What's New in Organic for Michigan
May 1-9th, 2008
Irrigation for frost protection
Potato virus update
Ag and our Communities
2008 Michigan Farm Market Directory Now Available
Area schools honored for health-promotion programs
5. The revolution will not be pasteurized:
Inside the raw-milk underground
Ag and the Government
6. Farm Bill from Farm and Ranch Alliance (their perspective)
7. House, farm groups seek override votes
8. MSU Student Organic Farm Tours
9. MSU Student Organic Farm Daylong Workshops
10. Seeking Interest in East Lansing City Market Reopen
11. Vegetable Cover Crop Workshop June 12 near Kalamazoo at Kellogg
12. Two Farm Tours in Ontario-Organic Vegetable and Weed Management
systems-June 20 and 21st.
1. Irrigation for frost protection by Bill Steenwyk, Michigan State
A farmer seeking to avoid crop loss from last week's freezing
temperatures reported that in some fields, the irrigated areas received
greater injury than plants along the borders where the sprinkler heads
could not reach. This seems to contradict what we know about
irrigation. Water from our wells is maintained at 50 to 55 degrees, so
any amount of water sprayed onto a field, it would seem, should help
keep the air warmer than where no water was applied. In this case, our
common sense fails us, because we are forgetting two very basic concepts
from physics. What we forget is that: 1) when water freezes, it gives
off heat to the surrounding environment, and 2) water that evaporates
removes heat from its surrounds.
If a farmer irrigates during freezing weather, but does not apply enough
water to maintain continual ice formation, the water will not be giving
up a great deal of heat to the air. Furthermore, if the soil's heat
causes the water to evaporate, it will behave just like a refrigerator,
removing the soils heat energy, resulting in colder air temperatures and
more severe frost damage. If, on the other hand, enough water is
supplied to keep ice forming, frost damage may be averted.
Irrigation should begin as temperatures reach 33-34 degrees and run
until the ice melts. Nozzles that produce a mist are better at creating
ice without applying as much water and soil saturation as with typical
Of course there are limits to how much water should be used. Excessive
ice accumulation can also injure plants. Those wanting a more thorough
treatment of this subject can go to
http://tfpg.cas.psu.edu/40.htm, among others.
William L. Steenwyk
West Michigan District Extension Educator - Commercial Vegetables
Michigan State University Extension
9302 Portland Road
Clarksville, MI 48815-9731
office phone: 616-693-2193
mobile phone 616-550-2752
email: [log in to unmask]
2. Potato virus update
Willie Kirk, Plant Pathology and
George Bird, Entomology
Michigan State University
Modified for Organic production by Vicki Morrone
Potato plants can become systemically infected with viruses following
mechanical transmission or through vectors. Viruses decrease plant vigor
and cause mottling, chlorosis and necrosis. Yields are decreased and
some viruses cause internal tuber symptoms which can be seen after the
affected tuber is cut or peeled. Such crops completely lose their value
even though a small proportion of tubers are affected. Some viruses may
rapidly kill plants, whereas others cause mild or no symptoms at all and
the reaction of different varieties to the same virus can vary.
Photosynthetic capability and yield is reduced, but more recently there
has been a worldwide increase in viruses that cause tuber necrotic
symptoms such as Tobacco rattle virus (corky ring spot) and PMTV (potato
mop top virus). Corky ring spot has now been reported in Michigan, but
PMTV is confined at present to China, Japan, Northern Europe and Canada
but has been reported in Maine. A recent study from the United Kingdom
has indicated that PMTV may be principally soil-borne.
In Michigan, the most common virus problems are aphid-transmitted
diseases such as PVY and its variants. Viral symptoms can be quite
different in the year when plants become infected (primary symptoms)
from those in plants derived from infected seed (secondary symptoms).
For example PVY (severe mosaic), transmitted by aphids such as the
aphid, may nearly defoliate potato plants within four weeks after
infection and decrease yield. These seed tubers become viral hosts for
the following season. The percentage of tubers infected is established
during winter grow-outs each year and seedlots can be downgraded if they
fail to meet standards. In the following season, plants from infected
seed are severely stunted, mottled and die early limiting yield with a
high proportion of small tubers.
The primary symptoms of some virus infections are mild or, if infection
occurs late, plants may show no symptoms. Infected tubers may produce
plants with severe symptoms in the following season. Plants infected
during the growing season with leaf roll virus transmitted by aphids may
show slight rolling of upper leaves, often only on one stem. In the next
season, leaf roll infected tubers produce stunted plants with rolled
lower leaves that are thickened and brittle. In Michigan, a reduction in
leaf roll has occurred due to the use of neonictinoid insecticides that
has effectively controlled viruleferous aphids. Organic farmers can use
Some viruses produce mild symptoms or none at all in both seasons. Virus
X transmitted mechanically by leaf contact, machinery or on clothing,
may produce no symptoms whereas in some varieties it causes leaf mottles
but does not affect plant vigor or yield. Plants infected with Virus A,
also transmitted by aphids, show mild symptoms but in association with
Virus X or Y can cause crinkle symptoms. The co-infection of plants with
some of PVY and PVO or PVS has resulted in complex reactions that have
lead to the appearance of some tuber necrotic strains of PVY known as
PVTntn, which can cause necrosis in tubers.
In Michigan, when tubers were removed from storages in 2007, substantial
internal necrosis was observed in 1-2 percent of the tubers. Symptoms
included arcs similar to those caused by TRV (Figure 1). This virus is a
member of the genus Tobravirus and is transmitted by a number of species
of stubby-root nematodes (Paratrichodorus or Trichodorus spp.).
Stubby-root nematodes have been previously reported from Michigan. Corky
ringspot can result in substantial losses, with entire potato fields
being rejected due to internal tuber damage. Once found, fields are
considered permanently at risk to this disease due to the large host
range of both the virus and the nematode vector. This disease has been
previously found in the United States in California, Colorado, Florida,
Idaho, Washington, Oregon and likely in Indiana.
