Colorful Peeper Pond Farm Sunrise – 4/16/19

Thursday, April 18 began with a cool morning and low, dense overcast skies that were swept away by strong southerly winds to reveal a sunny, balmy day with a high temperature of 80 degrees.  It was the first time our daily high temperature had reached that lofty mark since October 8, 2018—a full six months and ten days ago!  The recent wave of spring warmth brought a number of our garden potato plants to the surface yesterday to join our early peas and onions.  Our vegetable garden is certainly looking good thus far this season.

April 18 was also the date for our long-anticipated meeting with Jennifer Greenlief, Assistant Commissioner for the Department of Agriculture and Andrew Yost, the Department’s designated dairy specialist to discuss their issues and concerns regarding our WV Farm Fresh Raw Milk Act bill.  The bill was introduced to the legislature during the 2019 session, but did not advance out of committee.  It was the first time since my initial September 18, 2017 meeting with Commissioner Kent Leonhardt (exactly nineteen months ago) that anyone from the central Charleston office had agreed to meet with me to discuss our bill.  Throughout that time, I had researched the core issues, coordinated with concerned small dairy farmers across the state, drafted the bill, and promoted the issue publicly.  However, even though I sent multiple drafts of the bill to the Department specifically requesting their constructive comments, all my efforts were met with silence from them—that is, until our draft bill was introduced into the West Virginia legislature.

Based on this history and my long unfilled requests for guidance and assistance, I did not know what I could expect from them.  Many people and even a few elected officials had advised me that the Department of Agriculture was unlikely to be an ally in our efforts.  The issue was simply too controversial within the modern dairy industry—dominated by large industrial farm operations and milk processing industries with lobbying money to back their specific interests—to make it comfortable for the Department to take a stand on our behalf.  The small family dairy operations were largely dead for a reason, and I was bucking the entire system by trying to open the door to revive them.  I always knew the reason for it, but that knowledge did not make it right. 

A Grant County Dairy Farm That Lost Its Battle With Time and the Economy

As Barb and I traveled to the Elkins Department of Natural Resources office for the scheduled meeting, I had to confide to her that I didn’t know what to expect from the meeting.  It certainly did not feel like the auspicious event I had wanted to believe it could be.  Would it be a new opportunity or just another disappointing blow?  It really didn’t matter, as I was committed to the fight and could not simply leave the ring.  My name is David, so I had to accept I would always be fighting Goliath.

Fortunately, the meeting went well.  We talked openly for more than two hours.  Jennifer and Andy were willing to listen and even acknowledged that our bill was a creative approach to the issue and contained some interesting provisions.  They wanted to know what existing laws in other states our bill was based upon so that they could compare it to them and understand the source of its major provisions.  I told them our approach to the bill was so different from other states that it would be hard to compare them, however the elements of the bill designed to ensure that raw dairy farmers would be selling to informed consumers was loosely based on language in Vermont’s law.   

I noted that most other states (like Vermont) regulate and govern unprocessed milk sales based on periodic pathogen tests for milk samples paid for by the farmer.  However, as I pointed out, periodic pathogen tests do very little to ensure the safety of milk produced twice daily, and the standards different states use to limit pathogen levels are inconsistent, which suggests to me that there are no accepted universal standards.  Why should farmers bear the added cost of routine milk tests that provide little assurance to the buyer that the milk is safe to consume?  Our approach was to require that farmers comply with a set of very specific best milking and milk handling standards that were carefully crafted to ensure that the natural quality of the milk was preserved as it was taken from the dairy animal and prepared for sale.  If you do everything that a large Grade A dairy is required to do to limit external contamination of the milk, what more can be reasonably expected of a small farmer to do?

