Friday, November 11, 2005

MFC - Cheers to the milk runners

The following My Free Country column appeared in Capital Press on Nov. 11, 2005. It drew lots of fan mail, and really got under the skin of some big dairy lobbyists as well.

Continually escalating concerns over livestock and poultry diseases have only made me a bigger fan of small-scale, local agriculture, (ideally) with less-crowded herds and flocks that rarely travel and are raised in healthy conditions under consumers’ watchful eyes.

Last week, I exercised my dollar vote by opting out of the milk industry, putting my trust in neighbor cows Dinah and Emily instead. Dairy has been a concern for many Americans since Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (a.k.a. rBGH, rBST or Posilac) came into use after Food and Drug Administration approval in 1993.

Officially there is no difference between milk from cows that have been treated with rBGH and those that have not – if you live in the United States. Canada, Australia, Japan, the European Union and the United Nations food safety organizations all officially suspect otherwise.

Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility recently took on this battle, helping to funnel consumer complaints to the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which later banned use of the product in its member dairies.

Any woman who has nursed a baby and used a breast pump is likely to side with the cow regardless of any human health concerns. As one farmer said, “Those ladies work hard enough.”rBGH maker Monsanto and the FDA both emphatically say Posilac is safe. The FDA even suggests farmers who don’t use rBGH should cite FDA approval of the product on their hormone-free labeling. One Maine dairy added such text under legal pressure from Monsanto.

Besides all the above, I opted out of the milk industry because I wanted raw milk for the vitamins, nutrients and enzymes that can’t survive pasteurization. Plus, I was sick of driving past herds of Oregon cattle to buy milk from Texas at the local grocery store. So I went straight to Dinah and Emily.

My neighbor operates under an Oregon rule that allows owners of three cows or fewer to sell unpasteurized milk directly from the farm without a license. Unfortunately, she can’t sell at farmers’ markets, make delivery runs, advertise or sell her butter.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Eric Paulson explains that the three-cow exemption is designed for the owner of a few cows to get rid of extra milk, not to run a business. The ban on transporting such milk is meant to play a “buyer beware” function so consumers see the facilities because, according to Paulson, unregulated and unpasteurized milk can be a dangerous product.

Retail sales of raw milk are otherwise banned in Oregon. California, Washington and Idaho require dairy producer and processor licenses for all milk destined for human consumption.

In Washington, small producers have been gaining ground. “For years we were seeing producers going from 100 to 1,000 cows. Now we’re seeing the opposite,” the Washington Department of Agriculture’s Claudia Coles said. Four new retail raw milk producers began this year, bringing the state total to five, and an additional five or six parties have expressed interest or have applications pending.

Attempts have been made to ease the regulatory hurdles – Coles points out that Washington now allows hand cap and bottling as well as hand milking – and all the dairy officials I spoke with were friendly and helpful. Even so, dairy laws deter many would-be suppliers.

The website provides summaries of dairy regulations by state, a list of unpasteurized and rBGH-free milk producers, and extensive health information. RealMilk would like to see raw milk sales legal in all 50 states instead of the current 28.

I have to agree. If this is the safety we can expect from dairy regulation, I long for an unsafe world where the milk flows freely. Until then, I’ll raise my glass to the intrepid milk runners out there, secretly delivering wholesome “pet milk” and selling cowshares to grateful households across the countryside.

Has a small-farm regulation got you jumping through hoops? I’d like to hear about it.

Friday, May 13, 2005

MFC - Take another look at hemp

The once and future most valuable and versatile crop in America is none other than cannabis hemp. Like most people, I used to think hemp was illegal because it is genetically the same as marijuana. It wasn't until I read Jack Herer's book "The Emperor Wears No Clothes" that I realized the opposite my be true: Marijuana was made illegal to ban hemp cultivation.

Think about it. Pot has been used medicinally for centuries, and is finally recognized for such use in several states. Why should anyone worry about a relatively benign plant? Clearly there is more to the story.

In fact, according to Herer's book, hemp posed a real threat to corporate powerhouses that were heavily invested in making inferior products.

It's no coincidence that "marijuana" (a Mexican slang word that was used to play on prejudice and disassociate the plant from the well-accepted cannabis hemp) was demonized in the papers of William Randolf Hearst. Timber, paper and newspaper holding companies stood to lose billions as new technology made hemp pulp paper production more viable. The same was true for DuPont and its petroleum-based plastics and synthetic fibers.

And so here we are, with most Americans having forgotten that hemp was once grown enthusiastically by our nation's founders. It was used for rope, canvas, clothes, textiles, paper, medicine, paint, lighting oil and food.

The U.S. government was once a primary champion of hemp. The crop's potential to replace wood as paper-making material was promoted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bulletin 404, published in 1916. It cited a four- to-one production advantage of hemp over timber: "Every tract of 10,000 acres which is devoted to hemp raising year by year is equivalent to a sustained pulp-producing capacity of 40,500 acres of average pulp-wood lands."

"Without doubt, hemp will continue to be one of the staple agricultural crops of the United States," the Bulletin declared.

Even after the plant was banned under the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, the federal government launched a campaign urging farmers to grow the crop for the good of the country when the Japanese cut off hemp supplies to America. In 1942 and 1943, farmers were required to view the USDA film, "Hemp for Victory."

"In 1942, patriotic farmers at the government's request planted 36,000 acres of seed hemp. ... The goal for 1943 is 50,000 acres of seed hemp," said the film. The acreage devoted to fiber hemp was 14,000 in 1942, with a goal of 300,000 acres in 1943.

Modern uses for hemp have expanded from the traditional list. It is now a viable source for many building materials, including pressed board, particle board, concrete construction molds, paneling, plastic plumbing pipes and more. Its potential for fuel and biomass energy are even more impressive.

Our need for hemp has likewise increased. Each legislative session ushers in a new set of regulations that hamstring businesses in the hope of addressing global warming, deforestation or some other environmental hazard when cannabis hemp could help as much.

The plant reaches 12 to 20 feet or more in just one growing season, producing about 10 tons per acre in four months. It can be cultivated in almost any climate or soil condition. It is more aggressive than weeds and rarely requires pesticides.

It has the best nutritional value of any plant source, with more usable protein than soybeans. It is a nontoxic, annually renewable source of so many products that a farmer simply can't go wrong sowing these seeds, according to Herer's book.

Hemp-related legislative activity is currently under way in four states. After approving hemp production in 1999, North Dakota's successful HB1492 now directs its state university to store feral hemp seeds for a time when production is legal under federal law. A bill allowing state-licensed production has passed the New Hampshire House. Oregon's SB394 and California's AB1147 would also allow hemp production with a state license.

The ban on hemp will crumble as environmental concerns worsen. The states that get in on the ground floor will have an enormous advantage. Western states should aggressively pursue this opportunity and stand up to the federal government again as they have in the past.