Management of virus diseases in potato is complicated due to the various
vectors that are involved in transmission. Management practices include
exclusion and sanitation. Planting of certified seed is generally
accepted as the best practice for potato production and growers planting
non-certified seed are at risk from virus diseases. Varieties that are
immune to a particular virus should be planted, but there is limited
knowledge on varietal responses to many of the viruses although Eva,
Dark Red Norland, Belrus, HiLite Russet, Kennebec, Monona, Norwis, and
Sebago have some resistance or tolerance to PVY. Some varieties of
potatoes are susceptible to particular viruses but do not show clear
symptoms (Shepody and Russet Norkotah are symptomless carriers of PVY).
This can cause problems in susceptible varieties that express symptoms
such as leaf necrosis, internode stunting and tuber necrosis. Where
possible seed stocks with the lowest virus counts should be planted, PVY
is nonpersistent but is transmitted quickly by aphids and insecticides
are generally ineffective. Frequent application of mineral oils can be
used to reduce spread of PVY by aphids. Reduction of human and
mechanical traffic through the field can limit mechanical spread
(especially for PVX). Roguing of symptomatic plants and removal of
Solanaceous plants such as nightshade and ground cherry with herbicides
can help reduce disease.
Nematode vectored viruses such as TRV may be transmitted at the root tip
into potato plants, then move to the tubers. Soil should be sampled to
determine presence of nematodes that transmit TRV. TRV can survive in
dormant nematodes for two to four years and nematode populations
increase on cereal crops, so rotations should not include them. The use
of rotational non-host crops (spearmint and alfalfa) has had limited
success in western states. Shepherd's purse and chickweed are
viral-reservoirs therefore applications of effective herbicides can
limit viral increase. We are currently developing a research program for
TRV management in Michigan and will be able in the future to test stubby
root nematodes for presence of TRV.
Potato disease Extension bulletins
Willie Kirk, Plant Pathology
A new potato disease scouting guide is now available in addition to
seven new high resolution potato diseases MSU Extension bulletins for
purchase from the MSU Extension Bulletin Office.
The scouting guide includes a calendar of developmental events for the
major disease of potatoes in Michigan. The new group of publications
includes the recent potato late blight bulletin and bulletins on early
blight, pink rot, Fusarium dry rot, Rhizoctonia diseases, potato common
scab, white mold and seed piece management.
For more information, call 517-353-6740. You can also download these
bulletins from the "Extension publications" page as pdf files from the
Also at http://lateblight.org daily updates of potato late blight risk
will be available from May 1 for all the MAWN sites in Michigan and
updates on extension meetings being held throughout the state.
3. 2008 Michigan Farm Market Directory Now Available
LANSING - Just in time for spring bedding plants, hanging flowering
baskets, nursery stock, and fresh Michigan asparagus, the 2008 Michigan
Farm Market and Agricultural Tourism directory is now available.
"This statewide listing of farm markets, U-pick operations, corn
mazes, cider mills and much more, has been produced in Michigan since
1980," said Don Koivisto, director of the Michigan Department of
Agriculture (MDA). "It remains the perfect pocket guide for those
looking for farm fresh Michigan produce, specialty food products like
jams, jellies, baked goods, maple syrup and honey, or for family
friendly activities down on the farm."
The 2008 directory was created by a partnership among the Michigan Farm
Marketing & Agri-Tourism Association (MI-FMAT), Farm Bureau Insurance,
Michigan Farm Bureau, and the MDA. Copies of the directory are
available at all 13 Michigan Welcome Centers and at Farm Bureau
Insurance agencies across the state.
The 2008 directory has more farm market listings than last year's,
features an alphabetical index, and a new regional tab design to help
customers find the markets and products they are searching for. It also
features 16 full-color pages and an availability chart showing when the
various types of fresh fruits and vegetables produced in Michigan are in
"The Michigan Farm Marketing and Agri-Tourism Association is proud to
provide this directory for our customers," said Steve Tennes, MI-FMAT
board president and operator of The Country Mill in Charlotte.
"Michigan farm marketers are gearing up for a terrific season, and
look forward to welcoming visitors to their farms to share our high
quality, locally grown food and agricultural products and unique on-farm
In addition to the printed directory, farm listings can be accessed via
a searchable database on MI-FMAT's Web site at
www.MichiganFarmFun.com. Links to the electronic directory are
also accessible from MDA's agricultural tourism Web page at
www.michigan.gov/agtourism, the Michigan Farm Bureau Web site at
www.michiganfarmbureau.com, and the Farm Bureau Insurance Web site at
4. Area schools honored for health-promotion programs
Friday, May 02, 2008
By Tarryl Jackson
[log in to unmask] --768-4941
Three Jackson County schools are getting a pat on the back by the
Michigan surgeon general for pushing their students to eat right and
Jackson's Bennett and Cascades elementary schools and Springport High
School are among about 100 schools statewide honored by state Surgeon
General Kimberly awn Wisdom recently.
At Bennett and Cascades, school officials launched a school wellness
policy that includes no high-fat or high-sugar snacks during classroom
parties or school events.
We decided that we needed to be role models for our children,'' said
Mary Korytowsky, school nurse for both schools. ``There are other ways
to celebrate besides having candy, cake and cookies.''
Teachers, staff and parents were informed of the policy this school
year, and staff compiled a list of acceptable snack foods (like fruits,
vegetables and pretzels) and non-food items (like stickers and stamps)
for these events.
Jackson's Hunt Elementary School was honored last year for implementing
``The teachers have been very innovative in finding ways to celebrate
special events,'' Korytowsky said. ``The kids haven't seemed to miss the
cookies and candy.''
At Springport High School, staff members wanted students to know the
value of naturally and locally grown foods and how eating these foods
can benefit their bodies.
``I think a lot of students (in general) often are not aware of what
healthy nutrition really is,'' said Principal Chris Kregel.
District officials saw this too. They started a nutrition education
program through a grant of more than $100,000 funded by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture through the Michigan Nutrition Network at
Michigan State University Extension.
Through the grant, the district hired Emily Reardon as the project
coordinator to oversee the nutrition course work and activities for all
school buildings, and Alison Ruhl as the nutrition teacher for the
The nutrition education program includes school gardening, where the
students grow their own organic fruits and vegetables and serve them
Also, vending machines are stocked less with caffeinated drinks and more
with water and fruit juices.
