Friday, September 26, 2008

The State Steps In, Continued

It has been a couple of weeks since a concerned citizen called the King County Department of Public Health and let them know that raw milk was being served in three coffee shops on Vashon Island. The County reinterpreted the State law that allowed raw milk to be served in food service establishments with proper signage.

The results:

The Vashon Island Beachcomber wrote a lengthy and thorough article on the action. The link to that article is:

Check it out. I was happy with it, although the picture seemed a bit large for my tastes on the hard copy of the paper. It must have been a slow news week on the Island that week.

A lot of my regular customers are angry. Very angry. They see it simply as a choice issue. For the State of Washington and King County to say that an adult person is simply too stupid to comprehend the concept and potential hazards of raw milk is insulting. Evidently the State feels that people are adequately intelligent to read the warning label on the jug of milk in the grocery store but are simply too stupid to read the warning label on the counter of the coffee shop. I simply do not understand the logic here.

The cafes created small take away notices of what the State did and how to contact them to voice an opinion. I am confident that the lovely bureaucrats in Olympia got a lot of angry personal emails from lots of great people on Vashon. I like that.

The result of this issue for me is that I lost three great accounts and lots of great customers. I keep cows and sell milk because I like the milk and I like the people that buy my milk. Luckily it is winter and the volume of milk is slowing down, but the State certainly cost this dairy at its bottom line. When I am feeling angry it is hard not to think that that is the goal: to push me out of business so that they don't have to worry about raw milk any longer. When I am in my right mind, I realize that they are not creative enough to plan such strategies.

What is most annoying is that the smug person who felt it was their responsibility to call in to the State concerning raw milk in cafes on Vashon is feeling even smugger. They got their way. The State has told them that they did a great job, they have saved the good people of Vashon Island and by extension all of Washington from their gross inability to read a milk warning label. The bumbling populace can now go about in their illiterate lives; drinking pasteurized swill from the large five thousand cow manure-laden dairies. The nutrient-poor white water will continue to flow, keeping the huge corporate bottlers in business. Thank you Mrs. Smug, you are saving us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I Travel To The Other Side

I used to live and work in the city.  I shopped in the city.  I bought a lot of junk and threw it and its packaging in the trash when I was finished with it.  I had no problem with it.  
Costco was fun;  things were cheap, there was lots of it and I shopped there.  I even ate the pizza.

Since then I have seen the error of my ways.  I live on the farm, rarely go into the city and try to buy as little of anything as possible.  I hate packaging.  I can't deal with it. If you want to get me angry, come by for a visit and leave your water bottle on the kitchen table for me to throw away.

I am determined to have no garbage after 2010.  I think I will make it. A few caveats probably, but pretty damn close. Plastic food wrap is the one that is making me crazy right now.  

So, we needed some shelving in a storage room here at the farm.  All the potatoes, corn, canned tomatoes, canned apple sauce, onions, garlic, shallots, winter squash and pickles are starting to be harvested and processed and there is not ample space to store it all.  A shelf was needed in the curing room.  I tried to hire a carpenter to come out and build one from the wood that is stored here from past tree millings, but he was busy and couldn't come out for months.  

I resorted to Costco.  

They sell a shelving unit that I had bought many times for the restaurant in my past life in the city.  They are cheap, well enough made and would fit nicely in the storage room.  

Right now I am assembling these crazy things that were shipped in from China.  I hate it.  Too many little bags, lots of plastic.  With luck I won't throw the shelves out in a decade when I am done with them.  As I am putting the legs together with the shelves with the little plastic connectors I keep thinking "there is someone on the other side of the planet, living in a dreary workers' dorm, who counted out these little baggies and put them in this box..."

My new way of dealing with the Costco experience is to think of it as part of a necessary relationship.  We Americans buy garbage from the Chinese, who in turn buy out Treasury notes.  As we are spending billions and billions of dollars to pay for a war and now to bail out failed banks and insurance companies, we need someone to fund our debt.  Without our buying Chinese junk, we won't have anyone to buy those notes.    

It works for me.  Shelving keeps the war effort going, keeps Washington Mutual in business, and most importantly keeps my winter squash off the floor and safe through the winter.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Harvest Moon

It is the middle of September and Summer appears to be winding down.  The cool evening air has moved in to replace the warmth that lingers long after the sun has set on summer nights. The summer growing season is coming to a close and it is time to harvest.

It always appears to be a simple idea:  when the fruit is ready pick it.  Like so many things, the harvest schedule is just more complicated than that.  Today is a great example.  In the last week of May I planted a fairly large section of corn for grinding.  Seven tight rows each a hundred feet long, give or take.  Not an Iowa corn field, but more than you could eat in an afternoon.
In the past I had grown sweet corn:  big, yellow kernels of sweet hybrid corn to boil up and smear with butter.  This year I have two kinds planted:  an open pollinated dent corn, and the present small patch of flint corn:  Indian Corn.  The dent corn story is a different day's chatter, presently the issue is the Indian Corn.

It has looked great all summer, growing nicely, tall, verdant and flowering well.  As it is not a hybrid, each stalk is a little different, one ear here, two there, three small ones on the next.  A week ago I began picking one and checking it out.  The kernels appeared to be large, full of color and the silks were drying.  I wanted to keep it on as long as possible in the field.
The goal with this corn is to dry the ears whole, rub the corn off of the cobs and then in the winter, cook it up as polenta, or corn bread or masa for tortillas.  If the corn doesn't dry properly then I end up with a stack of moldy, rancid cobs with no value.

