other states to follow.