5. The revolution will not be pasteurized:
Inside the raw-milk underground
By Nathaniel Johnson
Friday, May 2, 2008
The agents arrived before dawn. They concealed the squad car and police
van behind trees, and there, on the road that runs past Michael
Schmidt's farm in Durham, Ontario, they waited for the dairyman to make
his move. A team from the Ministry of Natural Resources had been
watching Schmidt for months, shadowing him on his weekly runs to
Toronto. Two officers had even infiltrated the farmer's inner circle,
obtaining for themselves samples of his product. Lab tests confirmed
their suspicions. It was raw milk. The unpasteurized stuff. Now the time
had come to take him down.
Schmidt had risen that morning at 4 a.m. He milked his cows and ate
breakfast. He loaded up a delivery, then fired up the bus. But as he
reached the end of the driveway, two cars moved in to block his path. A
police officer stepped into the road and raised his hand. Another ran to
the bus and banged on the door. Others were close behind. Eventually
twenty-four officers from five different agencies would search the farm.
Many of them carried guns.
"The farm basically flooded, from everywhere came these people," Schmidt
later told me in his lilting German accent. "It looked like the Russian
army coming, all these men with earflap hats."
The process of heating milk to kill bacteria has been common for nearly
a century, and selling unpasteurized milk for human consumption is
currently illegal in Canada and in half the U.S. states. Yet thousands
of people in North America still seek raw milk. Some say milk in its
natural state keeps them healthy; others just crave its taste. Schmidt
operates one of the many black-market networks that supply these
Schmidt showed men in biohazard suits around his barn, both annoyed and
amused by the absurdity of the situation. The government had known that
he was producing raw milk for at least a dozen years, yet an officer was
now informing him that they would be seizing all the "unpasteurized
product" and shuttling it to the University of Guelph for testing.
In recent years, raids of this sort have not been unusual. In October
2006, Michigan officials destroyed a truckload of Richard Hebron's
unpasteurized dairy. The previous month, the Ohio Department of
Agriculture shut down Carol Schmitmeyer's farm for selling raw milk.
Cincinnati cops also swooped in to stop Gary Oaks in March 2006 as he
unloaded raw milk in the parking lot of a local church. When bewildered
residents gathered around, an officer told them to step away from "the
white liquid substance." The previous September an undercover agent in
Ohio asked Amish dairyman Arlie Stutzman for a jug of unpasteurized
milk. Stutzman refused payment, but when the agent offered to leave a
donation instead, the farmer said he could give whatever he thought was
If the police actions against Schmidt and other farmers have been
overzealous, they are nevertheless motivated by a real threat. The
requirement for pasteurization-heating milk to at least 161 degrees
Fahrenheit for fifteen seconds-neutralizes such deadly bacteria as
Campylobacter jejuni, Listeria monocytogenes, Escherichia coli, and
salmonella. Between 1919, when only a third of the milk in Massachusetts
was pasteurized, and 1939, when almost all of it was, the number of
outbreaks of milk-borne disease fell by nearly 90 percent. Indeed,
pasteurization is part of a much broader security cordon set up in the
past century to protect people from germs. Although milk has a special
place on the watch list (it's not washable and comes out of apertures
that sit just below the orifice of excretion), all foods are subject to
scrutiny. The thing that makes our defense against raw milk so
interesting, however, is the mounting evidence that these health
measures also could be doing us great harm.
Over the past fifty years, people in developed countries began showing
up in doctors' offices with autoimmune disorders in far greater numbers.
In many places, the rates of such conditions as multiple sclerosis, type
1 diabetes, and Crohn's disease have doubled and even tripled. Almost
half the people living in First World nations now suffer from allergies.
It turns out that people who grow up on farms are much less likely to
have these problems. Perhaps, scientists hypothesized, we've become too
clean and aren't being exposed to the bacteria we need to prime our
What we pour over our cereal has become the physical analogue of this
larger ideological struggle over microbial security. The very thing that
makes raw milk dangerous, its dirtiness, may make people healthier, and
pasteurization could be cleansing beneficial bacteria from milk. The
recent wave of raw-milk busts comes at a time when new evidence is
invigorating those who threaten to throw open our borders to bacterial
incursion. Public-health officials are infuriated by the raw milkers'
sheer wrongheadedness and inability to correctly interpret the facts,
and the raw milkers feel the same way about them. Milk as it emerges
from the teat, it seems, is both panacea and poison.
* * *
Schmidt responded to the raid on his farm by immediately going on a
hunger strike. For a month he consumed nothing but a glass of raw milk a
day. He milked a cow on the lawn outside Ontario's provincial
parliament. This was a battle, he said, for which he was prepared to
lose his farm. He was ready to go to jail. Actually, he'd been awaiting
arrest for more than a decade. For all that time, he told me, he'd
carried a camera with him so that he could take pictures when the
authorities finally came to shut him down. "And I upgraded. You know,
first it was still, then video, then digital came along."
The fifty-three-year-old Schmidt doesn't have the demeanor of a
rabble-rouser. His temperament, in fact, is not unlike that of the cows
he tends. A large man, he moves deliberately, reacts placidly to
provocation. He has thin blond hair, light-blue eyes, and pockmarked
cheeks. On the farm he invariably wears black jeans, a white shirt, and
a black vest. In the summer he dons a broad-brimmed straw hat; in the
winter, a black newsboy's cap.
When Schmidt emigrated from Germany in 1983, he wanted to start a farm
that would operate in a manner fundamentally different from that of the
average industrial dairy. Instead of lodging his cows in a manure-filled
lot, he would give them abundant pastures. Instead of feeding them corn
and silage, he'd give them grass. And instead of managing hundreds of
anonymous animals to maximize the return on his investment, he would
care for about fifty cows and maximize health and ecological harmony. If
he kept the grasses and cows and pigs and all the components of the
farm's ecosystem healthy, he believed the bacterial ecosystem in the
milk would be healthy, too.
