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State of raw milk farmers in Massachusetts

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2015 January Issue Newsletter

Suzy Konecky, NOFA/Mass Raw Milk Program Coordinator

The raw milk economy is an exciting one in Massachusetts, and around the country. In Massachusetts we have 29 raw milk dairy farms that are licensed by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and Resources (MDAR) to sell milk to the public. These farms are inspected monthly by an MDAR inspector, who takes a milk sample for testing. The results of this test must show that the bacterial counts in the milk are below the permitted counts that pasteurized milk must have, after pasteurization. Raw milk has to be squeaky clean from the start. This autumn I surveyed the raw milk farmers in the state to get a better picture of who they are, what they are doing, and what the trends are in this group of farmers who are keeping this small raw milk economy healthy and growing. 

I was pleased to see that while there are a number of farmers who have been farming at their properties for many years (23% have been at their locations for over 30 years), 61% of raw milk farmers have been farming at their locations for fewer than 10 years and 30.8% have been farming at their current locations for fewer than 5 years. This spread of tenure shows that, in addition to a solid group of more experienced dairy farmers, there are many new farmers. With the increasing interest in raw milk around the state and the support of NOFA/Mass I hope to see another 30% of raw milk dairy farms in the state after 5 more years. 

54% - most of these farms - are under 200 acres, and 77% of them are under 400 acres.  While this size is substantial compared with many of the crop-producing farms in the state, it is modest for grazing operations. The average number of lactating animals (cows or goats) is 31, a herd size that fits well on these smaller land bases. The animals are producing a modest quantity of milk overall, about 3.5 - 4 gallons per day for the cow dairies, and 1 gallon per day for the goat dairies. According to Purdue University’s Food Animal Education Network, this quantity is just about ⅔ of the national average.  What that indicates to me as a dairy farmer is that the raw milk farmers in this state aren’t pushing their cows hard for high production, but rather focusing on other priorities such as grazing, reproductive health, milk components, and overall animal health. The farmers’ survey results reflect this, and when asked what priorities they have for their farm in the coming year, the majority of answers included pasture management, marketing and consumer awareness, and on-farm microbiological testing.

Unlike most dairy farmers, raw milk farmers in Massachusetts have a special relationship with their customer base, because raw milk can only be sold retail directly to the consumer from the farm. However, not all raw milk farmers sell all their milk as fresh, raw milk. Given that farmers have to get their customers to travel to their farms to pick up milk, those farms in more rural areas or on a long dirt road might have limited potential customer base. In the survey, the farmers responded to the question: “What percentage of your total milk production gets sold as fresh, raw milk and how much gets sold in other ways”. A third of the farms sell all of their milk as raw milk from the farm; another 15% sell over half of their milk as raw milk. The rest of the farmers either process the milk on their farm or sell it another way. The chart shows where the rest of the milk (that the farmers are not able to sell as raw milk, or choose not to) ends up in the supply chain. Most of it gets processed into cheese, yogurt, or another value-added product on the farm. Answers in the “other” category included selling to a school-dining hall, selling to other farms, and experimenting with value-added products.

If you want to find out more about a raw milk farmer near you, visit the NOFA/Mass Raw Milk Program Page: www.nofamass.org/programs/raw-milk-network. Here you can find a list of raw milk dairies in the state organized on a state-wide map, town regulations, and specific information for customer and producers. This is one of the smaller agriculture sectors in our state, but one that is growing.

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