Full list: Agriculture in the News

EcoWatch: $620 Million Reasons to Legalize Hemp

Lorraine Chow
March 13, 2015 9:53 am
Full Article

Hemp truly is a cash crop. The total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. last year has been tallied, and the multipurpose plant brought in a stunning $620 million, according to estimates from the Hemp Industries Association (HIA), a non-profit trade association representing hemp companies, researchers and supporters.

The figure is based on sales of clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products. Total retail sales of hemp foods and body care alone totaled approximately $200 million, according to the HIA.

Mary Jane’s non-intoxicating cousin had been stymied by a federal drug policy until last February when President Obama signed the Farm Bill which contained an amendment to legalize hemp production for research purposes. The bill also allowed states that already legalized the crop to cultivate hemp within the parameters of state agriculture departments and research institutions.

Currently, 21 states may grow hemp thanks to the Farm Bill, including California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia. More states are moving to legalize industrial hemp farming as well.

“Eleven new states have passed legislation and new businesses are rapidly entering the market now that American farmers in a handful of states are finally beginning to grow the crop legally,” said Eric Steenstra, executive director of the HIA. “Challenges remain in the market and there is a need for Congress to pass legislation to allow farmers to grow hemp commercially in order for the market to continue its rapid growth.”

There’s also been increasing grassroots pressure on the Feds to allow hemp to be grown domestically on a commercial scale. The Industrial Hemp Farming Act was introduced in both the House and Senate earlier this year. If passed, it would remove all federal restrictions on the cultivation of industrial hemp, and remove its classification as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

The bill was introduced by Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and Kentucky Republicans Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner decided last week to co-sponsor the bill, and said in a media release: “Industrial hemp is a safe substance with many practical commercial applications. Removing it from the Controlled Substances Act is a common sense move which would create jobs and get the government out of the way of farmers and our agricultural industry.”

The $620 million figure from was gleaned from natural and conventional retailers, excluding Whole Foods Market, Costco and certain other key establishments, who do not provide sales data, which means the true sales figure could be much higher by at least two and a half, the HIA said.

Hemp retail sales in the U.S. just keep growing. According to data collected by market research firm SPINS, combined U.S. hemp food and body care sales grew in the sampled stores by 21.2 percent or $14,020,239, over the previous year to a total of just more than $80,042,540. Sales in conventional retailers grew by 26.8 percent in 2014, while sales in natural retailers grew by 16.3 percent.


Tenth Amendment Center: Unanimous Vote Moves Industrial Hemp Bill Forward in New Hampshire

By  Shane Trejo
March 9, 2015
Full Article

CONCORD, N.H. (Mar. 11, 2015) The New Hampshire state House approved a bill today that would remove the ban on industrial hemp in the state, effectively nullifying the federal prohibition on the same. 

Introduced by Elizabeth Edwards (D-Hillsborough), Laura Jones (R-Strafford), Robert Cushing (D-Rockingham), and Michael Sylvia (R-Belknap) on Jan. 8, House Bill 494 (HB494) opens the door for a full-scale commercial hemp market in the state by treating it as any other crop for farming. The bill reads, in part, that “industrial hemp shall not be designated as a controlled substance.”

After passing out of committee unanimously last week, the House approved it today by a voice vote.

In short, industrial hemp would essentially be treated similar to tomatoes by government officials in New Hampshire. By removing the state prohibition on the plant, residents of New Hampshire would have an open door to start industrial farming should they be willing to risk violating the ongoing federal prohibition. This is exactly what has already happened in both Vermont and Colorado.

Farmers in SE Colorado started harvesting the plant in 2013, and farmers in Vermont began harvesting in 2014, effectively nullifying federal restrictions on such agricultural activities. On Feb. 2, the Oregon hemp industry officially opened for business and one week later, the first license went to a small non-profit group who hopes to plant 25 acres this spring. The Tennessee Agricultural department recently put out a call for licensing, signaling that hemp farming will start soon there too. And a law passed in South Carolina in 2014 authorizes the same.

“What this gets down to is the power of the people,” said Mike Maharrey of the Tenth Amendment Center. “When enough people tell the feds to pound sand, there’s not much D.C. can do to continue their unconstitutional prohibition on this productive plant.”

