When the Laws Get in the Way

Paul and I found out today that one of our favorite farmers market vendors won’t be around any more in the near future. Due to legislation designed to protect consumers from listeria decades ago, raw milk (unpasteurized milk) has become a touchy issue in Tennessee, and in the US as a whole. Farmers had to sell it in Tennessee labeled for pets only until the law was amended to allow consumers to purchase cow shares which would enable them to buy raw milk. Cow shares are exactly what they sound like. Think of it as timeshares that actually don’t suck. When you but a cow share, you essentially buy a very small percentage of the herd. That way you really are getting milk from cows that you own.

At the time that the original law was passed, it was necessary. Sanitation statutes in dairy operations weren’t strict enough or inspected frequently enough. And that’s where listeria comes from. Today’s dairies, even small dairies, are clean and safe. The milk sold by these dairies, even raw, won’t hurt you. But if it’s going to cause problems, why wouldn’t a farmer just pasteurize the milk and keep selling? Well it’s not as simple as that. Pasteurization equipment is expensive, think anywhere from car to house expensive. For small farms, it’s not an investment that they can afford without getting loans that they’ll have to repay, and when they already work on tight profit margins, and they might actually lose some customers if they weren’t selling raw milk… Well, you see where that’s going.

While the amendment to state law (the amendment that allows cow shares) covers raw milk, it does not include raw milk products like butter, buttermilk, kefir, whipping cream, or half and half. While a farmer can sell whole or skim milk, skim milk is unprofitable because the cream removed to make skim milk is useless and becomes a waste for the farmer. Unless of course, you want to buy whole milk and skim it yourself and make your own butter and buttermilk. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

On a large or diversified farm, not being able to offer all of the extras isn’t that much of an issue. While selling the milk alone doesn’t generate much profit, the other products they can offer make up the difference as well as drawing in other customers who want the health and flavor benefits that raw milk offers. While farms always work on tight profit margins, for small dairy-only farms, a significant portion of the profit required to keep the farm going comes from those value-added profits.

In Memphis farmers markets at both the Botanic Garden and downtown, Evergreen Farm has done really good business because they could offer more than just milk. If you’ve had their butter, you know that it’s a completely different product from anything you can buy at any store. Their buttermilk isn’t the cultured kind you can buy there either; instead it’s real buttermilk that’s a by-product of making butter. But the state has decided that those products aren’t legal to sell in Tennessee. After all, they’re not covered by the amendment or protected by any federal law.

Evergreen Farm is a victim of this. We’re losing them because of financial reasons. Tight margins are one thing, but not being able to sell the more expensive products puts the farm in the red. We’ll be able to enjoy what they sell for a month or two while they’re finding buyers for their cows, but after that, they’ll be gone. In the announcement on their web site, they give their customers some options, but for those of us who live in the city, having a family cow at our house just isn’t feasible no matter how much we might like the idea. And yes, considering that I am the crazy chicken lady, you know I want one, but I really doubt that the city would go for the organic lawn mower and compost angle.

So what can we do? Well, the sad part is that we can’t do a lot, at least not in time to save Evergreen. You can send emails to your state legislators asking them to further amend bill HB0720. There’s a federal bill that could protect farms like Evergreen, but being a federal bill, it will take time to go into effect as law even if it’s passed. This is bill HR778, and there is an online petition that you can sign. I know, I don’t usually like online petitions either, but this is something that directly impacts me, our city, and some very nice people who had a great idea that a lot of people liked.

Jan and Walt Haybert are just that. If you’ve met them, you like them. They’re the kind of people who make friends easily. They definitely don’t seem like dangerous criminals or even scofflaws like those of us who drive 9 miles over the speed limit or drive for a couple of days with expired tags because we didn’t have time to wait in the inspection lines. But that’s not how the state sees them. Jan and Walt could basically ignore the call from the state that they received, but getting an official cease-and-desist letter was not something that could be ignored. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And so, they’ll be gone, not because people didn’t like or want what they sold, but because an outdated law says they can’t be a successful small farm.

Yes, this pisses me off. It’s stupid. It’s pointless. It’s irrational. But that doesn’t matter. I’m one person, and I can’t make a difference in this no matter how badly I want to. But maybe I’m not the only one, and a group of people can accomplish things that one person can’t alone. It’s a pain to send emails to people who probably won’t read them or to sign online petitions that probably won’t matter, or to make comments on state and federal websites that are probably going into the ether, but when it comes to something legislative like this, it’s really the only way.

I’ll miss Jan and Walt. I’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy the products they sell. But most of all, I’ll miss my friends.

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One thought on “When the Laws Get in the Way

  • July 23, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I agree whole”herdedly”!!! Small family farms are facing so many challenges these days to stay in business that the people who actually answer the call and try to make it work deserve parades in their honor. So sad.

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