Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Heather and Phil Retberg run Quills End Farm in Penobscot, Maine. It is a 100-acre pasture based farm with pigs, hens, dairy, beef cattle and sheep. Last year, the Retbergs realized that they would run into regulatory hurtles by selling raw milk, so they devised a plan, as have many other diary farmers around the country. Heather describes how their community is an integral part of what they do and without that support, farming would be much more difficult, if not impossible.

“We don’t sell our milk to restaurants or retail outlets, but just from the farm through a private buying club. It’s been since August and we are close to 60 members. We have a member only buying club, so that anybody who buys milk from us signs a statement of personal responsibility that they are seeking out raw milk and they understand the benefits and risks and they are not going to sue the state; they are not going to sue the farmer, but they understand what’s entailed and they still want to eat food that’s as close to nature as possible. And for now, the Department of Agriculture says that’s a fine way to operate.

It has been an interesting process. We put a lot of working into forming this contract and talked with some farmers in Pennsylvania about how to go about it. People at first, by and large, were saying, ‘Of course, we want to support what you’re doing. We’ll just sign it. We won’t even read it,’ which was really surprising. We said, ‘Really, you should read it, so you know where we all stand here.’ There seems to be a general understanding that there are big forces out there that don’t want this to continue and if this is something that helps, they’ll just do it.

One young woman came here with her friend. I said you can just take the contract and take the free sample and she said, ‘No, I’ll read it.’ So, she read it and signed it. She said, ‘I think this is how my friend in Colorado has to do it too to get milk.’ And her friend said, ‘I was in California and I remember seeing signs that said government out, we want our milk.’ So, there’s this sensibility and the dots are getting connected. It has been an eye opening thing to really have the sense that people are conscientiously making the choice to seek out good food and are willing to stand behind it and then actually go the extra step of having the contract.

It is not just that we care about the land or the animals. It is also that we care about the people who we are providing food for. And they care about us. They are willing, when times are hard, to buy a cow for us because we need another one. It is absolutely, wow. It’s not a small responsibility when my friend who is pregnant weans her baby on our raw milk. That is such a powerful incentive to be doing an excellent job. Our farm patrons are really a big part of our life. When the finances are tight and the work is hard and the days are long, and you have five people come down the drive way and say, ‘Thank you so much, we know this is really hard and we are so grateful that you do it.’ It does keep you going.”

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