Schmidt bought 600 acres three hours northwest of Toronto. There he
built up a herd of Canadiennes, handsome brown-and-black animals with
black-tipped horns. Most cattle farmers burn off the horn buds-a
guarantee against being gored-but Schmidt believes it's better to leave
things in their natural state whenever possible. The dangers posed by
the horns (like the dangers of drinking unpasteurized milk) weighed less
heavily on him than the risk of disrupting some unknown element of
The farm flourished under his hand. Schmidt set up a cow-share system
whereby, instead of purchasing raw dairy, customers leased a portion of
a cow and paid a "boarding fee" when they picked up milk. People were
technically drinking milk from their own cows. The animals were, for all
practical purposes, still Schmidt's property, but the scheme made the
defiance of the law less flagrant, and health officials could look the
other way. Then, in 1994, the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a
documentary about Schmidt and his unpasteurized product. A few months
later he was charged with endangering the public health.
Because Schmidt believed that his style of biodynamic farming actually
secured the public health, he decided to fight the charges. Newspapers
began quoting him on the salubrious powers of raw milk and the
detriments of industrial dairy. At this time, strange things started
happening around the farm. Vandals broke into his barn. Schmidt found
two of his cows lying dead in the yard, apparently poisoned. Then an
unmarked van ran his cousin's car off the road. Men jumped out of the
van's back and forced him inside, holding him there for two hours.
Schmidt hadn't been prepared for the struggle to take this turn. He sent
his cousin back to Germany, agreed to plead guilty in court, and sold
all but 100 acres of his farm to pay the government fines and cover his
Schmidt is a man of Teutonic certainty, but as he walked into the field
soon after he'd sold the land, he was filled with doubt. The morning sun
had turned the sky red, and mist hung around the legs of the cattle.
While he twitched a stick at his bull, Xamos, to turn him away from the
cows, Schmidt wondered whether it was even possible to run a farm in the
manner he wanted. If he started selling his milk at industrial prices it
would erode his meticulous style of farming. He would lose the direct
connection to his customers. He'd have to push his cows to produce more
milk. He'd be compelled to adopt the newest feed-management strategies
and modernize his equipment. Schmidt didn't see Xamos coming, just felt
the explosion as the bull struck him. Even as he hit the ground, the
animal was on him, bellowing. It stabbed with one horn and then the
other, tearing up the earth and ripping off Schmidt's clothes. One horn
sank into Schmidt's belly, another ripped into his chest and shoulder,
grazing a lung. Only when his wife charged into the field, flanked by
the couple's snarling dogs, did Xamos retreat. Another man might have
taken this attack as a sure sign, a demonstration of the folly of
seeking harmony with nature. As Schmidt lay there bleeding into the
earth, however, he felt only humility. "Nature is dangerous, yes," he
would tell me later. "But I can't control it, and I can't escape from
it. I can only learn the best way to live with it."
By the time Schmidt could walk again, almost six weeks later, he'd
decided to continue farming on his own terms. He announced his
intentions publicly, but the regulators must have felt that they'd made
their point. For years he continued farming quietly, as an outlaw, until
the morning that government agents descended on his dairy. After the
hunger strike and the other public acts of protest, Schmidt settled in
for the long fight. He hired a top defense lawyer in hopes of
overturning Ontario's raw-milk ban.
* * *
In the twenty-five years that Schmidt has operated the dairy, no one has
ever reported falling sick after drinking his milk. Yet raw-milk
illnesses do crop up. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the
United States averages seventy cases of raw-dairy food poisoning each
year. In the fall of 2006, for instance, California officials announced
that raw milk tainted with E. coli was responsible for a rash of
illnesses. It is legal to sell unpasteurized dairy in California, and
the tainted milk came from Organic Pastures, in Fresno, the largest of
several farms that supply the state's health-food stores.
Tony Martin had agonized over buying the raw milk. He'd never brought it
home before. He knew that milk was pasteurized for a reason, but he'd
also heard that the raw stuff might help his son's allergies. "There was
a lot of picking it up off the shelf and putting it back," he said.
Chris, his seven-year-old, drank the Organic Pastures milk three days in
a row over a Labor Day weekend. On Wednesday, Chris woke up pale and
lethargic. On Thursday he had diarrhea and was vomiting. That night he
had blood in his stool, and the Martins rushed him to the hospital.
Shortly afterward, several other children checked into southern
California hospitals. All of them had drunk Organic Pastures raw-milk
products, and they all were diagnosed as being infected with a virulent
strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. Some of the children recovered
rapidly, but two, Chris Martin and Lauren Herzog, got progressively
worse. The O157:H7 strain releases a jet of toxins when it comes
into contact with antibiotics, so doctors face the difficult decision of
allowing nature to take its course or intervening and risking further
damage. Chris's doctors administered antibiotics, Lauren's did not, yet
both children's kidneys shut down. While Chris was on dialysis, his body
became so swollen that his father said he wouldn't have recognized him
if he passed him on the street. Chris was in the hospital fifty-five
days. Lauren went home after a month but then relapsed and had to
return. Both children eventually recovered but may have suffered
permanent kidney damage.
The illnesses didn't stop raw-milk sales. Even as the state ordered
store managers to destroy the milk on their shelves, customers rushed in
to buy whatever they could. Several Organic Pastures customers said
regulators had simply pinned unrelated illnesses on the milk. They
pointed out that siblings and friends of the sick children had drunk the
same milk from the same bottles and didn't get so much as diarrhea.
Tests for E. coli in one of the milk bottles in question had also turned
up negative. Although it seemed implausible that the state would frame
Mark McAfee, the owner of Organic Pastures, it certainly was possible
that regulators were predisposed to declare raw milk guilty. When state
veterinarians came to search Organic Pastures for E. coli, they were
surprised to see that the manure they pulled from the cows' rectums was
watery and contained less bacteria than usual. Patrick Kennelly, chief
of the food-safety section at the California Department of Health
Services, confronted McAfee with these facts in an email, writing, "Not
only is this unnatural, but it is consistent with the type of reactions
that an animal might have after being treated with high doses of
antibiotics. . . . Why were your cows in this condition, Mark?"
