September 9, 2023 at 8:00 a.m.

Iowa, North Dakota legalize sales of raw milk

A dairy producer, legislator, veterinarian weigh in

By STACEY SMART | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Dairy Star aims to provide our readers with a closer look into relevant topics to today’s dairy industry. Through this series, we intend to examine and educate on a variety of topics. If you have an idea for a topic to explore in a future issue, send Stacey an email.

HARLAN, Iowa — After nearly two decades of trying to legalize the sale of raw milk in Iowa, supporters of this legislation finally saw success July 1.

On that day, farm-to-consumer sales of raw milk in liquid form became legal in the Hawkeye State.

Esther Arkfeld, Dairy farmer


“It was high time this type of legislation be passed,” said Esther Arkfeld, who owns and operates De Melkerij micro-dairy near Harlan. “Raw milk has finally become a topic that can be openly discussed. Now that laws have changed, this opens things up for us, and our customers are much happier.”

Rep. Dawson Holle, North Dakota


Working closely with Sen. Jason Schultz, who had been leading the raw milk bill for 17 years, Arkfeld played a role from a grassroots perspective in helping that legislation pass.

“It’s more of a people’s bill allowing that neighbor-to-neighbor transaction; it wasn’t a producers’ bill,” Arkfeld said. “This bill would not cover larger producers, but the law does allow small farms to be able to meet a niche demand.”

Dr. Joni Scheftel DVM, MPH, DACVPN, MN Dept. of Health


The law in Iowa states that a herd can only have 10 active lactating animals. Arkfeld milks four A2A2 Jerseys and has been running a herdshare program for about 1.5 years. 

Customers buy shares of a cow, and each share entitles a person to 1 gallon of raw milk each week. Customers can purchase multiple shares or half shares. They also pay a monthly boarding fee for every share to pay for the care of their cow.

Arkfeld has more than 20 customers, and each one buys anywhere from 1 to 3 gallons of milk per week. Arkfeld doubled in size from two to four cows around the time the legislation passed.

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“We’re very small in the dairy world, but our biggest objective is quality over quantity,” Arkfeld said. “I have a long waiting list and could add to my herd and be up to 10 cows, but I want to make sure our quality doesn’t suffer. I don’t want to overextend ourselves.”

To ensure the milk she sells is safe for human consumption, Arkfeld follows strict protocols. Under mentorship of the Raw Milk Institute, she has put a risk analysis plan in place and conducts bacteria testing multiple times per month to ensure her processes are working. Yearly health testing of animals and proper veterinary care are also part of the puzzle, she said.

“The Raw Milk Institute is a wonderful resource whether you’re milking just one cow for your family or milking 600 cows,” Arkfeld said.

Arkfeld’s farm is currently the only Raw Milk Institute-certified dairy in Iowa.

“I comply with their certification and testing requirements,” Arkfeld said. “Our Iowa law has incorporated testing requirements, but mine are a little stricter.”

On Aug. 1, on-farm raw milk sales became legal in North Dakota as well. Like in Iowa, farms are free to sell milk directly to the customer for his or her own personal consumption. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dawson Holle. Holle and his family milk 900 cows on their fifth-generation dairy farm near St. Anthony. Holle believes the new law presents opportunities to North Dakota’s dairy farmers.

“It opens the area of family farms to be scalable once again,” Holle said. “You don’t have to have a 1,000-cow dairy; you can have a 100-or-less-cow facility.”

Holle said he has seen raw milk sell for $15 to $20 per gallon.
“You don’t need that many cows when producing raw milk,” he said. “It cuts out the middleman and just benefits the customer and farmer. The farmer gets as much bang for their buck.”

According to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, as of July 1, there were 33 Grade A dairy farms in North Dakota.

“The number of dwindling farms in North Dakota is another reason I introduced this bill,” Holle said. “We lose one to two farms every year, and we have to do something about it. That’s one of the reasons I decided to get involved in legislation in the first place.”

Before raw milk sales were legal in North Dakota, the state offered a herdshare program.

“That idea is not really scalable,” Holle said. “You either do a herdshare program or sell your milk to a processor. There was no area for any of those small-town farmers wanting to milk 10 to 40 cows. There was no way to make money.”

When over 50 people came to testify in favor of raw milk at a hearing, Holle said he knew the demand for this product was large.

“These people drank raw milk and thought it was crazy you can’t buy it unless you own a share,” Holle said. “I saw this raw milk movement taking place. The support it had was amazing.”
Holle also sees the legalization of raw milk as a benefit to the small-town community.

“When people realize their food is shipped from out of state or from different parts of the state into their local towns, they want to do their part to support the area surrounding them,” Holle said. “If they are supporting local dairy farms, then hopefully the community as a whole will see a rise in economic activity.”

Drinking raw milk comes with potential risks, and many public health experts discourage its consumption.

“There are many different bacteria and parasites in raw and unpasteurized milk, and some can be very serious, even fatal,” said Dr. Joni Scheftel DVM, MPH, DACVPM. “This is why we recommend milk be pasteurized because it kills all the pathogens that can make you sick.”

