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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Power of Knowing Your Milkman

Iowa’s new raw-milk law is a faint reminder of the rugged spirit of the American farmer.

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(frantic00/Shutterstock)

On my writing desk is a copy of Joel Salatin’s book You Can Farm. The beginners’ guide to regenerative farming practices is more of a how-to book than a philosophical one, and is not, perhaps, inspirational the way the words of Horace or Chesterton might be to your average writer. I keep it with the other tools of my craft all the same. 

Those big, green block letters serve as a regular reminder to me of what it means to be an American. If such a phrase can have any meaning, it is to be found in the sort of people who would risk life and livelihood to grow corn and wheat, and who fought a war to continue to do so in solace, away from government scolds. These men and women did not arrive in America as the expert agrarians we might imagine today. Thus, those green letters are a prescription as much as an ethos: You, desk-job keeper, descendant of factory-line workers, or Ph.D. student and coffee-shop enjoyer, you too can farm, and you do not need a degree in agriculture to do it. The earliest American settlers were not experts, but neither were they intimidated by the prospect of taking dominion. They took this same soil in their hands and declared that, with time and toil, they would learn to cultivate an Eden in its hills and valleys. And so might you, Salatin whispers. 

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This is all a very prosaic way of saying that, when USA Today writes with horror about Iowa’s new raw milk law, which allows residents a still regulated but at least legal means of buying and selling unpasteurized milk, the appropriate response is pleasure. If “public health has lost the war” on raw milk, as the headline declares, this loss has not only been caused by a new distrust for institutions like the FDA, per se, but also by the ghost of an older one: that rugged ethos still, mercifully, lingers. 

The raw milk law in question, which went into effect this week, is fairly restrictive. While Iowans are joining the small handful of citizens from states that may purchase raw milk, they still may only buy it on the farm, and not from restaurants or farmers' markets. Iowa farmers, too, may only sell the milk of up to ten animals, and must submit those animals to monthly bacteria inspections. In other words, the state has decided to stop prosecuting small-time farmers for sharing their excess milk with friends and neighbors, and that is about all. 

Reading up on raw-milk laws across the nation gives one the impression that unpasteurized milk is equatable to other controlled, abusable substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol. In the free state of California, raw milk is legally sold in stores, but as with most other laws, the Golden State is an outlier. Many states do not permit any sale of raw milk, and if they do, they almost certainly mandate the farmer to acquire additional licensing. Of those that do permit raw-milk sales, most do it via “herd share” arrangements, in which a consumer signs an agreement to own a share of the animal itself, and thus, as most Americans take this to mean, any of the products which come from it. In Ohio, absent a herd share, raw milk may only legally be purchased under the condition that it be sold by a dairy which has operated without interruption since 1965. No such dairy exists in the state

Other states get around the hurdle by permitting sales of raw milk for animal consumption, with an additional licensing requirement, and consumers imbibe with the knowledge that no known law prevents them from eating animal feed. More liberal are the states that allow “incidental” sales of raw milk, or a maximum of 500 gallons per month per farm, with regulations merely dictating how a farm advertises the milk (in Kansas, the only permitted promotion is a sign on the farm indicating the milk is raw, “the letters of which are a uniform size,” while Mississippi permits no advertisements whatsoever).

Of course, raw milk and psychotropics are two vastly different things, but that has not stopped the public health P.R. campaign against it, either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that consuming unpasteurized milk can spark an outbreak of food poisoning, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, kidney failure, and even death. While these things may be true under certain circumstances, it takes little more than pocketbook medical knowledge to know that they are not the result of raw milk itself, but of bad milk, raw or pasteurized. Such immoderate fear mongering encourages the consumer to doubt the honesty of the messenger, which even USA Today admits may be one reason raw milk has become more acceptable in the post-pandemic era. 

The public health bureaucracy is right to note the changing tide on this one front: Iowa’s raw milk law suggests some hope for both our national health and that lingering ethos, as more Americans seem willing to bet on their local farmer over an unknown public health bureaucrat. But many other unorthodox food choices—or rather, healthy, orthodox food choices that have been lionized even by those in favor of modern farming techniques—remain illegal and taboo. Efforts to change this, such as Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie’s PRIME Act, have failed repeatedly, while farmers like Amos Miller of the years-long Miller’s Organic Farm debacle attest to the high cost of operating in any way that does not fall within the inflexible parameters of government food regulations. Who these regulations primarily benefit, the consumer or the biggest dairies and butcheries, is irrelevant, because the bureaucrat rules. 

But behind the regulations, at the barns and on the front porches where warm, frothy milk is exchanged for crumpled paper bills, something is happening that even the keenest regulator cannot get his hands on: the source of the ebb and flow. It is not churned in government office buildings or at federally regulated packaging stations, but by people coming together in pursuit of a shared vision of the good life, whether that’s raw milk, an unsprayed chicken carcass, or a homeopathic remedy that is not FDA approved. Maybe you can’t farm, but you can support someone who can.