McAfee does not use antibiotics on his organic farm. The state tests all
shipments of his milk for antibiotics residue and has never found any.
Allan Nation, a grazing expert, offered another explanation: the cows
had been eating grass. Grass-fed cows carry a lower number of pathogens,
he said. And for a few days in the spring and fall, when the weather
changes and new grass sprouts, the cows "tend to squirt," as Nation put
it. But grass-eating cows have become so rare that, to California health
officials, they seemed unnatural. The norms of industrial dairying had
become so deeply ingrained that a regulator could jump to the conclu
sion that all milk is dirty until pasteurized.
* * *
Around the time that Chicago passed the first pasteurization law in the
United States, in 1908, many of the dairies supplying cities had
themselves become urban. They were crowded, grassless, and filthy.
Unscrupulous proprietors added chalk and plaster of paris to extend the
milk. Consumptive workers coughed into their pails, spreading
tuberculosis; children contracted diseases like scarlet fever from milk.
Pasteurization was an easy solution. But pasteurization also gave
farmers license to be unsanitary. They knew that if fecal bacteria got
in the milk, the heating process would eventually take care of it.
Customers didn't notice, or pay less, when they drank the corpses of a
few thousand pathogens. As a result, farmers who emphasized animal
health and cleanliness were at a disadvantage to those who simply pushed
for greater production.
After a century of pasteurization, modern dairies, to put it bluntly,
are covered in shit. Most have a viscous lagoon full of it. Cows lie in
it. Wastewater is recycled to flush out their stalls. Farmers do dip
cows' teats in iodine, but standards mandate only that the number of
germs swimming around their bulk tanks be below 100,000 per milliliter.
When I was working as a newspaper reporter in Cassia County, Idaho, a
local dairyman, Brent Stoker, had wanted to raise thousands of calves on
his farm and sell them to dairies as replacements for their worn-out
cows. Stoker's neighbors, incensed by the idea of all that manure near
their houses, stopped the project. Stoker wasn't an especially dirty
farmer-dairy associations showed off his farm on tours-but, to survive,
dairies must produce a lot of milk, which means producing a lot of
feces. I called Stoker recently, to talk dairy and catch up. He was in
the middle of another fight with the neighbors. This time he wanted to
build a large organic dairy. I said I hadn't taken him for the organic
"Pay me enough and I am," he said. Organic may mean no antibiotics and
no pesticides, but it doesn't necessarily mean grass-fed. When it comes
to making milk, grass-fed cows simply can't compete. Stoker's current
herd of non-organic cows produce a prodigious eighty pounds of milk per
day. That's mostly because they are fed like Olympic athletes. They eat
a carefully formulated mix of roughage and high-energy grains. "If you
were to try to pasture them, you'd lose production down to about forty
pounds," Stoker said. "Of course, the cow would last a lot longer."
Cows are designed to eat grass, not grain. Unlike mammals that can't
digest the cellulose in grass, ruminants are able to access the solar
energy locked in a green pasture by enlisting the aid of microbes. These
bacteria are cellulose specialists and turn grass into the nutrient
building blocks that cud-chewing animals need. In return, cows provide a
place for bacteria to live-the rumen-and a steady supply of food. This
relationship shifts when a cow begins eating grain. The cellulose
specialists lose their place to bacteria better suited to the new food
supply but not necessarily so well suited to the cow. The new bacteria
give off acids, which in extreme conditions can send the animal into
shock. Pushing too much high-energy feed through a cow can twist part of
its stomach around other organs. This kink backs up the digestive flow
to a trickle. The cow will stop eating, and sometimes you can see the
knotted guts bulging under the skin. Other disorders also result from
the combination of high-energy feeds and high production: abscessed
liver, ulcerated rumen, rotten hooves, inflammation of the udders.
It is in a farmer's interest to keep a cow healthy-but not too healthy.
If a dairyman decreased the grain portion of a cow's rations to a level
that eliminated health problems, he would lose money. A balance must be
struck between health and yield. It's not surprising, then, that farmers
end up sending grain-fed cows off to the hamburger plant at a much
younger age than their pastured counterparts. On average, dairy farmers
slaughter a third of their herds each year. As Brent Stoker put it,
"We're mining the cow."
There are other bacterial opportunists that move in when a cow's gastric
environment is disturbed by a change in diet. Tired cows and ubiquitous
feces combine to create conditions that are ideal for the transmission
of pathogens. In a 2002 survey of American farms, the U.S. Department of
Agriculture found Campylobacter in 98 percent of all dairies and E. coli
O157:H7 on more than half of farms with 500 or more cows. When the milk
at these large farms was tested, the researchers discovered salmonella
in 3 percent of all bulk tanks and Listeria monocytogenes in 7 percent.
If that milk were shipped to supermarkets without pasteurization, a lot
of people would get sick. Healthy cows with plenty of energy are less
likely to take on pathogens.
I asked Stoker if he'd ever considered returning to a smaller, healthier
style of farming. "If I had a way to provide for my six kids and have a
comparable standard of living I would do that," Stoker said. "The way it
is now, I'm more stressed, the animals are more stressed, our crops are
probably more stressed. There's nothing I would like more than to go
back to that, but I'm too stupid to figure out how."
The problem isn't Stoker's intelligence; it's what he calls the
"dishonesty of the market." Advertisers promise that consumers can have
the healthiest possible food from happy animals in idyllic settings at
current prices. This obviously is a lie, but it's a lie that most people
accept. Although American consumers are periodically outraged by the
realities of modern agriculture, they never stop demanding cheaper food.
Stoker doesn't mind playing the hand he's been dealt. He's good at
producing cheap food. But, he acknowledged, "cheap food makes for
expensive health care."
