Wyoming lawmakers may not have agreed on much this legislative session but there is one issue they did vote together on: de-regulating the state's locally produced foods. The new Food Freedom Act now allows consumers to buy processed produce, poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk direct from the cook or farmer, something that was illegal just a few months ago. And it's that last item—raw milk—that's so controversial nationwide. To find out what's been why people are souring on the subject, Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards made a visit to the E-Z Rocking Ranch farm stand in Gillette.
Ever since the Food Freedom Act passed this last month, farmer Frank Wallis's little farm stand has become the most popular place in town.
“We're so busy when we get here, we don't have time to unload for about an hour,” Wallis says. “People are waiting for their milk.”
He sells his milk, eggs, kombucha and sauerkraut out of a tiny store front painted with psychedelic purple and yellow flowers.
“Before the bill passed, I think we were thinking we had about 130 families a week,” he says. “I'm sure we're in the 160, 170 families right now.”
Wallis’s late sister, Representative Sue Wallis, first started working on the Food Freedom Act in 2009. He says she wanted to pass an act like this because ranching and farming in Wyoming is tough and state regulations didn’t help. Now that the law has passed, Wallis says there’s a surge in interest in buying products from local producers. He’s excited about what it means for the local producers. But state epidemiologist Tracy Murphy doesn’t share his enthusiasm. Murphy’s job is to look out for the state’s health.
“There have been scientific studies published,” Murphy says, “that as more people consume raw milk and in states that have legislated raw milk sales, the number of outbreaks go up significantly.”
Outbreaks from illnesses like campylobacter, ecoli and salmonella, among others. In the 1920's, pasteurization put a stop to widespread outbreaks of such illnesses, using a process of raising the temperature of milk high enough to kill off the bacteria of such diseases. Murphy says in the last five years, Wyoming saw 41 cases of sickness associated with raw milk consumption, five of them from one producer in Fremont County. Eight people during that time frame were even hospitalized. Now that people can buy raw milk at farmer’s markets, Murphy says those numbers may go up even more. He says it’s the job of the Department of Health to let people know that there's no reason to buy raw milk.
“Pasteurized milk is widely available,” he says. “Everybody can get it. There really is just no reason to take the risk of drinking unpasteurized milk.”
Longtime raw milk consumer, Amy Parker-Williams, disagrees. “For me, it’s a very nutrient rich food. And in our current day and age, that's hard to find,” she says. “Things like raw milk, pastured eggs, grass fed butter, grass fed beef, those things have vitamins and minerals and enzymes. And raw milk is directly linked to better mineral absorption and healthier teeth and bones.”
For the last 11 years, Parker-Williams has been driving to Colorado 60 miles away to get raw milk for her three kids. This week they have extra and that means the kids can drink it by the glassful. They all rush to get the creamiest glass. Ethan makes it there first.
“I don't digest pasteurized milk as well as raw milk,” Ethan says. “I get like a stomach ache.”
But for Parker-Williams it isn't just that her lactose-intolerant son can drink raw milk that makes her willing to risk the diarrhea or fevers associated with raw milk reactions.
“I have a very hard time ethically, buying conventional milk, just because how the animals are treated, how they're fed, the drugs that are used, the distance it has to travel, the fact that the milk you’re drinking comes from thousands of dairies across the country that’s all been mixed together.”
She says, she also likes supporting the local economy. Pete Kennedy is the president of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund. He says Wyoming now has the most lenient raw milk laws in the country. Unlike other states, farmers can sell not only the milk, but products made with it, like cheese and yogurt.
“The laws like Wyoming's will hopefully bring us back to a time where farmers can sell their products to consumers without these one size fits all regulations,” Kennedy says. “They’ve made it very difficult for them to make a living the past 100 years and driven many farms out of business.”
After a long day selling milk, Farmer Frank Wallis hurries back to his ranch to do the evening’s milking. In the old log barn, Daisy stands on a rubber mat on a dirt floor to get milked. They use stainless steel milking machines and always wash her down with soapy water first. It’s nothing fancy, Wallis says. But it’s really starting to pay the bills.
“With these milk cows it’s a monthly check rather than a once a year check, if you’re just raising beef. So with the milk cows and a little beef, it’s not a bad little business. It’s not a get rich quick scheme, by any means,” he says, laughing. “By any means!”
Even so, Wallis says, ever since the Food Freedom Act passed, his business has improved drastically.