On our 13 acre farm, my husband and I only intended to grow food for ourselves while helping to save endangered breeds of farm animals. However, when our first two Dutch Belted cows together gave ten gallons of milk every day, we quickly needed other outlets for this bounty. The pigs and chickens were glad to help and I made lots of cheese for us. But raw milk is such a beautiful and nutritious food that we did want to share with friends and neighbors were eager to have access to raw milk.
Raw milk laws vary greatly from state to state, and we quickly learned that it is illegal to sell raw milk in Ohio. However, Ohio does allow farmers to sell consumers a “share” of the herd—no matter how small the herd. This system of “herd-shares” exists in some other states, while others allow selling raw milk through a retail store and others directly from farms to consumers. Only New Jersey currently prohibits obtaining raw milk by any means.
I might have found navigating the legal system overwhelming if a national group hadn’t been formed just as we were puzzling over our excess milk. The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund was founded in 2007 to help small farmers keep legally safe when selling produce from their farms. This national organization provides the basic knowledge of state-specific laws, contracts, advice, customer information and even access to its lawyers, if needed. The annual fee varies for farmers, consumers, artisans or co-op; it is a great bargain to keep our small farms safe.
Here is some of the “legal-speak” that they taught us for doing herd-shares. Rather than buying milk, customers buy shares of the herd. These “owners” then pick up the amount of milk weekly that is equivalent to their share. For our share-holders, one share cost $50. For owning one share, a customer got a gallon of milk-per-week. An individual could buy a half-share, a single share or more than one share. That money was refunded when they no longer wanted milk or when we no longer wanted to do herd-shares.
We were not the owners, but the “agisters,” or care-takers of the herd. The way we got paid for our mucking and milking duties was a monthly fee. You can base the amount of your monthly “agister fee” on what your want to charge per gallon of milk. That fee varies by how many shares (or partial shares) an individual owns and therefore how much milk they get. We charged $28-per-share each month. People picked up their milk weekly on their designated day, but paid monthly at the barn’s entrance while checking off their name for that month. Remember, if there happens to be five Fridays in the month, the person who picks up their milk on Friday still pays the same monthly agister fee. In this way, the customers get pleasure with this rare bonus, and we stayed safe with the law.
What I’ve described covers the legalities of doing herd-shares in Ohio. For updates or to access the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund for your state, go online or phone (703)-208-FARM (3276).
Besides doing things legally, the other aspect of keeping safe is to have a safe product. That’s nothing different than any of us want to provide for our families, so we only need to hold that standard when increasing production. Raw milk does demand a higher standard of cleanliness than ultra-pasteurized, deadened store milk, but raw milk excels in safety and health because the “good” lactobacilli keep bad bacteria in check. Our job is to keep the bad bacteria in low numbers.
A brief summary of how we keep our milk safe begins with cleaning any dirty teats with sanitary wipes and then dipping each teat in a 2% chlorhexidine mixture. We keep the udder dry to prevent bacteria from dripping down onto the teats. We found it easier to use disposable latex gloves when milking than washing our hands between cows. Our milk buckets are stainless steel which allows us to sanitize with a food-grade iodine solution after a hot soap-and-water wash. The two-quart milk bottles are glass and so they are sanitized with a less-expensive diluted bleach solution. Milk is filtered twice and put immediately into a cold refrigerator. We did change from hand-milking to a bucket-milker when the first two cows became three, but this was meant to help our aging hands as much as keeping the milk clean.
Let me share one more thing about safety with herd-shares. When we sought advice from another couple who had begun herd-shares a few years before us, they stressed how important it was not to attempt to “sell” our product. They offered this advice after reading my very enthusiastic, two-page handout on the many health benefits of raw milk. They kindly stressed not to try to “sell” people on how great raw milk is, but instead to allow well-informed people, who truly wanted this product, to find us. This has served us well because having supportive customers who wanted us to succeed made our lives and work much easier. These customers were also less likely to look at raw milk as the culprit if they got a stomach ache.
Although I put safety before sanity, keeping sane while having herd-shares isn’t so difficult either. For us it meant keeping things as simple as possible. The barn was set-up to allow customers to pick up their milk and leave payments without our assistance. This was accomplished by having the milk refrigerator and payment container by the front door of the barn. When originally signing contracts, each customer was given a handout on how to clean and sanitize their own milk containers. They were responsible for leaving these empty and labeled bottles when picking up milk. It seemed obvious that “keeping things simple” meant sharing the work!
Not carrying milk into the house was a great labor-saver too. We turned the barn’s tack-room into a wash-room, complete with a small water heater on a twice-daily timer. The wash-room is just across the hall from the milking stalls and contains a double sink, plenty of counter space for drainage racks and shelves for equipment. A used, restaurant-supply store was our source of the entry-way refrigerator and the wash-room equipment.
Although we really enjoy having raw milk, we don’t enjoy it enough to milk year-round. We found that we could freeze some of the milk for winter consumption while also enjoying the cheddar cheese made during the summer. So part of our sanity was to give the cows and ourselves a break during the winter months. The herd-share members were good sports about viewing their milk as a seasonal food.
We can keep both safe and sane when sharing excess milk and providing extra income for our small farms.
Mary Lou Shaw homesteads with her husband on a small farm in central Ohio. Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, can be bought through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.
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