This week I descended, unprotected by the solicitous watch of government, into Ontario’s raw milk underground. Well … I’ve yet to be fully initiated; I haven’t even bought any milk yet.
Like in any subversive marketplace, aside from a few vocal advocates, most players on the raw milk scene seem intent on maintaining a high level of privacy as a means of protection against punishment by the state. On Monday afternoon I had a rendez-vous with a “mooshiner” * (someone who deals in raw milk) at a southern Ontario Tim Hortons, trepidatious though they were about the encounter.
While I’ve always been a dairy lover, I’m not much of a foodie otherwise, and therefore never took too much of an interest in issues surrounding food and farm freedom. However, my amble into the raw milk underground began when I wrote about attacks on Ontario farmers by government, mostly from a property rights perspective and stemming from my interest in the expropriation case of Trenton Ontario farmer Frank Meyers.
After writing a blog post on the subject of farmers coming up against government, in which I mentioned the case of raw milk farmer Michael Schmidt, I received a message from someone asking if I was looking for milk, and suggesting that we should connect, if so. My interest was piqued, but after a little bit of communication, my first raw milk contact was spooked by the fact that I was publicly blogging and socially networking about raw milk, among other topics – too much exposure!
Drawn in by the creamy intrigue of the illicit milk trade, I posted on social media about my contact being spooked, and made an appeal for someone willing to sell me some milk. Eventually, a mooshiner did agree to meet me at a Tim Hortons, though they were cautious about what they could tell me, for fear that I may publish some information that would reveal their identity and connection to the raw milk trade. No milk sale was made at our first meeting – trust has to be established first.
We spoke for about an hour, and I learned a lot about the inner-workings of Ontario’s raw milk market, some of which I hope to share with you as I gain a better understanding of the milk landscape.
This mooshiner’s insistence on privacy and discretion, I learned, is based on a fear of reprisal by the government – the crown, local health boards and the CFIA -, the individual farmers whom they represent, as well as the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO), the organization responsible for dispensing legal milk quotas worth hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars to each farmer.
The mooshiner I met estimates that the majority of dairy farmers in Ontario – as many as 80% - engage in illegal “back door sales” of raw milk, and that almost all dairy farmers drink raw milk themselves. If that’s the case, then why don’t more farmers speak out in favour of raw milk legalization?
Under current legislation, most notably the Ontario Milk Act, dairy farmers are prohibited from selling milk outside of the DFO administered quota system. Quota-holding farmers are contractually bound to the DFO to produce a certain amount of milk to be pasteurized and centrally distributed for sale. Overproduction is penalized. Overproducing farmers are able to recoup some of the cost of production of the milk beyond their quota, as well as the associated penalties, by conducting back door sales. However, openly selling raw milk is a huge risk for quota-holding farmers, since being caught doing so would leave them without a quota that allows them to sell their milk to be pasteurized and distributed in the regulated marketplace, with fines and legal fees, and prohibited from selling any milk (raw or not) to provide them with a source of revenue.
I left the Tim Hortons without milk in hand, but on friendly terms with my new mooshiner acquaintance. Though more comfortable than at the outset, they were still concerned about what I might publicly divulge of our meeting, worrying that they might be identified.
It feels somewhat surreal to be operating in such a clandestine manner in order to procure something as seemingly benign as milk. I’m still learning about raw milk – so can’t speak too much to its health benefits or risks, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds it ludicrous that I should have to enter into a “criminal” underground in order to voluntarily transact to buy food for myself, right?
Stay tuned for updates on my underground milk adventures!
*Try to come up with some milk and cow puns of your own for hours of fun!