Will Raw Milk Save Dairy Farmers?

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As corporations continue to take control of the food supply, small family farms are giving way to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) mass producing a surplus of poor-quality food. Conventional milk is a prime example. Milk surpluses have led the price of milk to plummet.

In Wisconsin, farmers are getting nearly 40 percent less for their milk than they were in 2014. Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in the state in 2018, most of them small operations.1

As CAFOs became the norm for dairy farms (even in idyllic-seeming dairy states like Vermont), farmers trying to survive were forced to grow their herds and increase milk production using artificial (drug- and hormone-based) methods, among others (like feeding cows an unnatural amount of grain-based food, 24-hour confinement and increased numbers of milkings per day).

Such was the case for Pennsylvania dairy farmer Edwin Shank, who increased his herd size to 350 cows, used growth hormones and milked cows three times a day — only to face financial ruin as milk prices dropped in the 2000s.

Shank's story has a happy ending, though, as he is one of a growing number of farmers who've been able to not only climb their way out of a failing industry, but also thrive by switching over to a profitable niche market: raw milk.2

Raw Milk Farmers Thrive as Others Shut Down

Many consumers seeking out raw milk do so for health purposes or simply because they love the taste, but raw milk has another advantage in that it's helping small farmers to thrive. As Civil Eats reported, Shank was in the process of transitioning his dairy to organic when he realized he could sell organic raw milk for nearly 10 times the price he'd been getting before.

Judith McGeary, an attorney and board member with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, told Civil Eats, “Dairy is an incredibly consolidated system. The farmer has no bargaining power … Raw milk provides this polar opposite; you have this product in high demand by consumers who value it, and all that profit goes to the farmer.”3

Shank's farm, The Family Cow, is now the largest raw-milk producer in Pennsylvania, taking advantage of increasing interest in this fresh, wholesome food. Likewise, Charlotte Smith, a farmer in Oregon, is able to stay in business by milking just three cows, the number the state law allows for raw milk farmers.

“I milk three cows and my neighbor who milks 300 cows could probably make as much money as me if he sold all his cows and milked three,” she told Civil Eats.4 Meanwhile, the price of conventional milk has gone so low that an average-sized dairy farm in Vermont (about 125 cows) may operate at a loss of $100,000 a year.5

But for Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk dairy in California, sales grew 18 percent from January 2018 to January 2019. Likewise, as conventional milk farmers are shutting down, licenses for raw milk dairies climbed from six in 2006 in Washington state to 32 in 2019. And in New York, permits for…

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