EAST BLUE HILL, Maine — Officially, her name is Sprocket. But Dan Brown has a tongue-in-cheek moniker for the 4-year-old cow at the heart of his legal problems with the state of Maine: Troublemaker.
Sprocket, it turns out, isn’t just part of Brown’s dairy operation at Gravelwood Farm, a small family farm on Blue Hill peninsula, but the entire operation. She is responsible for every ounce of milk that makes its way into the Brown family’s coffee and cereal. What the Browns don’t use, in some cases, is sold as bottled milk, butter and cheese made from raw or unpasteurized milk.
“I got this cow to have milk here for us, so that we have milk,” Brown said one recent cold and rainy December morning while standing in the barn on his family’s 70-acre property. “If I have some extra, we do something with it.”
It is those “extra” sales that have sparked Brown’s legal troubles with the Maine Department of Agriculture, which contends that Brown needs a license to sell raw milk because of the potential health risks of unpasteurized dairy products. But to the dismay of state agriculture officials, Brown’s case is attracting national attention from groups and individuals who view it as proof of governmental bias against family farmers and in favor of big agribusiness.
“A lot of people are watching the case around the country,” said Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a Virginia-based organization that has signed on to help Brown defend himself in court if the case gets that far.
The state has levied three complaints against Brown in Hancock County Superior Court, accusing him of selling milk without a distributor’s license, selling unpasteurized milk without a label and selling food without a license.
Brown retorts that calling a small farmer with a single dairy cow “a distributor” is preposterous. He also takes shelter under a “food sovereignty” ordinance adopted by Blue Hill residents earlier this year that he says gives him the right to sell directly to friends and neighbors without the government’s involvement. Four other Maine towns have adopted similar ordinances seeking to exempt from government regulation farmers who sell directly to consumers.
But Brown’s unusual case also underscores how small and close-knit Maine’s agriculture industry is, despite the state’s size.
Brown purchased Sprocket from dairy farmer Walter Whitcomb, the same man who heads the Agriculture Department pursuing legal action against him. Differentiating between Farmer Whitcomb and Commissioner Whitcomb, Brown said he has always been very friendly with Farmer Whitcomb.
“I’ve learned a lot from Walt. I really have,” Brown said. “Walt has helped me a lot. He was someone I would call if I had a problem.” But Brown said he believes Commissioner Whitcomb is carrying out commands from federal regulators pressuring the state to take action.
Whitcomb, for his part, said recently he was purposefully kept out of the loop with the Brown case until after the complaint had been filed with the Ellsworth court because of his professional relationship with the family.
Whitcomb estimated his office has received hundreds of emails on both sides of the issue. Although the department has been the target of some stinging criticism, he believes some early critics have come to understand the department’s stance.
“We have seen quite a shift in terms of discussion … as people slow down and think about the ramifications for food safety,” Whitcomb said.
Back on his East Blue Hill farm, Brown was eager to talk about the safety of Sprocket’s milk and his own careful attention to her health — a special level of attention that he insists is not possible at the type of large dairy farms where he has worked in the past.
“I have never had any questions from customers saying there was any problem with my milk,” Brown said. “This has been done this way for hundreds of years. Farmers, when they milk a cow, know whether the milk is bad or not.”
Sprocket isn’t milked by hand, but the process that Brown uses isn’t far removed from old-school methods. Twice daily, Brown brings Sprocket in from the adjoining stall or field and leads her into the single wooden milking stall that he built in the barn that doubles as a garage.
Using an iodine spray and special wipes also used in larger dairy operations, Brown cleans and sanitizes Sprocket’s teats before connecting the cow to a vacuum pump.
Finally, he takes the fresh milk into the nearby house in a large, stainless steel bucket where it will be used by his family or be converted to other products. In winter, the Browns make butter for sale during the summer. And in summer, the family sells more liquid milk.
But the first sample of the fresh milk or cream usually ends up in his morning coffee, Brown said.
“That’s been one of the things I have said all along when questions came up about the safety of my milk: My daughter and I drink it every morning,” he said.
Altogether, Sprocket produces about a gallon and a half of milk per day, which nets him roughly $8, he said. To obtain a license, Brown said he would likely have to redo his entire milking operation — which he said is not feasible on $8 a day, before expenses — and take other steps inside his house, such as somehow barring the family cats from the kitchen and removing house plants.
Whitcomb as well as some licensed raw milk sellers, however, have said that the state’s rules are not cumbersome. They include heating water to 180 degrees to kill bacteria on equipment as well as tuberculosis testing of cows.
In Brown’s case, Whitcomb said the state’s actions were triggered in part by laboratory tests of a batch of milk from Brown’s farm that was found to have bacteria well above the allowable levels. Brown in turn said he has serious questions about the sample, noting that it was purchased one day but didn’t get to the laboratory until a day later.
Raw milk has increased in popularity among consumers eschewing processed food and seeking a closer, personal relationship with the food they eat and the farmers that produce it. Raw milk sellers and consumers claim pasteurization removes vitamins, minerals and healthful bacteria from the milk.
Maine has 32 dairies licensed to sell raw milk and 67 entities licensed to sell cheese made from unpasteurized milk, numbers that attest to the growing interest among Mainers in locally sourced, all-natural foods.
But federal health agencies have little positive to say about unpasteurized milk.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 93 “outbreaks” tied to raw milk or raw milk products in the United States between 1998 and 2009, resulting in 195 hospitalizations and two deaths. Unpasteurized milk can contain bacteria such as E. coli and listeria, the parasite giardia, and can cause serious illnesses such as tuberculosis.
The CDC’s website contains numerous warnings about the health risks of consuming unpasteurized dairy products as well as video testimonials from people who were sickened or whose family members were sickened after ingesting raw milk.
“While it is possible to get food-borne illnesses from many different foods, raw milk is one of the riskiest of all,” the CDC’s website states. “Getting sick from raw milk can mean many days of diarrhea, stomach cramping, and vomiting. Less commonly, it can mean kidney failure, paralysis, chronic disorders, and even death.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists as “unsafe to eat” all milk, cream, ice cream, yogurt, pudding and soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.
Whitcomb has acknowledged that his department’s raw milk licensing program is under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which generally opposes raw milk sales. If someone became ill after ingesting unpasteurized milk from an unlicensed farm, even the licensed operations could be shut down or lose customers in the ensuing backlash, he said.
And then there is the issue of Blue Hill’s “food sovereignty” ordinance, asserting that farmers who sell directly to consumers are exempt from state or federal licensing or inspection.
Kennedy, with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said counties and towns across the United States are weighing similar ordinances but that “Maine is ahead of the curve.” His organization is involved with Brown’s case because it is the first legal challenge to a local food ordinance.
“I think these local ordinances are a way to take the power that the states are giving away and have the power reside at the local level,” Kennedy said.
Whitcomb, however, reiterated that the complaint against Brown has nothing to do with Blue Hill’s ordinance. Instead, he said it was a response to what the department felt was a potentially dangerous situation.
“Had it occurred in Allagash or Berwick or Madrid, the state’s action probably would have been the same,” Whitcomb said.
Not surprisingly, Brown disagrees and sees his legal battle as part of a much larger issue.
“Yes, this is a big deal here in Blue Hill, but this is happening across the country,” Brown said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Brown uses spray and wipes to sterilize the the cow’s udders. The story should have said he sanitizes the teats on the cow's udder.