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Farmers Want Laws Eased: Raw Milk Summit Challenges Vermont Regulations

  • While hand-milking her Jersey cow Cocoa, Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., pours raw milk into a container to be filtered and cooled at her home at Earthwise Farm and Forest on Oct. 27, 2013. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    While hand-milking her Jersey cow Cocoa, Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., pours raw milk into a container to be filtered and cooled at her home at Earthwise Farm and Forest on Oct. 27, 2013. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., leads her Jersey cow Cocoa to the pasture's edge to milk it early in the morning on Oct. 27, 2013. Milking the cow once a day, McCrory said she gets about 2 1/2 gallons of raw milk a day to sell to neighbors and for use by her family at Earthwise Farm and Forest. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., leads her Jersey cow Cocoa to the pasture's edge to milk it early in the morning on Oct. 27, 2013. Milking the cow once a day, McCrory said she gets about 2 1/2 gallons of raw milk a day to sell to neighbors and for use by her family at Earthwise Farm and Forest. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • While hand-milking her Jersey cow Cocoa, Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., pours raw milk into a container to be filtered and cooled at her home at Earthwise Farm and Forest on Oct. 27, 2013. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Lisa McCrory, of Bethel, Vt., leads her Jersey cow Cocoa to the pasture's edge to milk it early in the morning on Oct. 27, 2013. Milking the cow once a day, McCrory said she gets about 2 1/2 gallons of raw milk a day to sell to neighbors and for use by her family at Earthwise Farm and Forest. McCrory is among the farmers taking part in Rural Vermont's Raw Milk Summit in Bethel, Vt. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

Bethel — Vegetables, meats and eggs are just a few items that can be bought at most any Vermont farmers’ market.

But one of the products that can’t be found is raw milk.

Vermont has a two-tiered regulatory system that stipulates how farmers must produce and sell raw milk, also known as unpasteurized or unprocessed milk. The regulations limit the quantity of milk a farmer can sell and also where he or she can sell it.

More than 60 farmers and interested citizens convened inside Bethel’s Old Town Hall on Sunday for Rural Vermont’s Raw Milk Summit to discuss those regulations. The group wants to figure out how to give farmers more flexibility in producing and selling their milk to increase market share.

“If they are going to regulate the quality of our milk then they should not limit the quantity that we can sell because there is no other agricultural product that once we meet the regulations that the quantity of sale is limited,” said Cynthia Larson who owns a farm with her husband and produces Grade A dairy and raw milk at a tier one rank. “If they want to not regulate us at all then I can see the justification for limiting the risk by limiting the quantity, but both seems inappropriate to me.”

Only two farmers in Vermont meet tier two standards, which allows sales of up to 40 gallons a day and some home deliveries, said Andrea Stander, executive director of Rural Vermont, an advocacy group for family farms, adding that gaining tier two status is not easy. More obtainable, yet still difficult, is the tier one classification, which permit farmers to sell up to 12.6 gallons per day but the milk must be sold directly to the consumer at the farm. Raw milk cannot be sold at farmers markets or in stores, according to state law.

“It comes down to the big issue — are the inspectors there to help or are they there to police and shut you down,” Stander said, in response to a few attendees at the summit on Sunday who said it took them multiple times to pass inspection and gain tier one status. “In this state so much is focused on local food and it’s a travesty that so many fear the agency of agriculture.

“Locally owned community stores should be able to sell (raw) milk,” said Stander. “It’s just another local product that people would like to be able to buy.”

At Sunday’s raw milk summit, attendees discussed working toward creating another tier that would allow farmers to sell at a “neighborly scale” with limited to no regulations, allow for sale of lightly processed raw dairy products, and developing reasonable animal health testing protocols, among other suggestions.

Ben Crockett, who started a farm in Brattleboro a couple of years ago and sells raw milk as a tier one distributor, said the regulations that need to be met are difficult and financial obligations associated with meeting animal testing protocols create a barrier for new farmers wishing to get started.

“For those who are interested in raising a cow and selling some milk, it can be a real deterrent,” Crockett said.

Many who were present on Sunday talked about the benefits of drinking raw versus pasteurized milk, which is commonly found on shelves at grocery stores. Pasteurization is the process of killing bad bacteria by heating milk to a certain temperature for a set period of time, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mark McAfee, chairman of the Raw Milk Institute and owner of Organic Pastures Dairy, the world’s largest and widest consumed raw milk brand in California, put it more simply.

“We forget, breast milk is raw milk,” McAfee said, adding raw milk in California is legal, but strictly regulated. “Why do babies drink raw milk? Why?

“Raw milk has the perfect combination of sugars and the bacteria to nourish the immune system for the baby, that’s why,” he said. “And raw milk from a cow does exactly the same thing, not quite as good as breast milk, but, boy, pretty close.”

Although some say raw milk has nutritional benefits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warns there are health dangers.

“Raw milk can carry harmful bacteria and other germs that can make you very sick or kill you,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Many people believe that foods with no or minimal processing are better for their health ... however ... some types of processing are needed to protect health.”

MaAfee countered, though.

“When you have limitations and you can’t produce more than 25 quarts a day or 50 gallons a day, does that mean that the 26th quart or the 51st gallon is unsafe, but the 50th gallon is safe?” he said. “Why are they putting a cap on it?”

The reason why Vermont has placed such strict limitations on the amount of raw milk a farmer can sell and where he or she can sell is because “we are a dairy state,” Stander said.

“A large part of our agricultural economy comes from so called conventional or commercial dairy and that sector of the agricultural economy has a lot of influence on our policymakers and on our regulators,” she added, noting increased sales of raw milk could pose an economic threat to the conventional or commercial dairy industry that produces and sells pasteurized milk. But Stander said that is not what local farmers who are looking to produce and sell raw milk are doing.

“We don’t want to pit farmers against each other,” she said. “We are trying to create an economic opportunity for everyone.”

In order to do so, she and others said quantity restrictions must be lifted.

Raw milk can be found at farmers markets across the river in New Hampshire, though.

“New Hampshire is not a dairy state,” Stander said. “They don’t have a big percentage of their agricultural economy coming from dairy.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603-727-3248.