To begin, I need to give you an update on our ongoing rainfall saga. According to the official weather forecast this morning, we are not expected to receive any additional rainfall for the month. Based on that assumption (which, with two more days to go, is shaky at best) I can give you our rainfall total for June. As of the writing of this post (AM, June 28), we have received 9.72 inches, which is a hair over three times the 30-year average at nearby Upper Tract of 3.21 inches. As you may recall from my recent posts, we received just over triple the average rainfall in May with a total of 11.42 inches and slightly under double the April average with a total of 4.61 inches. That gives us a cumulative three-month rainfall total of 25.75 inches. This figure represents 73 percent of the 30-year average annual rainfall total for Upper Tract of 35.33 inches (ignoring the other 9 months of the year). At this point, I would hazard a guess that we won’t end up with a dry year here at Peeper Pond Farm. I hope West Virginia’s monsoon season will be ending soon.
I also mentioned in a previous post that WHSV-TV, Channel 3 in Harrisonburg, VA, visited our farm on June 1 to film a news segment on our efforts to reform West Virginia’s remaining legal restrictions on unprocessed milk sales from the farm to informed consumers. I began my work on this effort in September 2017 after we had to sell our dairy goat herd in early August when we realized the current law would not give us the authority we needed to sell the milk, cheese, butter, and other consumable dairy products we were producing, and we couldn’t afford the ongoing feed and operating costs of our operation on our retirement income. During their visit to our farm and the Carroll farm, where our first doe goat, Essie, now lives, they filmed at least 1.5 hours of footage that was eventually edited down to a three-plus minute news segment. The final version aired during the 10:00 and 11:00 PM newscasts on Tuesday, June 26. The link below will give you direct access to the actual news segment:
The story has received positive reviews from all of our supporters who have seen it, but I’d like to explain some of the details of my position that could not be captured in the WHSV story. They have time and information constraints that my website postings do not. I hope you will take the time to read and think about what I have to say.
I was especially pleased to see the clips of our Essie, who we had hoped to make the foundation of our future dairy goat herd. While we hope that we may be able to bring her back to our farm, someday, I know I first need to change the current law restricting farm-fresh milk sales to herd share agreements. The herd shares bill, which was signed into law in 2016, allowed dairy farmers to sell a “share” of their animal herd to willing milk consumers so they could take a portion of the milk produced. We considered this option but decided that it wouldn’t work for our very small operation for at least two important reasons. First of all, anyone paying a farmer to invest in a portion of the dairy herd would certainly desire a regular and reliable volume of milk. Why would someone pay to own a portion of a dairy animal if they still had to pay for milk at the store because it isn’t enough to satisfy their needs? Our operation, as with most dairy goat farms, produced too little milk to fully satisfy the needs of multiple families. We were milking only two of our six goats and produced only about 1.5 – 2 gallons of milk daily. I was drinking roughly half a gallon of milk daily and we were processing much of the remaining excess into cheese, butter, ice cream, yogurt, and goat soap. While we would end up with an extra half gallon or gallon to sell periodically, the excess was not reliable enough to be marketable to other customers and the law did not encompass direct sales of the unprocessed milk products we were producing.
Our second concern was the lack of clarity in the bill’s language regarding what level of “ownership” was granted by a herd share. Although I recognize that a herd share agreement could spell that out, the more complex the agreement has to be to address those and other legal issues, the less attractive they may become to potential customers—especially for small volumes of milk. Many of the customers that would be interested in buying our milk come from nearby major cities and their suburbs, including Washington and Baltimore. These customers desire what they consider to be the most pure and organic natural foods, and I can envision many of them wanting to control what we feed our goats and what vaccinations and treatments we use to keep the healthy. We didn’t want to give the implication that we could provide that level of “ownership” to our customers, and we didn’t want any claims for “compensation” when we had to sell or put down one of our goats—as we had to do with Gertie because she had contracted a terminal case of meningeal worm. There are many legal issues to consider when contracting to share the ownership of a goat herd that we felt were too complex for a such a small operation and volume of salable milk.
Ironically, the group that promoted and gained passage of the herd shares bill had originally lobbied for direct farm-to-consumer sales of unprocessed milk, which is what I am now seeking to expand milk sale options for the smallest dairy operations. However, they faced a strong, entrenched political lobby that opposed open sales because of “health concerns” that unpasteurized milk represented a grave public health threat. The battle over the issue lasted seven years, and the group had to settle for passage of the current herd shares bill. Since that option doesn’t work well for all dairy operations (especially the smallest) it doesn’t make it as easy for small start-up operations (like ours) to step in and fill the void that has resulted from 50 or more years of small dairy farm failures throughout West Virginia.
