Raw Milk Enthusiasts Sour On Proposed Delivery Ban

The cows at Robinson Farm in Hardwick are grass-fed to meet the demands of raw milk consumers. (Courtesy Robinson Farm)

HARDWICK, Mass. — How much do you expect to pay for a gallon of milk these days? $2.50?

Well, if it came from the cows here on Robinson Farm, a gallon is going to cost you $7. But for a small but growing number of people in Massachusetts, it’s worth it.

People like Dara Lambert of Upton. She’s what you might call a raw milk enthusiast. “I believe pasteurization pretty much kills a lot of the nutrients: the probiotics, the antibiotics,” she says. “I drank raw milk while I was breast feeding, I would drink it if I was pregnant.”

Lambert has just pulled up at Robinson Farm, where she has come to pick up some fresh, raw milk. Several dozen gallons actually, more than you’d think even the most hardcore raw milk drinker might need.

She belongs to what is known as a buying club. Since it’s illegal to sell raw milk at the supermarket, the only place consumers can get it is straight from the farm. But for most people, getting to one of the state’s 20-some farms that sell raw milk is not easy.

Which is why a loose network of these buying clubs have emerged. Club members take turns driving to a farm to pick up milk for the rest of the group. For somebody living in Brookline — where there is a buying club, by the way — it means only having to make the drive out to Central Massachusetts every few months, rather than every couple weeks.

But, now, those buying clubs are in danger of being shut down. The state Department of Agricultural Resources holds a hearing Monday morning in Boston on its push to make the clubs illegal.

Department of Agricultural Resources Commissioner Scott Soares says the problem is not the raw milk itself, it’s that these clubs are unregulated.

“Milk is a pretty unique product and as a result of that, there are some pretty specific requirements around the distribution of milk,” he says. “None of these businesses had pursued any kind of legal activity. That’s why the department has engaged and has issued cease-and-desist orders to businesses that in fact were engaged as milk distributors for raw milk that were in fact unlicensed activities.”

Back in Hardwick, at Robinson Farm, owners Ray and Pam worry a ban on buying clubs could mean the end of the family business.

Raw milk has been their main source of income since they they transitioned five years ago to become a smaller, organic dairy farm. And about half their raw milk sales come through the buying clubs.

“Whenever we started selling raw milk, it was the groups that made it a real business — a real successful, sustainable business,” Ray says. “So it would be real difficult to lose them right now.”

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  • Fernanda Moreira

    First i want to thank WBUR to make it a front page article in the website. i’ve been following the debate over raw milk and was surprised that it didnt show up on other boston news outlets yet. It just reinforces my preference and trust on public radio.
    I was born in rural brazil. Being the oldest it was my chore to go to the milkman every morning to pick up our jug of raw milk. it was so heavy to carry all the way back home but it was one of my favorite foods, never heard of anyone getting sick from it. My parents worked hard to make sure i got a education and when i finally made it to america i thought all my dreams were to come true and that life wouldnt be so hard. But getting a jug of milk has been proving to be a still hard chore for me. after finally finding a buying club(justdairy.com) i was happy to keep the foods choice i was raised on. But it seems that even this choice might be taking away.
    i came to america not just for opportunities but for the great belief in freedom that this country was founded. I just hope people in power dont get in the way of people’s right to choose what they eat. Such demonstration as of today makes me hopeful that my children will keep their right to buy and drink REAL MILK.

  • Harold MacCaughey

    The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, while well-intentioned, is regrettably misguided in requiring citizens to drink Pasteurized milk. Actually, this article is an example of caveat emptor – the people buying and drinking raw milk know what they are doing and they should be allowed to do so. The Commonwealth should back away. Informed and competent citizens need not be protected from themselves.
    Harold MacCaughey

  • ernie cranks

    The state is not questioning anyone’s right to DRINK raw milk. The state does have a right to regulate commerce.

  • Kasia

    The state does have the right to regulate commerce.
    However… we’re not talking about commerce here. It’s not BUSINESSES that “distribute” this milk. It’s me picking up milk at the farm for a bunch of acquaintances. Does the state have the right to regulate whether you can go to Stop & Shop and get milk for your neighbors? Because that’s the issue at hand here.

  • felicity newbro

    Raw milk helped my son recover from chronic fatigue.
    I am so upset thinking that this USED TO BE the USA, where we had civil rights. It should NOT be a crime to buy and drink wholesome farm milk!!!

  • Siva Chinnasamy

    Thank you for covering such an important topic prominently.

