Legislation would give raw milk a place of its own at state’s table

Farm Forum

PIERRE – A state Senate committee endorsed changes on Tuesday, Jan. 27, that would treat producers of raw milk for human consumption as their own category of dairy in South Dakota.

Direct sales of raw milk are already legal but currently are treated as an exemption in state dairy laws.

The new proposal would create categories for manufacturing grade milk and for raw milk for human consumption.

They would be in addition to standard Grade A milk.

The legislation, Senate Bill 45, is proposed by the state Department of Agriculture and resulted from a work group convened by state Agriculture Secretary Lucas Lentsch.

He said the goal was to provide “clarity and regulatory certainty.”

Rapid City raw-milk advocates Gina Parkhurst and Sabrina King, representing the Dakota Rural Action organization, had led the grassroots push the past few years.

The two spoke in favor of the measure at a hearing by the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Committee members voted 7-2 to recommend the legislation pass. The full Senate could debate it as early as Thursday afternoon.

The committee amended the bill, at Lentsch’s request, to allow pre-arranged deliveries at farmers’ markets of raw milk for human consumption that had previously been purchased by consumers.

The purchases would continue to be required to be made at the farm where the milk is produced.

Raw-milk advocates and the state department reached impasse over proposed rules in recent years. Lentsch said the purpose of the work group was to find a way forward.

“We took the shout out of the conversation and began to listen,” Lentsch said.

Rep. Jacqueline Sly, R-Rapid City, said the legislation is “a tribute” to what can happen when people agree to look for consensus. “I believe this process can be a model,” Sly said.

The South Dakota State Medical Association and the South Dakota Dairy Producers opposed the legislation because of the higher health risks posed by raw milk.

Lawyer Justin Bell said the medical association, which represents physicians, wants raw-milk sales made illegal in South Dakota.

Several conventional dairy producers spoke against the legislation because of the health risk and the damage that could be caused to milk’s reputation among consumers.

“The entire industry can suffer if there is a milk outbreak of any nature,” said Allen Merrill, a farmer from the Parker area.

Sen. Mike Vehle, R-Mitchell, said raw-milk dairies must ensure their products sold to consumers are safe.

“You’re going to have a lot of responsibility attached to this,” Vehle said.

The two Democratic senators on the committee, Jim Peterson of Revillo and Jason Frerichs of Wilmot, voted against the bill. Both men, who are agriculture producers, cited the health risks and potential danger to dairy’s image.

Two Republican senators from Rapid City, Phil Jensen and Bruce Rampelberg, provided a core of help to raw-milk advocates in the past year and spoke in favor of the bill Tuesday.

Joining them in voting yes for the bill were Republicans Vehle, Gary Cammack of Union Center, Betty Olson of Prairie City, Art Rusch of Vermillion and Bob Ewing of Spearfish.

“It’s been wrassled around for two years without any result. This is a place to start,” Ewing said.

Jensen noted that Sly and Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, worked at the center of the effort to assist the raw-milk producers.

The bill creates a license class for raw-milk producers and would impose a $50 annual licensing fee.

Follow @pierremercer on Twitter.