As I documented in my March 23, 2018 website post entitled, Udder Disappointment, the last commercial family dairy farm in the tri-county region of Grant, Hardy, and Pendleton Counties was put out of business in December 2017 because the farm’s milk hauler decided it was no longer economically beneficial to transport their milk for processing. Yet, I can still drive around the South Branch valley and see the deteriorating remains of more than 50 dairy barns that once housed small herds of milking cows. West Virginia’s rugged, mountain topography does not provide the large tracts of level land needed to support the huge, mechanized, and technologically advanced dairy operations that produce a growing share of our nation’s milk production. According to a 2016 USDA Report, Changing Structure, Financial Risks and Government Policy for the U.S. Dairy Industry (Economic Research Report 205), which documents this dramatic trend, the median herd size of dairy farms nationally has increased from 80 cows in 1987 (two years after the whole herd buyout program was initiated) to 570 in 1997 and 900 in 2012. The largest single dairy farm documented in the report (located in Oregon) milks 32,000 cows on 39,000 acres. Clearly, the land in West Virginia is not capable of supporting such large operations, and virtually all of the small herd (50 or fewer cows) operations that once dotted our landscape could not compete and have since failed. All that remains are the remnant, dilapidated dairy barns that still stand.
Yet changing times and a growing trend of families seeking farm-fresh foods has created a new market that the small, family owned and operated farms that once proliferated in West Virginia could serve—if only they could sell their unprocessed milk and milk products directly to informed consumers, rather than being forced to sell their milk to a processing industry that is only interested in buying high volumes of less expensive, industrial-scale raw milk. Pennsylvania farmers are already taking advantage of this new sales opportunity. This is why I began working on legislation to open unprocessed (raw) milk sales from the farm. To promote opportunities for new small start-up dairy farms to exploit that emerging market in West Virginia.
Our opposition is an army of health officials, special interest groups, and elected officials who fear that unprocessed milk sales will unleash a Pandora’s box of pathogens and “superbugs” on an unsuspecting public. They treat farm-fresh milk as an “elixir of death” that may represent the greatest health threat of the food industry, despite the fact that I and many other people who were raised exclusively on farm-fresh, unprocessed milk survive today to tell you that this potential threat is grossly over-exaggerated. Can I guarantee that unprocessed (raw) milk sales will not cause illnesses? No, I can’t, and I never will. However, no public health official can ever guarantee you that there will be no pathogens or public health illnesses caused by the consumption of any food product, whether or not it Is certified or inspected by the USDA. The daily news routinely documents food recalls, illnesses, and deaths from processed food products that consumers expect to be safe. You don’t have to consume my unprocessed milk to become deathly ill. Simply go to your local hospital—considered by many to be the most sanitary environment that people regularly encounter—and you may become one of the growing number of patients who contract deadly super-staph infections or flesh-eating bacteria. These are deadly pathogens that the same people don’t encounter in their own homes.
I argue that the fear of so-called “superbugs” and pathogens that these officials are spreading is grossly excessive to the actual threat. Although these deadly germs and bacteria do exist, they are not typically found in the milk of dairy animals. Sure, many of their less-deadly ancestors, such as e-coli, listeria, salmonella, and other potentially “bad” bacteria, can be found naturally in milk at low levels that are not immediately dangerous. Some of these and other bacteria that can cause illnesses already exist in our bodies. These bacteria occur naturally and, at the low levels that they occur in impurity-free fresh milk, help strengthen our natural immune systems at an early age.
All mammals have immunity systems that help protect us from the germs and bacteria we routinely encounter in the course of our daily lives. They produce the antibodies that help kill the invading germs, diseases, and bacteria that cause illnesses and death. Those individuals with the strongest immune systems are among the healthiest people in society. If your immune system is underdeveloped or weakened by disease, your threat of illness is greatly enhanced. Most people understand this, as it is common knowledge. Health officials insist that milk be pasteurized (heated to a specific temperature over a specific length of time) prior to consumption to kill any bad pathogens that may be in the milk. I agree that it does make the milk safer to consume. However, in making their argument against the sale of unpasteurized milk, the same public officials conveniently fail to acknowledge a number of other facts.
First of all, pasteurization is an indiscriminate killer. It not only kills the potentially bad bacteria; it also kills the potentially good bacteria that exists naturally in milk that can help build stronger bodies. In fact, even the presence of bad bacteria in milk can help strengthen human immune systems to reduce the threat of future illnesses. By preventing gentle exposure of our immune systems to these bad pathogens, we are shielding them from the low-level exposure they need to make us stronger. This is why milk is the first and most basic food consumed by all mammals, from the smallest shrew to the biggest elephant or whale. It contains all the most basic nutrients, proteins, vitamins, and other elements that our bodies need for healthy growth. Many of the diseases we face today from weakened immune systems could be caused by our efforts to avoid natural childhood exposure to bad pathogens and bacteria. Our growing fear of exposure to bad germs and bacteria are causing people to over-use antibiotic and antiseptic treatments to the point that we damage our flesh (from over-use of hand sanitizers) and cause the pathogens to become resistant to treatment.
