A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between Boise State Public Radio and the Boise Weekly
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On Aug. 3, federal and county law enforcement agents raided a Venice, Calif., raw-food club, searching for raw milk. The YouTube video of the raid showed officers, with guns drawn, working their way through the facility in what critics called “government-sponsored terrorism” and “an attack on food freedom.”
Every few months, it seems, TV news or amateur videographers capture another raid on a raw-milk supplier somewhere in America. In the past several years, law enforcement agencies have carried out raw-milk raids in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Each raid increases the tension that already surrounds the debate over raw milk.
Idaho, by contrast, has taken a very different raw-milk route.
“Raw milk comes straight from the cow or goat. We don’t do anything to it except filter it and flash cool it and bottle it,” said Debra Jantzi, owner of Treasured Sunrise Acres, a Grade A raw-milk dairy in Fruitland.
Pasteurization, on the other hand, is a heating process that kills bacteria and other pathogens and has been a standard practice in the U.S. dairy industry since the mid-20th century. Many state and federal health agencies claim that raw milk is dangerous to drink–citing a 2010 outbreak of campylobacter from raw milk in Indiana–and, therefore, ban or greatly restrict its distribution.
Raw-milk advocates, like Jantzi, counter that pasteurization kills flavor, as well as beneficial bacteria and the nutrients that make milk healthful. They argue that far more illnesses are attributed to poorly handled pasteurized milk than raw. At the very least, they say, consumers should have the freedom to choose the dairy products they want.
Idaho is one of only a handful of states that give consumers that choice.
Jantzi began selling raw cow and goat milk at Boise’s Capital City Public Market in the summer of 2010. She was the first vendor to sell raw milk directly to customers in the market’s 17-year history. She now offers it through retail outlets in the Treasure Valley.
Jantzi said pressure from the public and changes in Idaho law helped make that possible. But Marv Patten, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture‘s Dairy Bureau chief, disagreed.
“That’s not exactly correct,” said Patten during an interview at ISDA headquarters in Boise. “The sale of retail raw milk in the state of Idaho has been legal virtually forever.”
Patten should know. His own family had a dairy that legally sold raw milk in the Treasure Valley years ago. But then, as now, there were lots of hoops to jump through. Like Jantzi, Patten’s family invested in the equipment required for a Grade A dairy and adhered to the special regulations and inspections required to sell raw milk in Idaho.
“You have to have a Grade A barn. You have to have a nutrient management plan. You have to buy all that shiny stainless steel-type of equipment, which could be very, very spendy,” Patten said.
Twenty years ago, that expense–along with added regulatory scrutiny, pressure from public-health organizations and a slumping demand for raw milk–made the legality of raw milk in Idaho irrelevant. Dairies simply quit producing it.
“The last Grade A raw-milk dairy that I can recall was in the early ’90s in Northern Idaho that was licensed by our agency,” Patten said. “Since that time, I don’t believe there was anybody that was licensed with us to legally sell it.”
But as the local-food movement has grown–with its emphasis on fresh and unadulterated products–so has interest in raw milk. Many of those eager to supply that new market were not Grade A dairies but small-scale farmers with a couple of cows and an often-evangelical faith in raw milk.
Without legal pathways for small producers in Idaho and elsewhere to follow, they began distributing their wares through often quasi-legal “herd share” programs, in which a farmer offered to share ownership of a cow with a group who then received a portion of that cow’s milk. Others simply sold their milk illegally through the burgeoning raw-milk underground.
Neither method included testing milk for pathogens–and that worried regulators like Patten.
“There were a lot of illegal raw-milk sales throughout the state,” Patten said. “Across-the-fence sales, let’s say.”
So, in early 2010, instead of drawing guns and raiding those operations, the state of Idaho–with the help of raw-milk advocates and a less-enthusiastic dairy industry–modified the regulations to make it easier for small raw-milk producers to go legit.
“After a lot of consternation and battling back and forth, we kind of created what we call the Small Farm Exemption,” Patten said. “And the compromise was that you could milk up to three cows or seven goats or seven sheep, and you could sell milk for human consumption.”
The Small Farm Exemption–also called the Small Herd Exemption–greatly streamlined Idaho’s raw-milk regulatory process. If a dairyman met the requirements, emphasis was moved from an expensive Grade A barn, with all its shiny stainless steel, to little more than a monthly testing of the milk itself.
Patten explained that a family can now “tie their goat to a tree and milk it, cool it appropriately and [sell it] if it meets the milk quality standards that we set forth … They’re not out much money other than maybe that rope to tie to the tree and a pail to put it in.”
Peter Dill, a raw-milk advocate and owner of Saint John’s Organic Farm in Emmett, participated in drafting the recent legislation.
“I think the process is beautifully simple,” said Dill.”We pushed for access to end-product testing. Let’s get away from plumbing and concrete requirements. Let’s talk about food quality.”
Patten said the Small Herd Exemption has slowed the state’s traffic in illegal raw milk while controlling the quality of raw milk sold to consumers.
“The inspections are very easy,” said Amy Wincentsen as she patted Butterscotch, a 7-year-old Jersey cow at her Little Bear Dairy in Troy. With two cows and a handful of goats, she and husband Tim are precisely the type of small-scale producers Idaho’s new raw-milk rules are made for.
“The state vet comes in his truck and we bring him a jar of milk and he tests the temperature and ladles out a little bit of it and sends it off to a lab,” Amy said. “We don’t have to do anything special at all. The state pays for the testing–which is very, very kind.”
The Wincentsens bottle their raw milk and yogurt in mason jars by hand in their family’s modest farmhouse kitchen. They make raw-milk cheese there, too.
“With the small herd exemption, we don’t have to have a certified kitchen and we don’t have to have state inspections for that,” Amy said. “They test the cheese just like they do the milk, and as long as it passes the bacteria test, then it’s available for sale.”
The Wincentsen’s main outlet is the Moscow Co-op. According to Peg Kingery, the co-op’s dairy buyer, they are the first raw-milk products the co-op has ever sold.
“We’d been getting requests for [raw milk] as long as I’ve been here–six years,” Kingery said. “Now that we finally have it, it’s making a lot of the customers very happy.”
Since the new rules were put in place in 2010, Patten said 70 small farms across the state have applied and qualified for the Small Herd Exemption (along with four Grade A dairies) and can now legally sell raw milk in Idaho.
“Marv has done a superb job of making that happen,” said Dill. “And it has not been easy. Somebody now has to go out to 70 new venues every month to collect milk samples to test them.”
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.