On the frontier of urban homesteading, you frequently encounter uncharted territory. James Bertini, the founder of Denver Urban Homesteading, recently ran into a gray area in the state law regarding raw milk.
Bertini had allowed two dairy farms to offer raw milk samples at his Denver Urban Homesteading market at 200 Santa Fe Drive. Concerned that the "non-pasteurized" samples violated state law, Danica Lee, who's with the Public Health Inspections division of the Denver Department of Environmental Health, contacted the state. And three weeks ago, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sent a letter to Bertini, forbidding two of the dairy farms that sell at his market -- Windsor Dairy and Harvest Acres -- from giving raw milk samples to non-shareholders.
Historically, Colorado consumers were unable to obtain raw milk due to safety concerns. But in 2005, the state legislature passed a measure that allows consumers to purchase a share of a cow or goat, and these shareholders can receive raw milk directly from a dairy farm. Shareholders must sign a contractual agreement, acknowledging that raw milk is not a regulated product and stating that they will not hold the milk supplier liable if there is a health issue.
But the legislation is silent on the issue of providing raw milk samples to non-shareholders.
"Our goal all along has been to be in compliance with the legislation," says Leda Viart, owner of Harvest Acres, who explains that a "second-hand" dairy producer had told her "as long as money did not exchange hands, it was acceptable to give away milk." But that producer was wrong -- the law doesn't address the issue.
Since Bertini received the letter, both dairy farms have refrained from offering samples of milk at the market -- and without those samples, no new shareholders have signed up. "Since the sampling ban went into effect, I haven't sold one share," Viart says. "But I don't think it was a campaign to put us out of businesses."
Even so, sampling is crucial so that consumers can overcome preconceived notions that raw goat's milk is "some wild gamey food," she explains. "When they taste it, 100 percent say it's something a lot different then they had expected."
Lee says she contacted the state because she was concerned consumers weren't aware of the potential dangers of drinking raw milk, which can be "life-threatening," she notes. "We've had those [E. coli] outbreaks here in Colorado. So our concern is, if people are sampling raw milk, a lot of consumers aren't aware of the risks... If there's an outbreak, that can be a really tragic situation."
And if a non-shareholder was affected by the outbreak, the farm could be held liable, Lee says, as well as "the health department if we weren't properly enforcing the law."
But according to Viart, there's no need to worry about life-threatening outbreaks. "We test our milk and we consume our milk daily," she says, adding that she feeds the milk to her one-year-old child.
Bertini says he's used to the "brouhaha" as governments try to come to grips with new developments in urban homesteading. First there was his year-long campaign to allow Denver residents to raise chickens in their back yards; then came his fight with the Dervaes Institute, which tried to copyright the term "Urban Homesteading."
But following this most recent ruckus over raw milk sampling, Bertini says there's a new "era of cooperation" between Denver Urban Homesteading and the city.
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"I expressed my objection and my concerns to the City of Denver for the way that this was handled; it seems to have struck a good chord with the city," Bertini says. "They are now seeking out our advice on innovative agriculture and food-related issues that are popping up in Denver, because they realize that organizations like ours are valuable partners in resolving new issues that arise."
The city is working with Bertini to come up with revised regulations regarding some urban homesteading practices. "I think he understands where we're coming from and the obligation we have to public health," Lee says. "It's a process of revising our food regulations to make sure they are progressive as possible with sustainable food processes and resources as we move forward."
Viart has suggested to the Colorado health department that dairies be able to have consumers sign a waiver in order to sample raw milk. So far, though, she hasn't heard back. "You know, if we had the time and the manpower and a financing campaign to change the legislation," she says, it would be a quicker process to get it to "more accurately reflects what consumers want." But the Raw Milk Association of Colorado is made up of volunteers, she says: "We just haven't really found anyone who is willing to step up yet."