This afternoon I wandered into the corn rows to check them out. The skies are showing the great chance of rain soon and I wanted to check them out prior.  What I found was a bigger problem than weather:  the ears had been chomped on by critters.  Most likely raccoons had found their way into the garden and begun feasting on the sweet, high protein snack.  They had chewed through maybe a dozen ears, pulling the sheaths down to get at the milky kernels.
The raccoons told me a couple of things: that the corn was ripe.  Pest, sadly, have a better gauge of the readiness of a crop than I.  Squirrels want the nuts when they are just about ready to pick, the aphids grab at the best looking broccoli, and the raccoons are not interested in undeveloped corn.  Secondly, I decided that it was time to bring in the corn.

I quickly began to pick as much corn as I could.  I found that they had nibbled on more ears than I thought, but there is still plenty for us for the coming cooler months when polenta will be the perfect warming dish for the table.  The corn is beautiful as I pull back the green from a few.  Bright red and white and blue and yellow corn.  The red is like blood, dying my hands as I rub the dried silks away.  It is nothing like the corn I am used to.  It feels real, genuine and of this earth;  it isn't trying to look like the neat rows in the grocery store.  Each ear is different, some thick, some skinny, short stubby ears and delicate lengthy grains.

The raccoons will have gotten a taste, but with luck I will have it all picked this afternoon.  We will it dry a bit and then began to process it when there is more time in a couple of weeks.  The tomatoes are also ready now, the apples falling off the trees, the shell beans coming on soon. The potatoes need to be dug while the ground is dry and so on.   

Back to the field.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The State Steps In

For the past two plus years this dairy has had a Grade 'A' dairy license. Issued by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, it gives me the right to sell milk, raw milk, to the public. The dairy is inspected, the milk tested, and product deemed fit for human consumption.

Raw milk is legal in only a limited number of states in the Union. Although the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance is a federal document (it also addresses raw milk laws) the states have the right to allow or not allow raw milk within their states. Raw milk is not eligible for interstate commerce. The state of Washington allows raw milk to be sold to the public and I am very fortunate for that law as are my customers.

I sell milk to many private people directly and also in a small general store here on Vashon Island where people can pick up a jug of raw milk where I deliver a few times a week a few blocks from the Farm.

In addition to selling jugs of milk, small cafes on the Island wanted to buy it to use it to make espresso drinks with. Their idea was that people wanted to drink high quality coffee drinks and an excellent local milk would contribute to their fine coffees. As these coffee shops took the milk seriously I agreed to sell it to them. They kept it cold at all times, kept low inventories, had a warning label on the counter where their customers could read it, offered it special to customers not automatically and they only steamed what they needed for that one drink ordered: they didn't keep large pitchers of warm milk around ever.

The customers loved it. They had the opportunity to read the warning label on the counter, understood it and wanted high quality local milk. They were not interested in low quality milk from large factory farms. They trusted me and my practices.

The King County Department of Public Health inspected these cafes over the past two years and did not see a problem. In one case they did ask for the warning label to be a bit larger so that there was no question that it was raw milk that was being freely offered and that it had a warning associated with it.
Last week one person called the Department of Public Health and informed them that my raw milk was offered for sale at all three cafes. The Department of Health revisited the issue, checked with the State Department of Public Health and required the three cafes pull the milk from their menus.

The State's opinion is that they are benevolent is allowing the people of the State of Washington to sell and buy raw milk in any form. They believe that the law says that raw milk must be only sold to the end consumer in a sealed container that is sealed at the dairy with a warning label on it. (I do conform to the law -- the cafes were selling it not in its original container).

I had looked up the issue in the Public Health statues on line months ago and had found this guideline:

(E) Whenever unpasteurized milk and FOODS containing unpasteurized milk are offered for sale at a FOOD
ESTABLISHMENT, except hard or semi-soft raw milk cheeses properly fermented and aged for a minimum
of sixty days in compliance with 21 CFR Part 133, the PERMIT HOLDER and PERSON IN CHARGE must
ensure that:
(1) The product is conspicuously labeled "RAW MILK" or "CONTAINS RAW MILK"; and
(2) A sign is posted in a conspicuous manner near the product stating: "WARNING: RAW MILK
WAC 246-215-051(1)]

I am not a lawyer, but rather just a guy that milks cows every day but this seemed to me to say that you could serve raw milk in restaurants in the State of Washington with proper notification. I must admit as I read this that maybe the Amended part at the end means that this is in the law but we changed it and forgot to take it out.

I am happy to pull my milk from three great small businesses on Vashon. I will have no problem selling my milk directly to consumers, I never have enough as it is. What is sad to me is a couple of things.

First, people really like this milk. It is tasty, local and a good product. People should have the opportunity to drink it if they understand the risks and still want it.

Secondly, I am rather disappointed that someone took the route of calling the health department to deal with their issue. The only way that someone would know that I sold milk at these three cafes was by reading my website. Would it be so tough for you to send me an email and at least chat with me or the cafe owners about it? It just seems so cowardly of this person to take their concerns anonymously to the State. Stand up to the people in line at Cafe Luna and tell them how you feel. The person who did this obviously is very well informed with the intricacies of the health system and knew they could hide behind an email.

The odd thing to me is that the State feels that this product is healthy enough for humans to drink. What is odd is that it is healthy for you to drink in your home, but not in a cafe. Pick one: it is healthy, or it isn't. If it shouldn't be consumed by humans, shut me down; pull my license. If it can be consumed by humans, let them buy it already.

Okay, I will get off my soap box and stop ranting.