* * *
The people who buy from Michael Schmidt are atypical consumers. They pay
a premium for food they believe will keep them healthy. In their
estimation, Schmidt has a biological formula working for him that will
be to their benefit. The elements of a dairy farm-the cows, plants,
microbes, and humans-have been together long enough to have sorted out
their differences. By working within this system, Schmidt can take
advantage of some natural efficiencies. Although the life expectancy of
a conventional dairy cow is a little under five years, Schmidt's cows
are eight, nine, and twelve years old; they are glossy-coated and solid
on their feet. Schmidt told me that he hasn't needed to have someone
trim his cows' hooves in fifteen years. The cows produce only around
twenty-five pounds of milk daily, one third the production of Brent
Stoker's animals, but Schmidt doesn't have to pay much for veterinary
service. He doesn't have to slap haunches to roust exhausted animals
from their beds; his cows actually line up on their own for milking.
There's a little trick he likes to show off when it's time for them to
return from the fields.
"Watch this," Schmidt said, and he pulled open the door. The cows came
jogging in, each one peeling out of line to take her place, unprompted,
in the barn beneath a white placard bearing her name: anna, sophia,
cantate, laura. They buried their heads in the hay. He beamed. So far
the microbes that end up in Schmidt's milk have been benign, possibly
beneficial. He says biodynamic farming doesn't open up new niches for
unfamiliar forms of bacteria, and it encourages the ones people have
It turns out that black-market buyers aren't the only ones who think
germ-infested milk is healthy. The yogurt giant Dannon has invested
heavily in understanding the benefits of bacteria, and the company now
sells dairy products stocked with healthy, or "probiotic," microbes:
DanActive, "an ally for your body's defenses," which comes in a small
pill-shaped bottle and provides a dose of an organism owned in full by
Dannon called L. casei Immunitas; Danimals, a more playfully packaged
bacteria-infused drink, designed to appeal to children; and Activia, a
yogurt containing a bacterium the company has named Bifidus regularis,
which "is scientifically proven to help with slow intestinal transit."
Both Michael Schmidt and Dannon may be working to reintroduce bacteria
into the modern diet, but Schmidt labors under a principle of
submission. He accepts the presence of unknown microbes and tries to
make his customers healthy by keeping the creeks that run through his
farm clean, by maintaining the stability of his ecosystem. In contrast,
Dannon's is a philosophy of mastery.
Milk comes to Dannon's Fort Worth processing plant in tanker trucks,
arriving wild, full of its own diverse bacteria. It leaves the factory
civilized and safe, in four-ounce cups. It takes a lot of machinery to
accomplish this domestication: miles of stainless-steel pipes, huge
fermentation vats, and dozens of white-frocked, hairnet-wearing workers.
Although the process is intricate, the concept is simple: kill the
bacteria, then add bacteria. Workers pasteurize the milk not once but
twice. All yogurt is made when benign bacteria are mixed into milk. But
Dannon also adds probiotic bacteria, and when I visited the plant last
year, this is what I asked to see. Dannon employees looked at one
another nervously. The bacterial strains are proprietary, and so are the
methods surrounding their use. My public relations minder, Michael
Neuwirth, exchanged a few words with J. W. Erskin, the plant manager,
"We can see the place where it's done," Neuwirth said.
The room was lined with freezers. Neuwirth opened one, and frost
billowed out. Inside were stacks of what looked like one-quart milk
cartons, encrusted with ice. "This is for Activia, right?" Neuwirth
"Yep," Erskin said. "Regularis."
The Dannon workers explained that each carton contained thousands of
tiny pellets consisting of frozen milk and bacteria. You can buy
non-proprietary yogurt-making bacteria for about $40 a bottle from
several suppliers. No one at Dannon would tell me the price of the
company's proprietary strains, but Erskin said, "When our little friends
die, it's very costly."
Workers wait for the moment when the milk reaches the ideal temperature,
then add the bacteria. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, a yogurt-making
bacterium, acts first, converting sugar to acid; Streptococcus
thermophilus is next. These prepare the substance for the probiotic
strains. Every bacterial move is choreographed. Although the Dannon
people wouldn't show me how the healthy microbes fit into this process,
they did take me next door, to the bottling room, where the precision
continued, though in engineering rather than biochemistry. The most
beautiful machine there was the one filling little bottles with
DanActive. The bottles moved across the ceiling, propelled by compressed
air along a metal track, halting, then scooting forward, like a line of
penguins. When the bottles reached the machine, an auger caught them in
its threads, sending them spinning in an endless line around gears and
carousels. The machine cleaned the bottles with acid, zapped them with
sterilizing UV light, filled, sealed, boxed, and stacked them-in
scherzo-at 460 containers per minute.
Erskin stood beside me, watching through the Plexiglas window.
"It's like a ballet," he said.
* * *
Dannon's new lines of products lend some credibility to the claims of
bacterial necessity made by Schmidt and other raw-milk advocates. Albeit
cautiously, scientists have also begun weighing in on whether such
technologies as pasteurization have purged necessary bacteria from our
food. When I started talking to milk experts, several told me I needed
to speak to Bruce German. A food chemist at U.C. Davis, German realized
early in his career that if he could determine what a food perfectly
suited to our DNA looked like, he would have a Rosetta Stone with which
to solve the puzzle of dietary well-being. He would be able to examine
each molecular component of this food to understand what it was doing to
make people healthy. No plant would do as a model, since evolutionary
pressure tends to favor plants that can avoid being eaten. The model
food would be just the opposite: something that had evolved specifically
to be a meal, something shaped by constant Darwinian selection to
satisfy all the dietary needs of mammals. That Ur-food, of course, is
The day I visited German, he was hosting a reception in honor of
Agilent, a company that had helped develop a machine able to analyze
oligosaccharides, sugar polymers found in breast milk. As we walked
across the U.C. Davis campus, German brought me up to speed. He's a
slight, energetic man, with smile lines creased into his face. His
excitement for his work is infectious. Oligosaccharides make up a large
portion of human milk, in which they are about as abundant as proteins.
The curious thing about them, German said, is that they are
indigestible. Which means, he said, one hand chopping the air, that they
are there to feed the bacteria living inside a baby's gut, not to feed
the baby. As far as scientists know, only one microbe thrives on this
sugar, a bacterium named Bifidobacterium infantis that has a fairly
"There's a lot of evidence that we coevolved with this organism," German
explained. "It's really specialized to us and vice versa. Mothers
recruit this entire life form to help the process of digestion."