Scheftel is the state public health veterinarian at the Minnesota Department of Health and supervisor of their Zoonotic Diseases Unit. Scheftel said the most common bacteria people get from drinking raw milk is Campylobacter, which causes fever and diarrhea. About 20% of people with this infection are hospitalized, but deaths are rare.

The most serious bacteria found in raw milk is E.coli O157, Scheftel said. The effects of this bacteria are often most detrimental to children who encounter it.

About 34% of people with E.coli O157 are hospitalized. Approximately 14% of children less than 5 years of age and 9% of children 5 to 9 years of age go on to develop a serious complication called Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome. HUS results in destruction of red blood cells and kidney failure, potentially requiring blood transfusions, dialysis and kidney transplants. Some children do not survive.

Parents whose children were in the hospital with HUS infections have told Scheftel statements such as, “I thought I did my homework. I thought I understood the risks, but I never knew how sick my child could get from drinking raw milk.”

“I’ve heard those words many times,” Scheftel said. “No matter how clean a farm is or how careful farmers are with their equipment, these germs are a natural part of cow manure and may accidentally get into milk. This is why we pasteurize milk — to make it safe to drink.”

Although she does not recommend people drink raw milk, Scheftel said she is not against the raw milk law in Minnesota which allows on-farm sales.

“If you want raw milk, you can go to a farm and pick it up,” Scheftel said. “This limits the number of people consuming raw milk, and the law is fair, because there is such a strong demand for it. However, I would be totally against the sale of raw milk at the retail level.”

In both Iowa and North Dakota, raw milk may not be sold at the retail level as it is in some states, such as California and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, Arkfeld plans to continue with her herdshare program rather than selling direct to the consumer.

“Herdshare allows me to know how much milk to produce because I know how much milk my customers need each week,” Arkfeld said. “They know it’s going to be as fresh as possible. We always have extra milk, so we might expand and sell a few gallons here and there.”

Arkfeld said many of her customers could not consume pasteurized dairy but found they are able to consume raw dairy.
“By no means is one better or worse than the other,” she said. “I believe there is room for both and a need for both.”

Growing up in Europe, Arkfeld said it was fine to drink raw milk.
“It was no big deal,” she said. “But when we moved to the U.S., we found things are very different.”

In Wisconsin, proposals like those in Iowa and North Dakota have come through over the past 15 years, but they were never passed. Wisconsin does not allow on-farm sales of raw milk, except at the incidental level.

Wisconsin Statute 97.24 prohibits the sale or distribution of non-Grade A milk to consumers, and states that Grade A milk must be pasteurized, which has been the law since 1957.

However, Wisconsin does allow incidental sales of raw milk directly to a consumer at the dairy farm where the milk is produced, for consumption by that consumer (or the consumer’s family or nonpaying guests). But those sales are also illegal if done as regular business or if they involve advertising of any kind.

“Fortunately, lawmakers and governors of two different parties have realized the significance of Wisconsin’s nearly $50 billion dairy industry and the potential damages a raw milk outbreak could cause that industry,” said Shawn Pfaff, independent contract lobbyist and president of Pfaff Public Affairs.

A former spokesperson for the previously active Wisconsin Safe Milk Coalition, Pfaff was part of the effort to defeat proposed raw milk legislation in the state in 2015. Prior to that, Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed legislation to legalize the sale of raw milk in 2010, which was shot down again in 2013 by Gov. Scott Walker.

“It’s impossible to make an unsafe product safe,” Pfaff said. “There’s a reason we have pasteurization. It kills the bacteria found in milk, making it a safe product to drink.”

Scheftel said that bacteria in milk today is more virulent and resistant to antibiotics compared to bacteria of the past, increasing the likelihood that it will cause serious illness in people. An example is E.coli O157, which did not exist before 1982.

Every year, 60 to 80 cases of sickness caused from consuming raw milk pop up in Minnesota. But Scheftel said this is a gross undercount and only includes people who went to the doctor, had the organism cultured, reported they drank raw milk and agreed to be interviewed.

“The number of people who get sick each day from drinking raw milk is much higher than those we can identify,” Scheftel said.

Of the people interviewed, Scheftel said nearly 40% are less than 10 years of age. Among children less than 5 years of age who got sick from drinking raw milk, she said 76% receive the milk from their own farm or a relative’s farm.

“There is no safe raw milk,” Scheftel said. “My recommendation is to drink pasteurized milk on and off the farm.”

For Arkfeld, her journey into milking cows and drinking their raw milk began six years ago when she discovered her daughter could not consume pasteurized milk.

“Dairy products have wonderful nutritional benefits, and when we found that raw milk outlet, we were able to provide my daughter with good nutrition,” Arkfeld said.

Despite the possible dangers that drinking raw milk can present, a demand for this beverage does exist, and Arkfeld said she goes above and beyond to ensure its quality.

“Your end customer is going to consume raw milk the way you produce it, and you have to make sure you do it in the best, most proper and caring way possible,” Arkfeld said.


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