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Raw milk sales could expand under  new bill

Proposed legislation that got an airing Monday would allow lovers of raw milk to buy it not just down on the farm where the cows produce it, but also from their Community Supported Agriculture farm, buying clubs and from the farmers’ off-premise locations.

State Agricultural Commissioner Gregory Watson said his department is concerned about health and safety issues if sales of raw milk, which a growing number of consumers say has added nutritional benefits, moves off the farm, especially if that requires more inspection than his department can handle.

The legislation, which has been co-sponsored by area legislators Paul Mark, Stephen Kulik and Denise Andrews, was recommended two years ago by the Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture, which conducted Monday’s session in Spencer. But the bill got held up in the House Ways and Means Committee because agriculture officials said they would need 10 to 12 additional inspectors to handle the additional workload, according to Kulik.

“There’s increasing public demand for raw milk, and it is a way that farmers can add value for their product, selling direct,” said Kulik. “There’s certainly a public health component to this. It can be dangerous if it’s not well handled. But there are many other states that permit this that don’t have problems, and I think farmers are going to be responsible about getting into this.”

Winton Pitcoff, coordinator of the Raw Milk Network, representing 24 of the state’s 28 raw milk producers, guesses that the additional inspection duties might require an extra two or three people, adding that the group would support the state Department of Agricultural getting “realistic” additional resources to ensure safety.

The organization, an offshoot of Northeast Organic Farmers of America, said it’s seen a doubling of its raw milk sold from what it was about four or five years ago, to about 140,000 gallons of milk a year, worth about $1.2 million.

Albert “Chip” Hager, who stopped selling raw milk a couple of years ago at his Colrain farm because customers began shifting their purchases to the more convenient Mohawk Trail farm store in Shelburne — where raw milk can’t legally be sold — said he can probably make 25 percent more on raw milk he sells, compared to processed milk that he sells through Our Family Farms

“I’d love to be able to sell raw milk,” Hager said. “I would like to see it happen. I have no doubt that it would be popular. People are looking more and more for all-natural, unprocessed products, and raw milk is unprocessed. There are a lot of people who are making yogurt and cheese, and they need raw milk to make it.

Mark, who is a member of the committee that heard testimony Monday, said, he sees the issue as largely an economic one to help the viability of dairy farmers.

“People can come to the farm and purchase raw milk,” he said. “Why not allow the farmers to sell it at their farmstands and stores? It just makes sense to me.”

Like Kulik, Mark said he believes the legislation seems to stand a better chance of passing this time around.

While Gill farmer Clifford Hatch said he doesn’t see any immediate impact from the legislation, since existing rules already allow him to sell about 20,000 gallons a year at his Uppingil Farm market, Amy Klippenstein of Sidehill Farm in Hawley says the impact could be tremendous since it would be easy for Sidehill to deliver raw milk in the refrigerated truck it uses to distribute its organic yogurt around the Pioneer Valley and the Berkshires three days a week.

“It would be great for us,” said Klippenstein, who has concerns about customers who drive away from the farm with raw milk in the back seat during hot weather. By delivering it right from the farm’s coolers to a refrigerator shared by customers who had pre-purchased the milk, or at a Community Supported Agriculture drop-off point, “there would never be a break in the cold chain,” she said.

“Being able to deliver raw milk would be really fantastic,” said Klippenstein.

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