BOSTON - When Blanche Lennington last year started a small club to purchase raw milk directly from farmers, she figured it would be a good way to share her passion for the product and support local dairy farmers.
The club thrived - until it was suddenly shut down this year by the state.
The state Department of Agricultural Resources is banning
Lennington, a Becket grandmother, and other consumers from
purchasing nonpasteurized milk from a farm and then
distributing the milk to fellow club members.
Under a proposed state regulation that will be aired in Boston on Monday, people can continue to purchase raw milk from farms, but they will need to drive to the farm themselves. Under the regulation, people will no longer be allowed to join groups that allow them to pay another member a small fee to purchase the raw milk for them and drop it off at a convenient location for pickup, such as a rural retail store or private home.
"It's a death knell for small farms," said Lennington, 50, who started the club mostly to save others the time and expense of driving to a rural farm that sells raw milk.
Advocates for the clubs say the ban will hurt dairy farms and damage the economy by ending a local type of commerce based on a common love for "real milk."
In the past several years, sales of raw milk have boomed. Consumers cite the health benefits and the need for supporting farmers.
"Raw milk improves the quality of my life greatly and it tastes fabulous," said Pj Schott, 59, of Boston, who belonged to a club closed by the state.
Of the state's 160 dairy farms, 27 sell raw milk directly to consumers, including Misty Brook Farm in Hardwick, Sidehill Farm in Ashfield, the Hager Brothers Farm in Colrain and the Cook Farm in Hadley. There were only 10 farms in the state that sold raw milk in 2006.
The state Department of Agricultural Resources this year
sent "cease and desist" letters to Lennington and
the operators of three other clubs.
Agriculture commissioner Scott J. Soares says it's always been illegal for individuals to distribute raw milk and the proposed regulation would clarify that.
"The clubs have essentially been operating as illegal milk dealers and milk distributors," Soares said.
State officials want to be sure the product is safe after
it's taken from a farm, according to Soares.
The commissioner pointed out that Whole Foods stores in four states, including Connecticut, this year stopped selling raw milk.
Massachusetts does not allow the sale of raw milk at retail stores. Massachusetts is among only 17 states that allow the sale of raw milk at farms, Soares said.
The hearing on the regulation will be held 10 a.m. on the second floor of offices at 100 Cambridge St.
Once the raw milk leaves a farm, no safety standards exist for handling, sales, storage, shelf life and labels, Soares said.
The dairy farms that sell raw milk are inspected and certified by the state, Soares said.
Albert L. Hager, a dairy farmer in Colrain, said he has never sold the raw milk to clubs, but some dairy farmers rely on the clubs and will be hurt if the groups are prohibited.
The regulations should be structured, Hager said, to allow the buying groups to operate, though he conceded it will be difficult. "Food safety needs to be at the top of the list," Hager said.