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Organic Raw Milk: Making the Business Case for Dairy Farmer Civil Disobedience

The dairy industry has been in a funk the last couple of years because of over supply and low prices. Ever more milk producers have responded by hitching their wagons to one of the few dairy growth areas: raw milk. Many believe it is a more nutritious product, but let's not overlook simple economics -- a dairy that sells its milk to a milk cooperative or processor receives on the order of $1 to $1.50 a gallon, and loses money in the process. A dairy that sells unpasteurized milk to the rapidly growing numbers of consumers clamoring for unprocessed foods receives anywhere from $5 to $10 or more a gallon.

The tensions over this dichotomy have now exploded into full view, with Wisconsin dairy owners ever more boldly challenging the agriculture regulators in America's traditional dairy state (now second to California), who have been trying for more than a year to put a lid on the raw dairy market. Last December, farm owners Kay and Wayne Craig, with support from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, sued Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP), claiming harassment and inconsistent enforcement of the state's laws that allow "incidental" sales of raw milk; their case comes up for an initial hearing this month. Also in December, Max Kane, owner of a raw milk delivery service, was found guilty of contempt of court for refusing DATCP requests for the names of his customers and farmer suppliers; the case is currently under appeal. Last week, dairy farmer Vernon Hershberger cut the DATCP seals agents placed on his refrigerators and freezer in a raid just the day before. At least two other dairies, which don't want to be named, have taken the intriguing step of categorizing their customers as employees, since employees of Wisconsin dairies are allowed to buy unlimited amounts of raw milk.

Two events in the last month have emboldened the resistance. First came the veto by Gov. Jim Doyle of legislation that would have permitted sales of raw milk from dairy farms. Then came the decision two weeks ago by Organic Valley, a huge cooperative producer of organic dairy products, to throw out of its organization of about 1,500 dairy farmers some unknown hundreds who insist on selling raw milk on the side, while also selling milk to the cooperative for pasteurization.

How has all this come about? Are resistance, and even civil disobedience, the most appropriate responses? Or are the Wisconsin dairies doomed by the huge forces working against them?