Our bill also requires that small milk producers offer tours of the dairy farm to every milk customer and specifically explain how the farmer’s operation complies with all required best milking and milk handling requirements.  This is just a good business practice to assure the customer that the farmer is doing what is required to maintain the natural quality of the unprocessed milk.  The farmer must further provide the customer with a list of guidelines explaining how to maintain the quality of the milk after purchase and prevent contamination after the sale.  This, in my view, is the best our law could do to ensure that every customer who purchases unprocessed milk is informed of what he or she is buying and that every producer understands that the penetrating eyes of the public are on them.  Other laws I have read do not go to this extent to govern direct farm-to-consumer raw milk sales and ensure the reliable quality of the product.  These are the aspects of the West Virginia Farm Fresh Raw Milk Act that make it very different from those that have been adopted by the 31 other states that allow them.  Our proposed bill has been carefully crafted to represent sensible, practical, and affordable regulation from a West Virginia farmer’s perspective, rather than a simple carbon copy of what other states do.

While Jennifer and Andy acknowledged that these aspects of the bill were quite interesting and that the nature of the proposed legislation does not conflict with the Department’s stated agricultural and regulatory policies, they advised a need for clearer administrative and registration requirements that are consistent with those required of other food products they oversee.  I can’t disagree with the logic, legitimacy, and appropriateness of their request, but I certainly feel I could have done a much better job of that if the Department had responded to any of my earlier requests for comments on draft versions of the bill.   I did, however, note that I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the details of those additional procedural requirements with them to ensure that they are reasonable and affordable for small farm operators to comply with.  There is no greater incentive for noncompliance with government-adopted rules and regulations than for them to be difficult to understand, unclear and open to conflicting interpretations, unreasonably expensive, excessively onerous, and/or unnecessary or potentially inconsistent with or contrary to generally accepted dairy farming practices.  Having talked extensively with them now, I honestly don’t believe that Jennifer, Andy or the Department intend to request changes that would be patently unreasonable, but I always want to avoid as many unintended consequences as I can.  Certainly, I have expressed those concerns and issues in many of my prior website posts.

Both Barb and I left the meeting with a strong feeling that we can work with the Department of Agriculture openly and cooperatively to address their stated concerns.  Jennifer and Andy were very effective in helping us get beyond the suspicions and mistrust that arose from our initial communication failures and allow us to begin again with an affirmed spirit of trust and cooperation.  We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome, and I look forward to a forthright effort to improve the language of the bill and position it for reintroduction during the 2020 legislative session.

This coming Sunday will be Easter, and we will be joining our Dorcus Baptist Church family for their traditional sunrise service at the Sites Cemetery overlooking the community and Elkhorn Mountain.  It is a time of rebirth and renewal that is very appropriate for the season.  Spring always brings new hope and opportunities for the months to follow.  After our meeting yesterday with Jennifer and Andy, we can now see a fresh glimmer of hope for the future adoption of our WV Farm Fresh Raw Milk Act bill.  There are never any certainties when dealing with politics to change a law, but we are moving an important step closer to a better chance of success.

Whether we will eventually succeed or fail will depend as much on the support we receive from you—our loyal readers—as it will on anything I can do.  Our sponsoring elected officials need to hear your voices to reinforce their advocacy for our effort.  We hope you’ll take the time necessary to express your vocal support for the changes we are striving to achieve.  Please don’t allow our opponents to control the agenda and crucify our cherished dairy farming traditions.  If diversity is truly an important element of our lives, then preserving the cultural folkways that built our modern society and represent an important element of our shared cultural heritage is every bit as important.  We hope you won’t sit silently on the sidelines only to lament the loss.  We have to earn it if we wish to preserve it.  Remember, life is eternal, even if we are not.  If we lose now, it will affect a lot of future generations.

This post represents the last of the compendium of website posts that I will incorporate into our revised and expanded book, Country Life at Peeper Pond Farm.  We must close out that effort so we can market it for publication this year and offer it for sale at the Grant County Farmers’ Market over the summer.  I hope the messages I seek to convey in that book will resonate with you and encourage you to treasure and practice the traditional farming folkways that we practice and promote here at Peeper Pond Farm.  For those of you who continue to follow our website, our farming adventure will continue.