Experts suggest that the U.S. market for hemp is around $500 million per year. They count as many as 25,000 uses for industrial hemp, including food, cosmetics, plastics and bio-fuel. The U.S. is currently the world’s #1 importer of hemp fiber for various products, with China and Canada acting as the top two exporters in the world.

During World War II, the United States military relied heavily on hemp products, which resulted in the famous campaign and government-produced film, “Hemp for Victory!”.

But, since the enactment of the unconstitutional federal controlled-substances act in 1970, the Drug Enforcement Agency has prevented the production of hemp within the United States. Many hemp supporters feel that the DEA has been used as an “attack dog” of sorts to prevent competition with major industries where American-grown hemp products would create serious market competition: Cotton, Paper/Lumber, Oil, and others.

Early in 2014, President Barack Obama signed a new farm bill into law, which included a provision allowing a handful of states to begin limited research programs growing hemp. The new “hemp amendment”

…allows State Agriculture Departments, colleges and universities to grow hemp, defined as the non-drug oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis, for academic or agricultural research purposes, but it applies only to states where industrial hemp farming is already legal under state law.

HB494 an essential first step forward, and will likely need to be followed by additional legislation implementing the program, unless – like in Colorado, Oregon and Vermont – courageous farmers in New Hampshire start growing industrial hemp without further authorization.  It now moves to the state Senate for further consideration.


Burlington Free Press: Bill would encourage Vermont farm-grown beer

April Burbank
February 16, 2015
Full Article

Vermont farmers could tap into the state’s burgeoning craft beer scene under a new proposal in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Bennington, recently introduced a bill that would create a new farm brewer’s license for Vermont farmers who want to brew beer with at least one ingredient grown on their property.

The bill marries Vermont alcohol with Vermont agriculture.

Farm beer would need to include at least 20 percent local hops and at least 30 percent other local ingredients — not including water — to be considered “Vermont beer” under a new legal definition. Those requirements would rise to 80 percent within a decade.

The bill would also create licenses for farm vintners, with accompanying definitions of “Vermont wine” and “Vermont cider” that use local ingredients. Farmers could host special events, offer tastings and obtain retail and restaurant permits to sell and serve their products.

A farm brewer’s or farm vintner’s license would cost $60, discounted from the current $285 manufacturer’s license fee.

The plan has picked up initial support from the Vermont Farm Bureau, said the organization’s Legislative Director Bill Moore.

But some Vermont brewers are cautious about the bill’s strict definition of Vermont beer.

“It’s very early,” said Kurt Stauder, president of the Vermont Brewers Association. “I understand the aims and I find them to be admirable, but I do have some concerns. … I think that the big point that is sticking with some of the brewers is the definition of Vermont beer.”

Peter Hopkins, who grows hops in Pownal, said he believes the bill would boost Vermonters’ efforts to grow hops, grain and malt.

“It should bring the farmers and the brewers much closer together. Each will depend upon the other,” said Hopkins, whose farm is called Hoppy Valley Organics. “If all of a sudden there’s increased demand, there’ll be more hops in the ground,” he added.

But Vermont-grown hops can be significantly more expensive, said Todd Haire, operations manager for Switchback Brewing Company in Burlington.

Switchback has brewed with local hops through University of Vermont Extension, Haire said. He said brewers are willing to try Vermont hops but need a consistent supply.

Botzow said he modeled the farm brewer’s bill after a similar law in New York that took effect in 2013. The Bennington County Industrial Corporation suggested that New York had a competitive advantage in recruiting breweries, Botzow said.

“I don’t want us to not be able to compete on our home court,” Botzow said. He called the bill “proactive” and said it would stimulate an emerging part of Vermont’s economy and promote diversified agriculture and agrotourism.

Seventeen other legislators have joined Botzow in sponsoring the bill, which has been sent to the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.


Valley News: The Chicken Count — Small Farmers Could Use Flexibility in Slaughter Rules

Chuck Wooster
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Full Op-Ed

This past year, we raised and sold 1,000 chickens on our farm outside White River Junction. We have a strong market for chicken, and every year we can sell this many birds with a reasonable return on time and financial investment. Why, you might ask, if the market is there, don’t we sell more birds? It’s simple. The 1,001st bird would set me back tens of thousands of dollars. Here’s why.