    Myself and my family have benefited immensely from consuming raw milk. We don’t drink the highly processed and harmful milk that is sold in the stores. Thanks to that my 6 year old son has no allergies, he is growing in a very healthy way and the milk and home made yogurt tastes much better and healthier than anything money could buy in the supermarkets.

    It is weird that in a free society it is possible to get highly processed and harmful homogenized (aka harmful) and ultra pausterized (aka devoid of nutrition) milk but it is not possible to operate buying clubs to get fresh raw milk directly from the farms?

    I want raw milk available on the shelf with appropriate warning information in supermarkets.

    I hope common sense and health consciousness dawn on this agriculture commissioner – Scott Soares. May he and his family discover the health benefits of raw milk and benefit from it. We would welcome him to our buying club.

  • polemera

    People in the buying clubs go out of their way to get raw milk. To think they are not informed when they drink raw milk is ridiculous.
    Why is it okay to sell alcohol, cigarettes, OTC drugs, and raw meat to an uninformed consumer, but not okay to sell raw milk to contractually bound, informed consumers?

    This smells of big business feeling profit share slip away and trying to get it back.

    Enough already!

  • Pj Schott

    Thank you for covering this story. Big hugs to Bob Oakes & Lisa Tobin. There’s a special place in heaven for good journalists. And small farmers. And cows. XXO

  • Steve C

    There is no legal standing for a buying club to be shut down. You can try to label it a business, but it just isn’t so. No where in the Commissioner’s statement is there justification for his actions and orders. So I have to question the motives, they are suspicious.

  • Dara Lambert

    I didn’t expect to run into NPR (Bob and Lisa are great) on the day of a milk run for the club, though it was a great experience. I just want to clarify that I meant “antibodies” vs “antibiotics” as of course there are NO antibiotics in raw milk…:)

  • lucas lombardi

    we get our milk from Robinson farm.

  • Sea Grayling

    No Farms, No Food. Thanks for reporting this. Big Moo is trying to take over. argh.

  • ernie cranks

    The buying clubs were not just a few neighbors picking up a gallon or two: at least some of them were delivery businesses, dropping off milk to strangers at locations used by multiple “acquaintances.” If the buying clubs are transparent attempts to evade the intent of the law, which is that raw milk buyers know their farmer, then yes, the state has every right to jump in and act in the interest of public health.
    Making something inconvenient does not make it unconstitutional.

  • http://wbur Mark Grohman

    Some great comments here; it’s true that informed members of a free society don’t need protection from themselves.
    I would add that generations of my family have grown up healthy on raw milk. Let’s help small farms, we really need them.

  • Christopher Beland

    I found this story to be quite unbalanced, as it completely avoided any questions over the safety of raw milk. The claim that pasteurization destroys beneficial microorganisms or nutrients went unchallenged; the FDA currently asserts the opposite.

    The story told us how burdensome the regulations are on consumers, how the proposed changes threatened a family business, and all but encouraged us to go to Boston Common and drink raw milk. We heard that “big milk” wants to squash this part of the industry, but nothing about *why* public health officials are concerned about the product.

    According to the CDC, hundreds of people get sick each year from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made from it, and some people die from those illnesses. Pasteurization protects against tuberculosis bacteria, campylobacteria, E. coli, listeria, salmonella, yersinia, and brucella.

    I believe it is a highly appropriate role for government to protect consumers against a product which could make them ill or kill them. I’m afraid many people – even those who think of themselves as informed consumers – simply assume that “natural must be better” even though in this case that’s not well supported by scientific study, and take “no one I know has gotten sick” as a guarantee of safety.

    It might be that there are ways other than pasteurization to reliably prevent raw milk dairies from causing illness in their customers, such as improved sanitation and testing regimes. It would be helpful if we were discussing that question intelligently rather than just bemoaning the burdensome regulations and the tough economics of small-scale dairies.

  • Tricia Schwartz

    I see 2 issues:

    1 – I have not seen actual data that tracks the number of people who have gotten sick from drinking raw milk. Then, that data should be compared to the number of people who get sick from eating industrial food. That would be interesting to see. We won’t even include heart disease and diabetes.

    2 – Even more importantly is the question of whether it is the government’s job to protect us from our own informed decisions.

    I can see that it is reasonable for people who buy food at the grocery store to think that the food that they are buying will not make them sick. There is an understanding that the government will protect us in that way. And yet we all know that is not true. Anyone for some cheesy chicken and rice with a touch of salmonella, complements of ConAgra?

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