Chemists have identified numerous other compounds in milk that are there
not just to nourish babies but to create a specific microbial ecosystem.
Lactoferrin, lysozyme, and lactoperoxidase kill off only harmful
bacteria, not beneficial bacteria. (These selective bactericides, along
with oligosaccharides, are also in cow's milk, though in lower
concentrations.) Consider, German said, what it means that milk, the
model food, has evolved such a sophisticated chemical system that caters
not to us but to our microbial friends. It means, he said, raising his
eyebrows, that "bacteria are tremendously important to us"-so important
that researchers studying the microbes living inside us say it's unclear
where our bodily functions end and the functions of microbes begin.
By any rational measure, this world belongs to microbes. They were
mastering the subtleties of evolution three billion years before the
first multicellular organism appeared. They continue to evolve and adapt
in a tiny fraction of the time it takes us to reproduce once. They
flourish in polar ice caps, in boiling water, and amid radioactive
waste. We exist only because some of them find us useful. Ninety percent
of the cells in our bodies are bacteria. The entirety of human evolution
has taken place in an environment saturated with microbes, and humans
are so firmly adapted to the routine of sheltering allies and rebuffing
enemies that the removal of either can devastate our defense systems.
For the past century, however, we've done our best to wall ourselves off
from microbes. In 1989, David Strachan put forward the "hygiene
hypothesis," which posed that this separation could be causing the
increased incidence of immune disorders. As the years have passed, many
studies have helped refine his proposal. Scientists found that hygiene
itself wasn't a problem. People who never used antibacterial soap were
just as likely to have asthma as those who scrubbed obsessively. In a
2006 study of thousands of children living on farms in Shropshire,
England, Strachan and another scientist, Michael Perkin, found that
raw-milk drinkers were unlikely to have eczema or to react to allergens
in skin-prick tests. "The protective effect of unpasteurized milk
consumption was remarkably robust," Strachan and Perkin wrote. Then, in
May of 2007, a group of scientists published a paper after surveying
almost 15,000 children around Europe. They found that children who drank
raw milk were less likely to have any among a wide range of allergies.
Either there's something about industrial milk that's harmful, Perkin
wrote in a commentary that accompanied the paper, or there's something
in raw milk that's beneficial.
None of these findings mean that raw milk is safe. Every single study
contains the caveat that raw milk often harbors pathogens. From an
epidemiological perspective, Bruce German told me, advising raw-milk
consumption at this point "would be crazy." Health officials certainly
should have a high level of confidence before approving anything risky.
But in light of the new evidence, it was becoming harder to deny that
something beneficial was being lost during pasteurization. And health
offiicials also have an obligation to ensure that they are not outlawing
what makes us healthy.
* * *
Last March I drove to Fresno to meet Organic Pastures owner Mark McAfee
and see how he had fared since the E. coli outbreak. The dairy is made
up of a few prefabricated double-wide trailers on 450 acres of pasture
extending out into the hazy flatness of California's Central Valley.
When I arrived, some 200 cows were chewing their cud on thirty shadeless
acres of closely cropped grass. McAfee culls about 14 percent of his
herd each year, far below the industry's average but still above
Schmidt's. When you have fewer than fifty cows, like Schmidt, it's
different, McAfee said. "You have time to give each one a foot rub every
night. You can do yoga with them every morning."
After walking through the dairy, we sat down in McAfee's office. Lab
results had found the exact same sub-strain of E. coli O157:H7 in almost
all of the children who fell ill after drinking unpasteurized dairy. Yet
McAfee remained unfazed. How did it help to show that the bacteria from
each patient matched, he asked, when one patient, an eighteen-year-old
in Nevada City, claimed he hadn't drunk the milk? The disease trackers I
talked to explained this by saying that sometimes germs move indirectly.
Someone else in the family spills a little milk. You wipe it up. Then
you wipe your mouth. But there was another theory I'd been hearing from
scientists working to explain why O157:H7 had burst onto the scene in
the 1980s with such virulence. Maybe, they said, it wasn't that the
bacteria had changed but that we had changed. In Brazil outbreaks of E.
coli O157:H7 are unheard of, though the bacteria exist there. A pair of
recent studies show that Brazilian women have antibodies protecting them
against O157:H7 and that they pass these antibodies to their children
through the placenta and their breast milk. I found this interesting,
especially in light of the fact that in every case I learned about, the
victims of the Organic Pastures outbreak had just started drinking
McAfee's milk. Perhaps those who had been drinking the milk longer had
developed the antibodies.
"It's an old story," McAfee said. "You see it again and again in the
lists of outbreaks. City kids went to the country, drank raw milk, and
got sick; country kids didn't get sick." But, I pointed out, this
explanation still implicates Organic Pastures. McAfee shook his head.
"Look, if I made four kids sick, I made four kids sick. But show me the
50,000 kids I made healthy. We don't guarantee zero risk. We aren't
worried about the .001 percent chance that someone will get sick; we are
worried about the 99 percent assurance that you are going to get sick if
you eat a totally sterile, anonymous, homogenous diet."
The problem for McAfee is that the .001 percent is shocking and visible.
A dying child will make people change their behavior. The diseases that
might stem from a lack of bacteria are much more subtle. They come on
slowly. It's difficult to link cause and effect. Businesses that
contribute to chronic disease often flourish while businesses that
contribute to acute disease get shut down. McAfee, now clearly incensed,
dismissed this line of reasoning. "If my milk gets someone sick, I
deserve some blame, but not all of it. People have to take
responsibility for maintaining their own immune systems. And we have to
look at an environmental level too. Where did these germs come from? E.
coli O157:H7 evolved in grain-fed cattle. It's amazing to me that we've
sat by as factory farmers feed more than half the antibiotics in the
country to animals and breed these antibiotic-resistant bacteria at the
same time the food corporations are destroying our immune systems. I
believe our forefathers would have grabbed their muskets and gone and
shot someone over this. They would have had a tea party over this."