The state of Vermont and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulate the production and sale of meat in Vermont. (New Hampshire’s approach is similar.) This oversight has been, by and large, wildly successful in improving human health. Nasty stuff like listeria, trichinosis and botulism, which used to lay our ancestors low by the bushel, have been largely eliminated from the food supply. We’ve accomplished this success through what might be called a “facilities” approach to meat production: We require animals to be slaughtered and processed inside facilities that can be cleaned and inspected and, in most cases, overseen by inspectors during their hours of operation.

All the larger livestock animals sold in this country today, like cattle, sheep and swine, have to be slaughtered inside such facilities. There is no exception to this — if cash is going to trade hands, animals have to be slaughtered inside under inspection. That’s true whether you’re a hobbyist selling one pig or a corporation slaughtering a pig a minute.

With chickens, you can avoid the facilities route if you meet certain criteria: you clearly label your birds as uninspected, you sell whole birds directly to the customer who is going to cook them, and you sell no more than 1,000 birds per year.

This so-called “chicken exemption” is widely used by farmers in the Twin States, with more than a dozen farms in the Upper Valley making use of it. But more and more, we’re coming up against the facilities limitation, both with chickens and with larger mammals.

The main problem with facilities is that they are expensive to build and maintain. If you’re a huge producer of meat, no big deal — you build your own slaughterhouse in your vertically integrated company. But if you’re a small player (and every farm in New England is small by virtue of our tight landforms and small holdings), you’re left competing for limited slaughterhouse space, usually in the fall, when the grass runs out and every other farmer is jostling with you for appointments.

The facilities approach has a second problem, besides hurting the little guy: It tends to centralize problems and make them difficult to sort out. We’ve all read the stories about an outbreak of, say, e coli in beef, which unfold over the course of years as inspectors try to figure out which farm brought which animals to which slaughterhouses and then sold them under which labels to which supermarkets. After the recalls are finished, the lawyers move in.

The meat slaughter issue is coming to a head right now in Vermont because the number of farms, the number of farmers and the acreage devoted to agriculture are all increasing. Due to our rolling hills, however, our farms are small. Due to the limited flat land, our growth potential is primarily in raising meat. And due to the facilities approach to meat safety, we’re having a tough time making the economics work out.

To its everlasting credit, the Vermont Legislature is taking the problem seriously and proposing potential solutions. For example, thanks to a two-year experiment set up by the Legislature last year, we were able to slaughter 25 lambs on our farm last fall and sell them to our customers. Of course, we had to meet some relatively strict conditions: We had to pre-sell the animals to our customers; we required that each of them purchase a whole animal; we hired a third-party professional to help us with the slaughter; and we filled out some paperwork for the state. I was happy to do all this because it meant that I could keep the lambs at home on the farm, where they were born and raised and felt comfortable, and I was able to avoid the expense and scheduling and transportation problems associated with finding a slaughterhouse.

From my perspective as a farmer, it’s time to build on the success of the chicken exemption, and on the success of this trial program, by creating a formal certification or licensing system for farmers who are selling directly to their customers.

Many farmers lack the capital or space to build fancy facilities on our farms, and many of us don’t want to inflict the stress of transportation on our animals. Yet we all have the time, especially when it’s below zero and there’s snow on the ground, to attend classes in food safety, proper livestock handling, appropriate equipment and tools, and disease epidemiology. Give small farmers the option of achieving food safety goals through education as opposed to construction. Animals can be processed safely, cleanly and respectfully on their home farms — without expensive facilities — if the farmer knows what he or she is doing.

What we need is a three-tiered approach to regulating meat.

At the high-volume “meat producer” level, the state should continue to require inspectors and inspected facilities. At the small-farm “direct sales” level, the state should require training and expertise as opposed to facilities. And at the tiny “subsistence” level, the state should allow people to, for example, raise and slaughter a limited number of animals without inspection or certification — two pigs, for example — so someone can sell the second one to a neighbor to cover the cost of raising the first. This is a time-honored tradition that has persisted for generations despite being nominally illegal and, as long as we’re fixing the meat regulatory system, should be acknowledged with more than just a wink and a nod.

