That’s what some raw milk advocates are asking about Organic Valley’s recent decision to prohibit its members from selling unpasteurized milk on the side. The decision means that members will have to either sell all of their milk to the cooperative or break off from the cooperative and start up their own raw milk business.
Part of the reason so many people are puzzled by this recent turn of events is that Organic Valley recently endorsed a Wisconsin raw milk bill that would have allowed dairy farmers to sell unpasteurized milk directly to consumers. Despite the bill’s strong support among state legislators, the governor vetoed it, citing public health concerns as the reason.
Then, too, Organic Valley has always supported the consumer’s right to choose and has for the past 22 years allowed its members to sell raw milk on the side.
For many people outside the cooperative, confusion reigns.
“For some reason, Organic Valley had their tit in a wringer over something–and we are still waiting for someone to come forward to spill the cream,” says a comment on a blog site.
Conjectures include federal pressure through a $1 million grant that would help fund infrastructure to benefit Organic Valley’s site in Le Farge, Wisconsin; shadowy corporate influences to drive small-scale farmers out of business; and fears that a foodborne illness outbreak associated with an Organic Valley member’s farm would tarnish the reputation of the cooperative.
Organic Valley member and spokesman Jon Bansen, co-owner of Double J Jerseys in Oregon, is quick to agree that raw milk is “the hot topic of all times in the dairy industry.”
So hot, in fact, that cooperative members are fairly divided on this issue, with about 50 percent for and about 50 percent against the board’s prohibition of raw milk sales. It was a decision that, according to a statement from the cooperative, came after months and months of reading “volumes of literature” about the pros and cons of raw milk and years of debate among members.
But Bansen said that when all is said and done, the board’s vote wasn’t about the safety of raw milk or consumers’ rights to choose what they eat or drink but rather what the mission of the cooperative is: organic dairy farmers banding together to market their milk under a common brand.
“We’re not in the business of selling raw milk,” Bansen said. “It’s not our business model.”
Bansen said some members have been making a business of selling raw milk and using Organic Valley to balance out their milk supply.
But that, in turn, said Bansen, can hurt the cooperative.
During the winter months, for example, when milk production is down but demand for milk is up, farmers selling raw milk can sell more of their raw milk than in the summer months when demand is down because people are drinking less milk and more hot-weather drinks such as iced tea, beer, and pop.
Yet summer is when milk production goes up.
Bansen said this seasonal difference in supply can leave Organic Valley in the position of either having too much milk or too little milk to process and sell.
And though Bansen estimates that it’s just a small minority of the cooperative’s members who are making raw milk their side business, he said it can make a difference in how Organic Valley balances its supply.
Even so, he can also understand why so many of the cooperative’s members don’t like the board’s decision.
“A lot of them have neighbors begging them for their raw milk,” he said. “I have people come to me all of the time begging to buy raw milk from me.”
And while he and his family drink raw milk from their farm, he said he wouldn’t touch selling it to other people “with a 10-foot pole.”
“I don’t want to bet my livelihood on the assumption that every dairy farmer is doing it right all of the time,” he said, referring to food safety procedures that need to be followed when producing and selling raw milk.
Maine dairy farmer and Organic Valley member Doug Hartkopf, owner of Hart-to-Hart Farm, would agree. He told a reporter that raw milk can be harmful if the farmer producing it is not doing his job properly. He also said there are some farms whose milk he wouldn’t drink based on “how they raise cows or whatever.”
Hartkopf also told the reporter that he sells most of his milk to a processor that pasteurizes his farm’s milk and sells a small percentage as raw milk.
Connecting food safety concerns with consumers’ rights, Bansen said he believes that people have the right to eat, drink, or smoke whatever they want.
But if raw milk from a cooperative member got people sick, he wouldn’t want to see the cooperative’s reputation be hurt. He also referred to “lawyers’ ramping up the stakes” when it comes to foodborne illnesses.
And with the cooperative’s members hailing from 33 states and four Canadian provinces, Bansen worries about the patchwork of raw milk regulations in the different states–a concern that in addition to public health concerns led Whole Foods earlier this year to stop selling raw milk in its stores.
When looking at his farm’s bottom line and the cooperative’s bottom line, Bansen said he favors the board’s conservative approach to doing business.
“A conservative approach is what keeps you in business and out of harm’s way,” he said.
According to Organic Valley’s statement about its raw milk decision, most of its farmer-owners drink raw milk and many believe in its benefits.
“The decision is not because we are ‘against raw milk,'” says the statement.
The statement also reaffirms the cooperative’s belief that consumers should have the choice to purchase raw milk from the farm and consume it as long as proper food safety procedures are followed.
But pointing to the cooperative’s challenges in managing its milk supply, the statement said that when it counts on and plans for a farmer’s entire supply only to see that the amount of milk delivered is unexpectedly less due to raw milk sales, it creates difficulties in supply management and planning, which affects all of the cooperative’s farmer-owners.
“We are taking a cautious approach in order to keep our cooperative and brands strong for future generations of organic family farmers,” says the statement.
Last year, the cooperative recorded $527 million in sales.
Not surprisingly, raw milk advocates are outraged by Organic Valley’s decision on this.
“We’re opposed,” said Pete Kennedy, an attorney with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. “It’s cheating the cooperative’s members out of selling raw milk. They’re not competing with Organic Valley. If anything, they can help Organic Valley’s reputation.”
Organic Valley’s statement conceded that its decision may “end up being a boon for the raw milk movement in the states where it is legal.”
In Connecticut, Sarah Brush, who manages Brush
Hill Dairy in the southeast corner of the state, said the cooperative’s decision will generally help raw milk producers, depending on where their farms and markets are located.
“When Whole Foods stopped selling raw milk, it did push raw milk sales to farms and other stores,” she said. “We saw a slight difference in sales.”
She said the dairy decided to start supplementing its income by selling some of its raw milk and selling the rest to the processor.
“There’s no money in conventional dairying,” she said, referring to abysmally low milk prices the past several years. “There’s no money in it.”
Generally, raw milk sells for double the price of conventional milk, sometimes considerably more.
When asked about the boycott that some opponents to Organic Valley’s raw milk decision are calling for, Oregon dairy farmer Bansen said it was shortsighted.
“We’re doing things that are keeping our planet from dying under its own waste,” he said, referring to organic practices that don’t allow synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. “Here they are calling for a boycott against us, and we’re part of the solution. It flabbergasts me.”
While many raw milk advocates swear by the health benefits of drinking raw milk, many scientists and health agencies warn that milk that isn’t pasteurized to kill pathogens can cause foodborne illnesses or even death.