Instead of grabbing his musket, McAfee is expanding. He's building a $2
million creamery, complete with a raw-milk museum. He expects to finish
construction in 2009. I asked what he'd do if regulators come to shut
"I have an email list of 8,000, ready for immediate revolutionary
action," he said. When the California legislature quietly passed a law
late last year with such strict standards that it constituted a de facto
ban on raw milk, McAfee mobilized these forces. In January hundreds of
people packed into a committee chamber in Sacramento carrying their
children and wearing black got raw milk? T-shirts. A legislative study
group is now working to come up with new standards.
* * *
Aside from the revolutionaries and reactionaries, what are the rest of
us to do? When Schmidt's case goes to trial this spring, his lawyer,
Clayton Ruby, will challenge the constitutionality of mandatory
pasteurization. In Canada, Ruby is one of those lawyers people threaten
to hire in the same way people in the United States used to say they
were going to hire Johnnie Cochran. He's sure to argue eloquently, but
the judge's decision on milk will leave unanswered the larger question
of how we should mend relations with our microbial friends. The court
won't tell us whether raw milk is good for people or how Schmidt has
managed to distribute it for twenty-five years without making anyone
sick. Someday scientists may answer these questions. But until then, we
will have to conduct our own calculations to determine what constitutes
clean and healthy food.
When I sat at Schmidt's breakfast table early one morning, glass in
hand, I understood the possible consequences of my choice. All the
competing science was there, along with the stories of epic sickness I'd
heard. And I have to confess, the thought crossed my mind that if I got
sick it would make a hell of a story. But when it comes down to it,
here's why I drank the raw milk. The sun had just come up, and we'd
already finished three hours of work in the barn. I was filled with a
righteous hunger. The table was laden with eggs from the chickens,
salami from the pigs, jarred fruit, steaming porridge, cheese, and
yogurt. Although dairy isn't for everyone, I come from the people of the
udder: my ancestors relied so heavily on milk that they passed down a
mutation allowing me to digest lactose. For many generations my
forefathers sat down to meals like this after the morning milking. It
felt unambiguously right.
This, of course, is the very definition of bias: the conflation of what
feels right with what is scientifically correct. But as it was, I could
only hope that my biases were rooted in something more than nostalgia.
Perhaps they were. The way a place feels won't tell you anything about
whether bacteria have breached the wall of sanitation, but it does
reveal something about the overall health of an ecosystem. Humans have
relied on such impressions to assess the quality of their food for most
of history. Someday the uncertainties of dietary science will fall to
manageable levels, but until then I will rely on my gut. I drained my
cup and poured thick clabbered milk and apple syrup on my porridge. If
any bacteria disagreed with my body, the conflict was too small to
6. Farm Bill News
By: Judith McGeary
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance
According to several staffers on the conference committee, Section 10305
has been taken out of the Farm Bill! This provision, inserted by the
Senate, would have required the USDA to issue regulations to address
confidentiality under NAIS. Section 10305 would have implied
Congressional approval of what USDA has been doing with NAIS, and
created a false sense of security about protecting people's information.
Nothing is certain until the conference committee's report is issued,
but all the reports so far indicate that Section 10305 is gone.
Thank you to all of the people who took the time to call and write
Of course, this does not end the fight. The USDA has already shown its
intention to continue pushing NAIS, regardless of what Congress does.
Last week, USDA issued a Privacy Act notice in the Federal Register for
information collected as part of NAIS. So neither NAIS nor the
confidentiality issue is dead! But we can still celebrate partial
victories along the way.
We are waiting for written confirmation, both that Section 10305 has
been taken out and that NAIS has not been slipped into the Farm Bill
elsewhere. Under the current schedule, the conference committee's
report is expected out early next week. So stay tuned for any changes!
For more background on Section 10305, see our earlier action alerts at
Competition Provisions in the Farm Bill
While opposing Section 10305 and NAIS, FARFA supported several
provisions in the Farm Bill that were developed and supported by a broad
coalition of agriculture and consumer groups to increase competition in
the livestock industry. Some of the key provisions:
* Authorizing state-inspected packing plants to engage in
* Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL).
* Banning packer ownership of livestock, to prevent the huge meat
packing corporations from controlling market access and livestock
* Authorizing voluntary arbitration, so that farmers are not
forced into binding arbitration as part of non-negotiable contracts.
Although the coalition lost on packer ban, the other three provisions
were approved by the conference committee!
More information on these and the other competition provisions can be
found at http://www.sustainableagriculture.net/fb08conf.php
More Information on USDA's Privacy Act Notice
You can find the USDA's latest notice at 73 Fed. Reg. 23412 (Privacy Act
Notice on NAIS) (Apr. 30, 2008) (online at:
The Privacy Act of 1974 is intended to "provide certain safeguards for
an individual against an invasion of personal privacy" by giving
individuals certain rights and requiring agencies to follow certain
procedures. One of the required procedures is to publish notice in the
Federal Register "upon establishment or revision" of a "system of
records." That notice must include the routine uses of the information,
which determine when the information can be disclosed. So, by publishing
this notice, USDA is essentially stating when information collected
under NAIS can be disclosed as a matter of course.
In the notice, the USDA states: "APHIS may routinely share information
contained in USDA's portion of the NAIS with Federal and State animal
health officials during an incident of an animal disease, bioterrorism,
or other animal health event. APHIS may disseminate information to
Federal and State animal health officials within the system for
educational purposes and to obtain feedback regarding the NAIS program
and emergency preparedness guidelines. Other routine uses of this
information include releases related to investigations pertaining to
violations of law or related to litigation. A complete listing of the
routine uses for this system is included in this notice. The information
collection requests associated with this system have been approved by
the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Paperwork Reduction
Act." The notice then sets out a long list of "routine uses" of the
Comments on the Privacy Act notice are due by May 30, 2008. You can
submit comments online at
=APHIS-2007-0015, or by mailing to: Docket No. APHIS-2007-0015,
Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Station 3A-03.8, 4700,
River Road Unit 118, Riverdale, MD, 20737-1238.
Support the Fight!
As always, we need your help to educate people across the country about
NAIS. Download materials from our Take Action page and put them out at
local feed stores, riding stables, farmers markets, and so on. And help
support our work by becoming a member today. We depend on membership
dues and donations to fight to protect your rights. Join now!
Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance
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