As I said, the most dangerous superbugs that public officials fear most, do not occur naturally in dairy animals. They actually emerge from our efforts to kill their less deadly ancestors. The second fact public health officials do not advertise is that our efforts to create stronger and stronger antibiotics to kill the most basic and common germs and bacteria cause them to mutate quickly into stronger and more deadly germs and bacteria. These pathogens are very simple organisms that have no immune systems, as do more complex creatures like humans. Their defense mechanism to ensure their survival against the things that threaten them is their very short lifespans and rapid reproduction rates. Virtually all of them create multiple generations of themselves in a single day. With that rate of reproduction, they are capable of mutating into stronger (and inherently more deadly or immune to treatment) forms at a much faster rate than we can develop new and stronger antibiotics to kill them. Therefore, it is the overuse of antibiotic treatments and vaccinations, as well as excessive use of sanitizing agents to clean food processing equipment, that can cause superbugs to get into the foods we produce and eat—including milk.
As I learned how these deadly superbugs have emerged, I decided to call the process, “inverse engineering.” You won’t find that word in the dictionary (I looked it up to make sure), because I made it up. What I mean by it is that all of our determined efforts to develop drugs to kill bacteria that could cause human illness only results in making the bacteria mutate into more drug resistant and deadlier forms. We are not intending to make them stronger, but we are getting the “inverse result” because of their nature. As a result, our efforts to impose increasingly stricter sanitization in milk production, handling, and processing can have the potentially inverse effect of increasing the public health threat from the end product. The same can, under the right circumstances, be true of some preventative treatments and vaccinations given to dairy animals. This effect should be studied more carefully and specifically by health officials before they conclude that unprocessed milk represents an elixir of death.
As a society, we essentially have two choices. We can either continue to feed our current frenzied germaphobia fears by desperately working to create stronger and stronger antibiotics and drugs to kill off deadly superbugs before they can kill us, or we can find ways to strengthen our immune systems to protect us from the less deadly pathogens recognizing that a small number of us could become ill or die, but that we may avoid a superbug apocalypse. My opponents choose the former course. I endorse and try to practice the latter. If you wish to have a choice, I encourage you to think about it carefully and quickly, before the CDC and the pharmaceutical companies make the choice for us.
The legislation I am working to write would require farmers to follow specific best milking and milk handling procedures designed to minimize airborne contamination of raw milk from the time it is taken from the cow or goat to the time it is sold to the consumer. Regardless of the specific threat posed by any potential contaminant or pathogen, the steps I am working to prescribe represent the most any dairy farmer can do to minimize contamination of the milk and preserve its natural state. I also hope to avoid requirements that would promote excessive use of antibiotics and antiseptic treatments that would promote mutation of common pathogens into the superbugs that health officials fear. This is how I hope to ensure that unprocessed milk is as safe as it can be for me and my potential consumers to drink.
I recognize that milk can pose a threat of illness to consumers regardless of how sanitary the production process may be. Any consumer can cause milk to become contaminated by letting it sit unrefrigerated after purchase (thereby providing an environment for pathogens to grow) or through direct contamination resulting from careless use. These risks can be greater for unpasteurized milk, which is why it has a shorter shelf life and must be maintained in a storage environment that maintains a constant temperature range. That’s why we need to inform consumers of how to keep and use unprocessed milk. My proposed legislation includes requirements for farmers to provide written consumer milk handling and use guidelines to ensure that the consumer is informed when purchasing unprocessed milk and to offer tours of his/her dairy operation to prospective customers so they can learn how the farmer is complying with all required best milking and milk handling procedures.
If I am successful in writing rules that farmers can satisfy and that will address the most serious public health and contamination issues, I see no reason why unprocessed milk would not be safe and healthy to sell and consume. Unfortunately, I have no assurance that the health officials and their advocates will be reasonable in debating these issues. That is simply the nature and state of politics today. Once you join a political party, it seems that you must suspend your critical thinking skills and simply “believe” what the party platform says you should—regardless of whether or not is it inherently defensible or thoroughly tested and considered. I do not accept that way of thinking. I am comfortable remaining, perhaps, one of the last free thinkers. I hope that my explanation of the issues covered briefly in the WHSV news segment will cause you to think more critically about these issues, and that you will want to help me preserve and promote a cherished traditional lifestyle choice that is rapidly becoming extinct. The health and survival of your descendants may ultimately depend upon it. If you do decide that my position on these issues has merit, I hope you will support my ongoing efforts. As always and either way, I appreciate your consideration.