Regulators Crack Down on Micro-Dairies, But Small Farmers Fight Back With Local Food Sovereignty Ordinances

From Maine to California, regulators are trying to push laws meant for mega-dairies and agribusiness on small farmers, but the farmers have another idea.

This is the second in a two-part series by the Center for Media and Democracy's Food Rights Network (FRN) about challenges to local food sovereignty across the United States. For more, see the first article, on the lawsuit against Blue Hill, Maine farmer Dan Brown brought by the State of Maine and Maine's Agriculture Commissioner.

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Maine farmer Dan Brown, who only milks a single cow and sells the milk he and his family don't use to his neighbors, is being sued by the State of Maine for "unlicensed distribution and sale of milk and food products." The lawsuit has sparked protest in Maine and concern in other communities around the country. In an interview with the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), Brown said, "One of these times, they're going to come after one of us, and it's going to be that Rosa Parks moment . . . [for] the food system."

The Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance that passed in Brown's town of Blue Hill, Maine, on April 2, 2011, and asserts its "citizens' right to foods of their choice" without impediment by federal and state regulations, served as a model for several counties in California. CMD spoke with three farmers and activists about the food sovereignty movement there, and how the suit against Farmer Brown may affect their struggle.

Protecting the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System

Pattie Chelseth, who farms with her two sisters at My Sisters' Farm in El Dorado County, California bought a cow in order to get raw milk for a grandchild. When others started coming to her for raw milk, she started a herd share. The farm now boards two cows owned by 15 people, whom Chelseth believes are all entitled to a share of raw milk under their private ownership contract.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), however, served her with a cease-and-desist order. So Chelseth and other local farmers are promoting "An Ordinance to Protect the Health and Integrity of the Local Food System in the County of El Dorado, California." She believes it will be brought up at the December 13 County Board of Supervisors' meeting.

In an interview with CMD, Chelseth said that the El Dorado County ordinance "was absolutely based on the Maine ordinance originally," but that she and other drafters "took out everything construed as public (farmers' markets, bake sales, etc.) and focused on private agreements between patrons and their farmer." When asked how she thought the challenge to the Maine ordinance would affect their local efforts, Chelseth said, "If it's shot down somewhere else, that does not mean it will not prevail here."

Try to Get Goats to "Cease and Desist"

Sara Grusky and Michael Foley of Green Uprising Farm in Mendocino County, California, also participate in a small herd share program. A group of their neighbors pooled their money and bought a herd of goats. They help run the share program and pay Green Uprising Farm a fee for boarding and milking the goats they own.

Foley was handed a cease-and-desist order from the CDFA while manning the farm's booth at the Willits Farmers' Market in June of 2011.

In an interview with CMD, Grusky said, "That was right after the spring freshening, which means that all the goats have kids and are full of milk. I went home and tried to figure out what to do as I was milking that evening. I joked with the goats, 'The CDFA told you to cease and desist the production of raw milk!' But obviously they could not."

Foley and Grusky had to call shareholders and inform them that they would no longer have access to the milk from their goats. Grusky says it was one of the hardest things to do.

Grusky submitted alocal food sovereignty resolution similar to the El Dorado County ordinance and a Santa Cruz County resolution to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in October.

Working Group on Small Dairies

Chelseth, Foley and other farmers across California met with California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross. At that meeting, according to those who attended, the CDFA recognized that commercial dairy regulations were not appropriate for herdshares and micro-dairies. Secretary Ross suggested a "Working Group on Small Dairies" to propose a new regulatory framework for herd shares and micro-dairies.

The second meeting of the working group was December 7. Chelseth and Foley are on the working group, as are Mendocino County Agriculture Commisioner Tony Linegar, the Western Dairymen Association, a Farm Bureau representative and California State Grange Legislative Outreach Advocate Yannick Phillips, who helped organize the initial meeting with Secretary Ross.

Phillips spoke to CMD about the group's progress and challenges. "The good news," she says, is that the CDFA does "want to fix what's going on, so now we're all part of this working group, people on the consuming side, people on the farming side, myself as an advocate, and now CDFA has opened up to a much larger roundtable."

Phillips called the passage of local ordinances and resolutions "an insurance, a different strategy," and added, "I believe in a diversity of ways to get something done."

California, like Maine, is a home rule state, which means that cities, municipalities, and counties have the ability to pass laws to govern themselves, as long as those laws don't conflict with the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit against Dan Brown has been called a challenge to Blue Hill's local ordinance. When asked if she thought similar lawsuits could be brought in California, Phillips expressed confidence in the strategies of California food rights advocates:

I think anything is possible, but we have numerous people that are very involved, very passionate about this issue, in the urban, suburban and rural areas of California. I have to really applaud Secretary Karen Ross for putting this working group together. I think that's a great move in putting everyone together at the table. . . . We have . . . legislators that are involved as well, and informed. All this said, I believe. . . that the close relationship between the co-owners in such a herd share arrangement naturally initiates a self-regulating system. I think, for certain counties, that they [CDFA] wouldn't dare set foot on farms to stop herd shares.


Rebekah Wilce is the lead writer for the Center for Media and Democracy's Food Rights Network.