Raw Deal?

Co-op forces farm to stop selling raw milk locally
Originally published: Monday, January 31, 2011 (Reposted with permission)

Standing on a bale of hay at Stonewall Farm on a recent afternoon, 4-year-old Sara Dafeldecker laced small pieces of hay into her father’s hair as he talked about his family’s relationship with the farm.

Sara has been drinking fresh-from the-cow, unpasteurized milk from Stonewall Farm for her entire life, Kai Dafeldecker said. The Swanzey family picks up the milk from a refrigerator in a room attached to the cattle barn each week. Sara knows the cows by name.

But these regular visits will come to an end on March 31, when the farm stops selling raw milk to consumers. Dafeldecker and his wife, Jenn, say they will continue to visit for events, but it won’t be the same.

“It’s a routine. When you break a routine, later in life you look back at it and say, ‘Wow, I really liked that,’ ” he said. “And then you look at what you liked about it … it’s being connected to cows and life, instead of a computer screen.”

The Dafeldecker family is one of Stonewall Farm’s 80 raw-milk customers. In late November, they all received letters from Executive Director Joshua Cline explaining that a change in policy at Organic Valley, the cooperative that buys the majority of the farm’s milk, was forcing the end of the raw-milk sales.

The letter took two days to write, Cline said.

Organic Valley’s decision to prohibit farmers from running a raw-milk side business “makes sense,” he said, but “it is very disappointing for the farm.”

Organic Valley is a cooperative with more than 1,600 member farms. In addition to dairy products, it distributes organic eggs, juice, meat, soy and produce. Stonewall Farm joined the milk pool in 2006, according to Cline.

The organization’s directors approved the crackdown on raw milk side businesses last May, by a 4-3 vote. In a letter explaining the decision, the board wrote that the closeness of the vote “reflects the impasse we came to in reaching a clear consensus.”

Selling raw milk is illegal in many states due to food safety concerns, but in New Hampshire and other states where it’s allowed, the practice of drinking unpasteurized milk is gaining popularity (see accompanying story). Jenn Dafeldecker says her family has experienced health benefits from drinking raw milk.

“It’s a complete food that’s intact with all its nutrients,” she said. “We believe that God made it perfect and God made it best.”

But this growing popularity was part of what drove the co-op’s decision.

“More and more people were developing fairly significant business selling raw milk,” said Organic Valley member Regina Beidler of Randolph Center, Vt. She said her family drinks raw milk from its own herd, and distributes raw milk to family and neighbors. This kind of “neighborly exchange” is still allowed for Organic Valley members, but marketing the milk to the public is not.

Part of the problem is producing enough organic milk to go around.

“In some cases in the coop, people have sold a lot of raw milk and there wasn’t as much left for the co-op,” Beidler said.

Cline also said the co-op has asked producers for more milk, further indicating supply-side competition was part of the decision. But it was not the only factor.

“There’s a lot of small reasons that have come together,” Beidler said. Another concern is liability: If someone were to get sick as a result of drinking unpasteurized milk from an Organic Valley farm, the entire co-op could be held liable, she said.

Ultimately, co-op representatives say they’re asking members to act in the common interests of the organization.

“When we sign on to Organic Valley, all of us agree that we will market in common,” Beidler said.

The co-op is not requiring farmers sell 100 percent of their milk to the coop. Instead, farmers are allowed to ask for permission to use a limited amount of their milk for other products, such as butter and cheese, as long as they sell these products only at their own farm stands.

Stonewall Farm produces its own cheese, and Cline said he hopes cheese sales will help make up for the financial loss the farm will face with the end of the raw-milk revenue.

Farm Manager Glenn Yardley said about one tenth of the farm’s milk is sold raw to customers, but Cline said it represents one third of the farm’s total milk revenue.

But both Yardley and Cline say the farm has little choice but to go along with the co-op’s requirements, at least in the short term.

“They’re one of the better co-ops out there,” Yardley said. “There’s no question that they’re a good organization.”

Nonetheless, he’s not thrilled with the decision.

“When we first signed up with Organic Valley, we had been selling raw milk for some time, and they knew that,” he said.

Selling all the farm’s milk directly to local consumers would require increasing the current 80 local customers to something more like 300, Cline said.

“That’s a pretty scary business leap to make,” he said.

And he estimated that turning the milk that currently goes to Organic Valley into cheese would yield a daunting 52,000 pounds of cheese each year. The concern there, he said, is that the demands of selling all that cheese would detract from the farm’s educational mission.

In the longer term, Cline said, “Stonewall Farm needs to be more diversified.”

So-called “value-added” products such as butter, cheese and yogurt are the best way to make money from milk, he said. The sale price for small containers of Organic Valley’s Stonyfield brand yogurt, he said, amounts to $16 a gallon for the milk used.

But in order for the farm to branch out beyond its cheese, which is made from unpasteurized milk, it would need to buy pasteurizing equipment. Yardley has a printout from a website, describing a unit he said would cost about $20,000.

Should the farm decide to leave to co-op, it would take at least a year and a half to make that decision a reality, Cline said.

In the meantime, the Dafeldeckers will have to get their milk elsewhere. It’s unlikely they will start buying cartons of Organic Valley milk from the supermarket.

Jenn Dafeldecker said she knows of other farms in the region that supply raw cow and goat milk, and though she hasn’t made the connection yet, she said she’s confident the family will find another supplier. But she also said she intends to continue to advocate for the return of raw milk sales to Stonewall Farm.

This continued interest should be welcome to the farm’s operators.

Cline wrote in the letter to raw milk customers:

“It is my hope that one day we may be able to provide our customers with raw milk again, but for now, the future is unclear. In the meantime, I hope that you will continue to support Stonewall Farm in other ways, as now more than ever we need your support.”

Sarah Trefethen can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or strefethen@keenesentinel.com


MICHAEL MOORE / Sentinel Staff
Sara Dafeldecker, 4, holds a half gallon bottle of raw milk in the Stonewall Farm cow barn as her father, Kai, looks on. The Dafeldeckers have been consuming the milk for years, but the farm will stop selling it locally March 31.