The rub, of course, is figuring out where to draw the lines between the three tiers. The “subsistence” level is pretty easy, since the goal is to legalize the backyard hobbyist: something like one beef cow, two pigs, three sheep or goats, and maybe a dozen chickens or so.

For the small-farm “direct sales” level, the 25-lamb limit that’s part of the current experiment feels about right, though it would be nice if farmers could raise 25 lambs and 10 pigs per year instead of having to choose one or the other (as the law currently provides.) For chickens, the current 1,000-bird limit is too low because building facilities doesn’t make financial sense for bird number 1,001. With proper training and certification, that limit could be raised to 2,000 or 3,000 birds, at which point facilities start to make financial sense.

Right now, small farmers in both states are working backward — looking at what the regulations allow and then deciding how many animals to raise. What we should instead be doing is figuring out how many animals our farms can support in an ecologically appropriate way, and then, if we find we have a market for those animals, turning to the state to find a regulatory framework that works at that scale.

The market for local meat is here and growing. The Vermont Legislature is trying to help local farmers meet the demand. Adding an educational and licensing approach for direct-sales farmers would be a big step in the right direction.

Chuck Wooster is a farmer and writer who lives in White River Junction.


Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund: Wyoming Food Freedom Act Moves Toward Passage

February 17, 2015
Full Press Release

UPDATE 3/3/15 – Gov. Mead Signed HB 56 Today!

News from Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund member, Frank Wallis: 

RECLUSE, WY—(February 17, 2015)—The Wyoming Food Freedom Act [HB0056] has passed the Wyoming House of Representatives by a 60–0 vote and has cleared the Senate Agriculture Committee. The bill will now be heard by the full Senate; if passed, the bill will be sent to Governor Mead’s desk for a signature.

The bill sponsored by Representative Tyler Lindholm would stop overregulation of locally produced foods typically sold at farmers markets and like venues. As long as there is only a single transaction between the producer and the informed end consumer, there would be no government regulation or inspection. Meats would not be allowed to be sold in this manner, except for chicken. Chicken meat is already allowed under federal regulations.

“This law will take local foods off the black market. It will no longer be illegal to buy a lemon meringue pie from your neighbor or a jar of milk from your local farm,” said Representative Lindholm.

The Senate committee hearing was packed with consumers, ranchers, farmers and small food producers. They told the senators that the government should not be involved in dictating what kinds of food an individual wants to buy.

“The government is not my parent,” said Cheyenne resident Lisa Glauner. “I would much rather have food the way God made it than to have FDA-approved food that is not even real, like Kraft macaroni and cheese that doesn’t even have real ingredients.”

Frank Wallis from northern Campbell County, said many rural residents also depend on being able to sell their locally produced foods as a way to supplement their incomes. “I urge you all to vote for this bill; it will be good for the rural economy of Wyoming,” he said. “It will help small ranchers and farmers make a living.”

State health officials and Department of Agriculture representatives attended the hearing and answered questions posed by the senators. They had some concerns about food safety, but did not testify against the bill.

The bill passed the committee with Sens. Paul Barnar (R-Evanston), Leland Christensen (R-Alta) and Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) voting for the bill; Sens. Fred Emerich (R-Cheyenne) and Gerald Geis (R-Worland) opposed the bill.

“When the recession hit, this became a serious source of secondary income,” Senator Dockstader said. “So this would just set some clarity to statutes, because this is something that is not going to stop anytime soon.”


NPR: Why Some States Want To Legalize Raw Milk Sales

February 20, 2015
By Abby Wendle
Full Article

The federal government banned the sale of raw milk across state lines nearly three decades ago because it poses a threat to public health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association all strongly advise people not to drink it.

But individual states still control raw milk sales within their borders. And despite the health warnings, some Midwestern states have recently proposed legalizing raw milk sales to impose strict regulations on the risky — and growing — market.

