Wisconsin is “America’s Dairyland” — the slogan has been on Wisconsin license plates for more than 75 years. The state tops the U.S. dairy industry worth $40.5 billion with its 9.3 million milk-producing cows.

The milk and dairy products Wisconsin is known for have long been pasteurized products. Sales and distribution of raw milk have remained forbidden. That does not mean there haven’t been some knockdown battles in the past decades over raw milk. In 2010, the Wisconsin Legislature went so far as to make raw milk legal.

But then-Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the bill and kept pasteurization regulations in place. And a coalition grew up to make sure the Legislature would never hurt “America’s Dairyland” again by loosening food safety with raw milk. Wisconsin’s major agricultural and medical organizations worked hand-in-hand on the issue.

Now one of those groups, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau has flipped. At its policy conference in December 2022, a southwestern dairy farmer persuaded fellow delegates that a post-pandemic market exists where more consumers are demanding raw milk.

Travis Klinkner, a dairy farmer from Vernon County, claims that “technology and standards” exist to make sales of raw milk safe. He says “we’re not farming in the 1920s and 30s anymore.”

“The standards I’m proposing are in a lot of ways in excess of pasteurized milk with lower bacterial and coliform counts, so we can ensure a stable shelf life for consumers who may be unaware how to consume or handle raw milk,” he said.

Farm Bureau delegates voted to support raw milk sales at the convention, a major change for the organization.

“We don’t just want anyone cracking a valve on their bulk tank and putting milk in a dirty jar,” Klinkner said. “There’s going to be some standards with this that we proposed today from the Raw Milk Institute as an example of some standards that will provide assurances that the consumers are going to be getting a clean quality product.”

After Doyle’s famous veto, a Wisconsin Task Force came up with standards that have to be met if raw milk ever does become legal in the state. Legislative skirmishes since 2010 have continued to enforce Wisconsin’s ban on off-farm raw milk sales.

The Wisconsin Legislature is underway for its 2023 session, but so far no “raw milk” bills have been introduced. Wisconsin has a Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, with both chambers of the legislature under Republican control. They are known for their icy relationship.

About one-fifth of dairy products are exported, with Canada, Mexico and Southeast Asia among the foreign markets worth about $6 billion. This explains why it is such big business to Wisconsin. About 150,000 Americans work in the dairy industry.

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