Why Buy the Cow?

Legal weed, jokes about communists, and the perils of purchasing your own milk maker.


"I still can't believe they took our yogurt. There's a medical marijuana shop a couple miles away, and they're raiding us because we're selling raw dairy products?" When the Rawesome organic food coop in Venice, California, was raided by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office, the Los Angeles County Sheriff, the Ventura County Sheriff, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture, plus the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture in late June, one of the store's volunteers was widely quoted expressing incredulity that dairy products would attract more attention from law enforcement than weed.

And it's a funny line; we're used to thinking of pot as something that must be purchased in secret and under elaborate ruses, while milk can be bought in the open. (Substitute fried chicken for marijuana, and you can find the same joke driving a recent episode of South Park inspired by a Reason cover.) But for the people who produce, sell, or drink unpasteurized milk, the comparison between medical marijuana and raw dairy is all too apt. Both are governed by a patchwork of state laws, some of which can be surprisingly liberal, but nearly all of which are vague enough to leave entrepreneurs with a massive amount of uncertainty about the viability of their business. Sale or distribution of both substances across state lines is essentially forbidden and operations attempting to go legit are restricted by the boundaries of the state where their cows or cannabis grow. Federal agents have a habit of involving themselves in actions within states as well, often in an unpredictable way.

Raw milk devotees'"like medical marijuana fans'"make claims for their consumable of choice ranging from the relatively uncontroversial (unpasteurized milk tastes richer and fresher) to the unlikely (raw milk cures autism).  When people buy and drink raw milk, they tend to do so advisedly, understanding that they are trading safety for taste or other desired attributes, just as marijuana patients tend to notice that smoking dope involves, well, smoking and a certain amount of dopeyness.

No one is proposing that raw milk become the national standard'"pasteurization was a great boon for food safety and isn't going anywhere. But as more people become interested in raw milk, raids on dairies are becoming increasingly common, according to Pete Kennedy of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. And attempts to accommodate an increasing byzantine and inconsistent body of law become more difficult and expensive.

Headlines about  "renegade" dairy farmers aside, raw milk producers don't tend to be people who enjoy breaking rules or living with any more uncertainty than their occupation already provides. But sometimes trying to do the right thing just draws more regulatory attention. The same day Rawesome was raided, one of its suppliers was also hit. The Palmer family is trying their darnedest to figure how to comply with the law. The problem is that laws that specifically address this area of commercial activity are few and far between, and tend to be open to a variety of interpretations. Thus the third raid on the Palmer's farm in late June, resulting in, among other things, the family's third confiscated computer and the removal of a supply of raw milk they planned to use to feed other animals, not people.

Or consider the case of Brigitte Ruthman, a woman running a very small-scale dairy in the Berkshires'"she has a single cow that started giving milk in April. Last week, she received a cease and desist letter from the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture.

Fans of raw milk and other forbidden dairy products often say that their fallback plan to is buy their own cow or goat if the crackdowns get worse, as the excellent site The Complete Patient points out in its coverage of the Massachusetts case. But unless you're planning to drink a cow's output every day, the logical thing to do is share the cow with some friends or neighbors. And that's where you get in trouble. Ruthman's was co-owned by three milk drinkers, an arrangement she believed made her enterprise legal. Massachusetts law doesn't have much to say about such "herdshare" arrangements. In fact, it doesn't say anything at all on the subject. Ruthman sought out advice on how to make her operation legit but got mixed messages from the state. And the cease-and-desist letter is likely just the beginning of a long legal battle over her cows.

Since at least the 1930s, some version of this series of jokes has been in circulation, via chain letter, newspaper reprint, and eventually email forwards. Sometimes it travels under the name "a parable of isms." This version from 1940 is pretty typical:

Socialism: If you have two cows, you give one to your neighbor.
Communism: If you have two cows, you give them to the government and the government then gives you some milk.
Fascism: If you have two cows, you keep the cows and give the milk to the government; then the government sells you some milk.
New Dealism: if you have two cows, you shoot one and milk the other; then you pour the milk down the drain.
Nazism: If you have two cows, the government shoots you and keeps the cows.
Capitalism: If you have two cows, you sell one and buy a bull.

In recent years and days, the joke has taken a literal and unfunny turn here in the U.S. The latest addition to the joke is something like this:

Nanny Stateism: If you have two cows, we're going to show up at your house at dawn with a cease-and-desist letter and forbid you to do anything useful with their milk until you comply with General Laws Chapter 94, Sections 13 and 16 through 16K, Chapter 94A, and the regulations found in 330 CMR 27.00 et seq.

See? Not funny.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.