Raw milk has become popular in recent years as part of the local food movement: An estimated 3 percent of the population drinks at least one glass a week. Many of its fans are fiercely passionate about what they see as its benefits. They say they buy raw milk because it doesn’t contain the growth hormone rGBH, they like the taste, and they enjoy having a direct connection to the food they eat.

“I like having a relationship with the people who are producing the food I put in my body,” says Holly Stovall, a raw milk consumer and advocate from Macomb, Ill.

But raw milk is particularly fertile for germs. By definition, raw milk is not pasteurized — the process of heating milk to 161 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds to kill harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Dr. Robert Tauxe, the deputy director of the foodborne, waterborne and environmental disease division at the CDC, says that children, the elderly and pregnant women are most at risk. And no one is immune.

But warnings from federal health regulators haven’t dissuaded those determined to drink it.

Bob Ehart, senior policy and science adviser at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, has been tracking raw milk policy in all 50 states for the past decade. He says more and more states are legalizing its sale.

According to NASDA’s most recent survey, conducted in 2011, raw milk sales are legal in 30 states, with a variety of restrictions on how it can be sold. Twelve — including California, Pennsylvania and Utah — allow raw milk sales in retail stores. In Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska, customers have to go to the farm to buy it. And in Colorado, consumers enter into a legal contract with the farmer in what’s called a cow-share — a CSA-style operation in which consumers buy a share of a cow in exchange for raw milk.

But NASDA’s Ehart suggests some states may not be legalizing raw milk sales to condone it. Rather, he says legalization may give public health agencies the power to regulate a market that might otherwise exist underground.

“Some would say that it would be worse if there’s nothing on the books that allows the agency to do anything,” Ehart says. “This at least allows them to do something if there’s an exposure level that affects public health.”

The battle over raw milk regulation is raging in Illinois. Despite being illegal, raw milk sales in the state have grown. Dozens of dairies now supply nearly a half-million customers.

Joe Zanger’s three Guernsey cows produce up to 30 gallons of raw milk a day. For the past few years, he’s been selling the unpasteurized stuff by the gallon, in glass jars, to a growing number of customers living in Quincy, Ill., the city down the road from his dairy.

Zanger says he earns a few hundred dollars a week from this side business — enough to pay for animal feed, vet bills and milking barn maintenance. He believes that one day, it could turn into a profitable venture.

“This is something that I can maybe grow a little bit, if I pick up more customers and buy more cows and just keep recycling that money” into the business, he says.

When Illinois became aware of the growing market, the health department proposed rules that would technically legalize raw milk, but impose strict regulations on the industry. Similar to other states in the region, sales would be limited to the farm.

Farmers would also be required to place a warning label on the product, sell it within five days of milking, and keep records of whom they sell to. By keeping track of where raw milk flows, public health officials say they’ll be able to more effectively respond to outbreaks, if they happen. But farmers complain it’s an unnecessary headache.

When it comes to the milking operation, the proposed rules mandate that all farmers keep their dairy cows “free from dirt” and routinely have their milk tested for harmful bacteria. Farmers would also have to upgrade their infrastructure to have an easily cleanable milking barn, proper plumbing, and a separate milk house to store the product in a refrigerated, stainless-steel tank.

The Illinois proposal is currently on indefinite hold. Legislation to open the market in both Iowa and Indiana was proposed in 2013, but stalled in committee.

The proposed regulations in Illinois have garnered fierce resistance from raw milk consumers and producers, who see them as an attack on small businesses and personal freedom.

“The free market has taken us so far already. Why not just keep letting it go?” asks dairyman Zanger. “If you come out to my farm and you see something you don’t like that makes you not want to buy my milk, you have every right to say, ‘No, thanks.’ If everything looks appropriate, why can’t you buy it?”

In the absence of legislation in Illinois, producers like Zanger are left wondering whether they’ll have to pay for expensive upgrades in the near future — or worse, be shut down by regulators.

For now, Zanger continues to sell raw milk and cream to his customers. Even though it’s illegal, the thirst is there, and Zanger says so is his commitment to quenching it.


VT Digger: House Fish & Wildlife sends out tough water quality bill

John Herrick
Feb. 20 2015
Full Article

A panel of lawmakers has approved Vermont’s hallmark water quality legislation that puts in place new regulations to curb pollution and raises money for cleanup efforts.

