A bill that would allow New Jersey dairy farmers to sell raw milk directly to consumers remains before a state Senate committee, but its chairman has promised there will be a vote before this legislative session ends early next month.
State Sen. Steven Oroho, R-24, whose district includes Sussex County and who sits on the Senate Economic Growth committee that held a hearing on the bill on Monday, said, “There was a significant amount of testimony to the committee, enough to maybe change some votes.”
He said Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, the committee’s chair, said before the meeting started that there weren’t enough votes to move the bill, S2702, out of committee to the full Senate.
But as the hearing drew to an adjournment Monday afternoon, Lesniak said he would reconvene the committee to get more testimony and then allow a vote.
“We’re looking at just 81 dairy farms remaining in this state,” Oroho said. “This bill would help those farmers and we need to save our farmers.”
The bill creates new regulations for farmers who wish to sell milk directly to the public at their farm.
“There is a thriving black market and cross-border market in raw milk,” said Peter Southway, a Fredon dairy farmer who attended the hearing and who is expected to testify when the committee meets again.
“There’s concern about the health and safety issues,” he said of those pushing against the bill, “but I believe there’s a fallacy in that thinking. This bill sets up standards that are higher than what’s going to the Grade A market currently.”
The “Grade A” market is for fluid milk which is processed for sale on grocers’ shelves and must undergo pasteurization. Most milk sold in grocery stores is also homogenized, a process which breaks up the cream and butterfat so it doesn’t separate from the rest of the milk.
Proponents of raw milk claim there are health benefits from drinking raw milk because processing of fluid milk makes a product that some people can’t tolerate or digest.
Southway said the legislation restricts the sale of raw milk to the farm where it’s produced.
Proponents of raw milk now are forced to drive into Pennsylvania or New York to purchase milk from farmers who are allowed to sell directly to consumers. In some cases, there are cooperatives of people who bring the milk back for other people.
Current New Jersey law allows people to buy an interest in a dairy cow.
“You can legally drink milk from a cow that you own,” Southway said.
The proposed legislation sets up licensing standards and regulations, he said.
While there will be extra costs to have the milk tested on a more regular schedule, Southway said those costs will be more than offset by the price a farmer can get selling directly to the consumer.
There is a minimum price for milk set by the federal Department of Agriculture although creameries can, and do, pay “premiums” to farmers for various incentives.
“Right now, we’re getting about $2.10 per gallon for our milk,” he said. “In the raw milk market, the price now is about $6 per gallon.”
The Assembly passed a version of the raw milk bill by a 71-6 vote in March.
Oroho said the Senate has until Jan. 9 to act on its version, which is the same as the Assembly version.
The new Legislature is sworn in on Jan. 10 and any bills not approved by then must go back to the start of the legislative process.