By Jill Penley
There was a time in the not so distant past when all one had to do for a refreshing glass of milk was visit a neighbor’s dairy farm. People reared in the mountains of East Tennessee, and surrounding areas have been drinking raw milk, straight from cows, sheep, and goats, for ages. Milk, which has long been one of the most nutritionally complete foods in the human diet, remains an important part of nearly every culture’s cuisine, but a bill moving forward in the Tennessee legislature seeks to prohibit using raw milk for personal consumption or other personal use, even if it is derived from one’s own stock.
“In Tennessee, it has pretty much always been illegal to sell raw milk,” said Bill Ward, who grew up on a local farm and is now with the Johnson County Assessor’s Office and Adjunct Instructor with King University teaching courses in Appalachian Studies.
It is not illegal to consume raw milk, but 20 states outlaw its sale for human consumption altogether. Thirteen states allow its sale in stores, 17 states allow its sale only on farms, and eight states — including Tennessee — allow it to be sold only through certain arrangements.
The current law regarding the consumption of raw milk in Tennessee, called the Herd Share law, allows multiple people to ‘own’ a cow or herd and by owning the share, allows access to the milk the cow produces. “Purchasing a cowshare, or herdshare, is buying an interest in a particular animal which entitles you to consume the products of that animal,” explained Ward. “It’s often referred to as an agister agreement and included is a legal bill of sale and a document that outlines the responsibilities of all parties involved.” Ward said that his agreement was set up by the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund when he was still dairy farming several years back.
Sen. Richard Briggs, MD (R-Knoxville) introduced SB0015 in mid-December, which has now passed on first and second consideration. As introduced, it would prohibit a person who owns a partial interest in a hoofed mammal from using the milk of the animal for the person’s personal consumption or other personal use. The Knoxville senator, who is also a physician, introduced the legislation in the wake of a serious outbreak of E. coli this past summer in his district, which caused several children to be hospitalized. The outbreak was never directly linked to raw milk.
Proponents of herdshare strongly oppose the pending legislation. With many Tennessee farmers already struggling to be profitable, they question why a single, highly publicized incident should dictate policy. “Farmers should have the right to provide clean and safe food directly to the consumer,” said Ward. “Farms legally operating cowshare programs are meeting a need and filling a void in the struggling dairy industry. I have a lot more confidence in raw milk produced and handled properly by a local dairy farmer than lettuce from California.”
Other Tennessee small farm owners agree. “Even if you have no interest in ever drinking raw milk,” said Amanda Leigh Henson, of Miller Branch Farms in Bluff City, “we can all agree that the government has no right to dictate what we can and cannot eat or drink.”