The House Fish and Wildlife Committee voted 7-2 Friday to pass H.35, a 127-page bill that will form the foundation of Vermont’s effort restores impaired waterways stretching from Lake Champlain to the Connecticut River.

“This may be the pinnacle of my work on water quality,” said committee Chair David Deen, D-Westminster, minutes before the committee voted late Friday afternoon.

The bill would put in place new pollution control measures for farms, existing development and roads. The permits are designed to limit pollution runoff flowing from these areas and raise money for projects that help absorb runoff.

The bill also raises at least $13 million to pay for new water quality projects across the state, including a $15 per ton fee on fertilizer, a 2 cent per gallon increase to the gasoline tax and an increase to the rooms, meals and alcohol tax.

Environmental groups say the bill lays the groundwork for new water quality programs that address all major sources of runoff pollution in Vermont. Some say it could impose stronger regulations, but at least the proposed regulations are all-encompassing.

“It draws in all sectors. We don’t generally do that,” said Kim Greenwood, a water scientist with the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “And I hope it’s representative of a new way of thinking about water quality protections.”

“This is a critical foundation for moving in the direction of a clean lake. We certainly can’t do less than this,” said Chris Kilian, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

He said the committee was prepared to set mandatory pollution control measures on farmers in sections of the lake where pollution levels are higher. These are areas of the lake where the state’s plan will not go far enough to reduce phosphorus pollution enough to comply with limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Farmers oppose the fertilizer fee, arguing that it hits large farmers who follow water quality rules harder than smaller farms unfamiliar with the rules. The current fee is 25 cents per ton and would be increase to $15 per ton. The House Agriculture Committee opposes the fee increase.

“It hits large farms harder, those that are already doing the right thing. It would be unfair,” said Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, chair of House Ag.

Municipalities support the water quality bill, but asked for money to implement the upgrades. The bill includes a provision that directs funding to municipal pollution control projects.

The bill now goes to the Agriculture Committee before moving to Ways and Means.


The Packer: Congress reintroduces GMO labeling bill

By Andy Nelson

A bill to label genetically engineered foods has been reintroduced in the U.S. Congress.

Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., reintroduced the Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, first introduced in 2013, on Feb. 12, according to a news release from DeFazio’s office.

“We cannot continue to keep Americans in the dark about the food they eat,” DeFazio said in the release. “More than 60 other countries make it easy for consumers to choose. Why should the U.S. be any different? If food manufacturers stand by their product and the technology they use to make it, they should have no problem disclosing that information to consumers.”

The bill would amend the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require genetically engineered food and foods that contains genetically engineered ingredients to be labeled.

The bill cites “health, economic, environmental, religious and ethical” reasons for why genetically engineered foods should be labeled.

The United Kingdom, all European Union countries, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, Australia, India, China and other countries require labeling, according to the bill.

State and county efforts to label genetically modified foods have had mixed success.

In November, voters in Oregon and Colorado rejected ballot measures mandating labeling.

Voters in Hawaii’s Maui County, however, approved a moratorium on GMO cultivation in the county.

In April, Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods made with genetically modified ingredients. The law goes into effect in July 2016.


VPR: Raw Milk Producers Say State Regulations Are Prohibitive


Full Article & Audio
Correction: Raw milk farmers have to NOTIFY customers if they get a high test count in their milk samples; they do not need to call customers individually as mentioned in this article

A group of agricultural entrepreneurs say they’ve found a product that could make their small farms profitable. But producers of raw milk say state regulations are hampering their ability to sell it.

Two years ago, Nate Rogers and his wife left their careers at IBM for a life of grain and dairy. Their 135-acre farmstead in Berlin sits on the rich soil of the Dog River valley. A milking barn houses a small herd of light brown Jerseys that just welcomed a new calf.

“This is little Clover,” Rogers says, petting the 3-week-old calf. “It’s a tough time of year to be born, but she did really well.”

The Rogers Farmstead is perhaps best known for its wheat flour and rolled oats, both of which appear in loaves produced by local bread companies – Red Hen Baking Co. and Elmore Mountain Bread. But the business plan also relies on sales of raw milk.

