It’s after-hours at Woodland Smokehouse on Commercial Drive, the setting of a small gathering of people here to meet Ontario’s Michael Schmidt, Canada’s most visible advocate of the burgeoning raw milk movement. They’ve come to listen to his story and to help raise funds for his ongoing legal battles to legitimize the sale and distribution of raw-milk from small cow-share farms. Schmidt is in BC to attend a BC Supreme Court hearing to face milk-related contempt of court charges.
He is accompanied by Chilliwack cow farmer Alice Jongerden, who has been burdened with legal skirmishes surrounding her own efforts to distribute raw milk from her own cow-share Home on the Range.
In March 2010, Jongerden was served with a permanent injunction by the Fraser Health Authority to prevent her from distributing raw milk. However, in an effort to avail the 450 members of the cow share with this “illicit” product, Jongerden continued to operate Home on the Range and re-labeled the milk “Not Fit for Human Consumption” hoping to circumvent the Public Health Act. Fraser Health took action and Jorgenden was later charged with contempt for failing to heed the court order.
The focus of this movement has been the concept of “cow-shares” – essentially subscription-based raw-milk micro-dairies where members pay a monthly fee for a small dividend of its production (about two quarts of raw milk a week). For years, Schmidt has been in and out of courtrooms in Ontario fighting to legitimize and legally regulate these small farms. Schmidt has used this new opportunity to challenge the legal status quo in BC and to take this battle – which he is calling a “food freedom movement” – into a national arena.
Schmidt and Jongerden are natural allies. They have a common bond – both of them grew up on cow farms and had been drinking raw milk all of their lives. They are frustrated that they have to use loop-holes and legal games in order for them to ply their trade. To them, this isn’t about milk. “This is about the connection with your food and with the farmers who produce it,” says Schmidt.
Furthermore, they both believe that the prohibition of raw milk distribution contravenes protections enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and are thus mounting a constitutional challenge. Schmidt adds, “This isn’t just a Civil Liberties issue; this is a Civil Rights issue.”
In an increasingly industrialized food culture here in North America, both Schmidt and Jongerden lament the consumer’s loss of control and the lack of transparency in modern food production. Schmidt notes, “The herd-sharing model is fascinating. Kids can relate to it. You have a cow on a farm, and it gives you milk. It is more a social restructuring of your relationship with food.”
Schmidt makes a contrast between here and parts of Europe where the distribution of raw milk is legal. “Raw milk was never banned there. There was never a big discussion about it. Italy has raw milk vending machines and my wife worked in a hospital unit that used raw milk,” he adds. “Europe does not have a history of industrialization of food as here. Food is still part of their cultural identity.”
Citing similarities with the Organic Food movement, Schmidt is careful to point out the differences and the recent history of big Agriculture’s hi-jacking of the word “Organic”. “It’s not about mass-marketing raw milk. Organic became mainstream. We don’t want to become mainstream. What we want is to revitalize the countryside with small farms in order to make agriculture again a cultural entity in Canada.”
Addressing current published government statistics about the safety of raw milk, Schmidt and Jongerden point out that raw milk’s stigma stems not from small dairy farms, but from big industrialized factory operations that collect milk by tanker truck from many different sources. “Fifteen percent of all milk tanks in BC and Ontario are contaminated by pathogens,” Schmidt claims, “but it doesn’t matter because they pasteurize it.”
In a small cow-share operation, Jongerden notes, “the traceability is there, not just down to the farm, but down to the jar”.
“There are two types of raw milk”, Jongerden says, “one destined for pasteurization and one destined for human consumption. They are not the same product.” Schmidt adds, “When you know that the milk will not be pasteurized, you take different care of it.”
Schmidt and Jongerden are proposing an artisanal model to raw milk production – one where regulated small private cow-share dairies are the sole source of the product. “We are not in favour of selling raw milk off the shelf, as that is an entirely different commodity,” Jongerden asserts, further noting that a trend to industrialization and commodification of raw-milk production is not in the public good. “You will be pushing the cows too hard in order to produce more milk…and it will come down to money again.”
In an effort to jumpstart the regulatory acceptance of the raw-milk movement, Schmidt has formed an organization called “Cow Share Canada” where he is drafting a “common sense” certification program that stresses production hygiene. “We are not opposed to an agency such as Fraser Health to come in and inspect farms. I think it is only fair to do that. But we do not tolerate them just shutting us down.”
Despite the yet-unpublished certification guidelines, Cow Share Canada is building traction back east. “We now have six or seven member farms in Ontario. They are very good and very successful farms. They have to have a once-a-year inspection by an independent dairy inspector. They have to test the milk. They have to have a twice a year manure testing for pathogens.”
With the lack of officially approved inspectors, he has taken on the role as a de facto regulator in the name of public safety. He recently turned down an application for membership from a farm in Alberta after a site visit. “I could not certify the farm based on what I saw during my visit. The farmer totally agreed with [my assessment of his farm] and now he is making changes based on my recommendations.”
For the curious potential consumer of raw milk he suggests building a trust relationship with a farm. “Go to the farm and talk to them – ask some questions. Is the farm clean? What are they feeding their cows? Is the milking facility clean?”
As for the future of raw milk debate, “It has to start with an open dialog and education,” Jongerden says. “But at this point, they are not open to dialog.”
Court Case Feb 14 – 15
BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Public Courthouse.
4th Annual International Raw (Fresh) Milk Symposium
Slow Food volunteer meeting will be held on Wednesday, February 27th, at the Rhizome Café, 7:00 p.m.- 9:00 p.m.