That milk – sold mostly by honor system, in sealed half-gallon jugs, from a kitchen refrigerator in a retail shop inside the barn – is why Rogers says he opted for the Jerseys.

“They graze really well, excellent quality milk, a lot of butter fat … And they’re a little more manageable, size-wise,” Rogers says. “They got some real good personalities too.”

But Rogers says the raw milk business got a little harder last October, when the state Agency of Agriculture overhauled the testing protocols that govern sales of this niche product.

Rogers says it’s just the latest volley from a state regulatory agency that, from his view, seems to have little interest in his success.

“They have been, unsupportive would be an understatement,” Rogers says. “I think that they just flat out don’t want to see the small farms competing in the marketplace.”

Only a handful of raw milk farmers are taking advantage of a 2009 law that authorized sales of larger quantities of this controversial product.

Since it isn’t pasteurized, raw milk raises food-safety concerns unassociated with conventional dairy. Rogers and other farmers say they’re happy to abide by the testing standards in the raw milk statute. But they say the tests were designed to monitor quality, so farmers could adjust their operations as necessary – not to put otherwise responsible farmers out of business.

Andrea Stander is the head of Rural Vermont, an organization that advocates on behalf of small farms.

“Why is the Agency of Agriculture devoting so much of its limited resources to trying to put the screws down on this limited group of farmers that are trying to have viable business?” Stander asked lawmakers recently.

Diane Bothfeld, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, says raw milk demands rigorous food safety protections, given the potential for outbreak of listeria, salmonella, giardia, or other nasty germs.

Bothfeld says the state also needs to protect the state’s other dairy producers from the black eye that a raw milk outbreak would inflict on the rest of the industry.

Until last October, raw milk producers had multiple chances to lower their bacteria counts before having to notify customers, or to cease sales. But Bothfeld says the agency decided the practice wasn’t sufficient.

“There is no pasteurization in between,” Bothfeld says. “There’s no one else in between the farmers and the consumer. And the quality of that milk is paramount.”

Bothfeld says consumers want to know what’s in their food, and she says this new agency policy does that.

“So the informed consent aspect, if the counts are elevated, making sure that people understand that, because we have found and heard, loud and clear in many of the debate that consumers want to know what’s in their food,” Bothfeld says.

Also, she says, the protocols have proven effective.

Farmers who sell raw milk say the only thing the new policy has been effective at is ruining raw milk businesses. They say at least one farm that had previously sold milk without incident has since quit the business.

According to unscientific numbers compiled annually by Rural Vermont, sales of raw milk grossed a little more than $250,000 in 2014, barely a blip on the screen in a dairy industry credited with generating $2.2 billion in economic activity annually in Vermont.

But raw milk producers say their market is almost wholly untapped, due in large part to laws and agency regulations that, for instance, prohibit customers from selling raw milk to most customers at farmers markets, or participating in CSAs.

According to Bothfeld, the agency revisited its testing standards after hearing concerns from “one or two” legislators who said they worried that the old protocols might not flag problem milk early enough in the distribution process.

The tests, performed at FDA-approved labs in either Burlington or Bethel, measures somatic cell count, coliform, and total bacteria – high levels of which can indicate dangerous germs that can cause sickness in healthy people, and, death in infants or elderly or immune-compromised adults.

And people like Frank Huard, who milks 10 goats at the Huard Family Farm in Craftsbury, says the new testing protocols came as a punch in the gut.

The protocols apply to “tier two” farmers, who are allowed to sell up to 280 gallons of milk weekly. Tier two farmers – there are seven now, according to the agency, down from a high of eight – have sold their milk without incident since the raw milk law went into effect five years ago. Huard says the updated testing rules are a draconian solution in search of a nonexistent problem.

“I mean they’re just exactly what people should be pointing to when they’re talking about the burdensome, cumbersome over-regulation of farmers and small businesses.” Huard says. “I mean, I either got to go out of business or go underground. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Raw milk farmers point to places like New Hampshire and Maine, where more permissive raw milk statutes have bred a thriving market. In those states, and nine others, farmers can sell raw milk in retail grocery stores, not just farmers markets.

And raw milk producers say the potential revenue stream is could mean financial viability for the small, diversified agriculture operations that the Agency of Agriculture says it’s so interested in fostering.

Raw milk farmers have found at least a few legislators to take up their cause.

“There are some obstacles to these raw milk producers really growing their markets and finding new customers and making a viable living selling their milk,” says Barnard Rep. Teo Zagar. “I think there can be more flexibility with some of the testing requirements while still ensuring safety.”

Zagar will soon introduce legislation that would ease testing protocols, and also allow farmers to retail their raw milk at farmers markets.

“This is really an economic development bill for small farmers, to expand their markets and get their products to more people, while continuing to ensure that the food is safe,” Zagar says.


Capital Ag Press: Senate and House take different paths to legalizing hemp

February 11, 2015
By Don JenkinsFull Article

OLYMPIA — A Senate bill to legalize hemp cultivation takes three pages. A House bill to accomplish the same thing takes 24 pages.

Both chambers appear ready to OK the federally forbidden plant — after all voters legalized growing hemp’s psychoactive Cannabis cousin, marijuana.

But the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House have wildly different approaches, which must be reconciled.

The Senate already has unanimously passed Senate Bill 5012, which simply declares hemp an agricultural crop, no different than apples or wheat.

The legislation takes more than one page only to instruct Washington State University to study hemp’s potential as a commercial crop.

In contrast, House Bill 1552, which has yet to come to a floor vote, calls for the Washington Department of Agriculture to license hemp growers, control the seed supply, randomly test the potency of plants and penalize farmers who break the rules.

In a rare case of asking for more government oversight, the president of the Washington Hemp Industries Association, Joy Beckerman Maher, told a legislative committee that hemp can’t be as unregulated as potatoes or tomatoes.

“Here’s the reality: Industrial hemp is a controlled substance. It is treated as a controlled substance throughout the globe, including the 31 developed countries where we would be getting those desired seeds from,” she said.

WSDA should step in and prevent hemp and marijuana crops from cross-pollinating, ruining everybody’s investment and discrediting Washington’s hemp industry, she said.

“Please do not make the marijuana growers, and the industrial hemp farmers fight this out among themselves,” Beckerman Maher said.

Without seed controls, Washington hemp farmers would be viewed suspiciously worldwide by manufacturers of hemp products, she said.

The prime sponsor of SB 5012, Raymond Democrat Brian Hatfield, said hemp advocates are making things too complicated.

Federal authorities have made clear they expect Washington to closely regulate recreational marijuana, but hemp has a fraction of marijuana’s THC, the chemical that causes psychological effects. Hatfield said he doubts feds will care about hemp.

“This whole universe is changing so rapidly. This is going to be the least of federal concerns — cracking down on hemp farmers,” he said.

State officials say it’s anybody’s guess how many acres of hemp would be grown in Washington. Yakima Valley Sen. Jim Honeyford, who co-sponsored Hatfield’s bill and has long experience in Washington agriculture, has said he doubts many farmers would grow hemp.

The Office of Financial Management estimated WSDA would spend about $900,000 a year regulating hemp if the House bill were adopted. The bill allows WSDA to collect $10 per acre for a 36-month hemp license, though the department would have the authority to raise the fee.

Cannabis lobbyist Ezra Eickmeyer suggested the state create a database to let farmers know how close marijuana and hemp grows are to each other, but otherwise regulate hemp lightly. “We don’t need giant oversight from the government, like we do with marijuana right now,” he said.

Whatcom County hemp entrepreneur Sandy Soderberg told a Senate committee that she’s received “pledges” from farmers through her website to plant about 2,000 acres of hemp. She said, however, that some growers are concerned about the expense and necessity of regulation.

“They feel it conflicts with what we’re trying to portray … that it’s not marijuana. Yet, we’re still licensing it, structuring it as though it were marijuana,” she said.

In an interview, Soderberg said she was primarily concerned about tight restrictions on hemp seeds available to farmers. Nevertheless, she said she agrees that turning hemp loose without rules could lead to problems. “I’m struggling with this, to be quite honest,” she said. “One way or the other, we’re going to have a bill. It’s a matter of getting the right one.”