At the end of last year’s legislative session, Sierra Majors was a little depressed when she returned to her St. Landry Parish farm along the Atchafalaya River.
A 30-something farmer, she had arrived wide-eyed in Baton Rouge pretty sure that her passion for nutrient-dense, farm-to-table goodness of milk straight from conscientiously raised cows would alert legislators that they needed to change an old law that had made Louisiana one of the last states in the nation to forbid the sale of unpasteurized milk.
“We’re just asking a very simple, pretty-please question,” she testified in 2014.
Not everyone was easily persuaded.
Her debut appearance, which included little cups of raw milk for House members to sample, devolved into name-calling. Her parenting skills were questioned. Opponents dismissed her as some sort of dippy hippie trying to uproot traditional Louisiana values with dangerous, new-age nonsense.
Majors learned the hard way that Louisiana lawmakers, despite all their yammering about the people, don’t really like to hear from people who don’t follow the traditional way of doing things at the Legislature. Usually legislators deal with issues handled by well-paid lobbyists with teams of experts and message focus.
The bill failed.
So this year, Majors showed up at the State Capitol in a business suit and handed out business cards.
Her handshake is still firm — she hand-milks her two Jersey cows every day — but she is less animated. Her talk leads back to talking points: freedom of choice. (“Raw milk tastes so darn good” was relegated to a lagniappe position.)
She had spent the off-season attending legislative functions, going to political dinners and visiting lawmakers, doing all the things that special interests do. She discussed raw milk and freedom on Moon Griffon’s conservative radio talk show.
“We started talking about this about five or six months ago,” said Sen. Eric LaFleur, the Ville Platte Democrat who sponsored this year’s efforts to legalize the sale of raw milk. They focused the issue and found the support for those points.
LaFleur then helped identify the legislators Majors and her crew needed to contact, and they worked on what should be said and what shouldn’t.
“For me, it’s about freedom of choice and your right to make this very simple purchase,” LaFleur said. “This is not about drinking raw milk, or the value of raw milk, it’s about the ability to choose.”
For Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, the chief opponent, it’s about the ability to sell.
It’s one thing for farmers to feed their families from the few cows they keep. Low quantities, consumed soon after milking, can keep illnesses at bay, or at least contained, he said. That all changes when milk is put into commerce; with production schedules and more cows, the safety issues become more intense, he says.
Warm, high in fat and sugar, raw milk is a perfect medium for bacteria to grow. It takes one hair, one contaminated drop of liquid, one partially cleaned surface to spread illness.
For all the careful safety and sanitary precautions, he said, nothing beats heating the milk to a certain temperature for a specified period of time — pasteurization.
During the mid-1990s, when the economic model favored fewer operations with larger herds, many of the state’s dairymen shifted to producing small batches and selling under their own names at local stores and farmers markets.
Marguerite Constantine, of WesMar Family Farms near Moreauville, says her little operation follows the rules and is inspected by the government. She believes in pasteurization and worries that her small operation wouldn’t survive the consumer panic that would be unleashed by a raw milk-related health incident.
Majors and the mothers who support legalizing unpasteurized milk last week brought their children and filled a Senate hearing room, while the Health and Welfare Committee considered LaFleur’s bill to legalize the sale of raw milk. This time, the accusations that they were uncaring mothers came in a video presentation, rather than directly.
LaFleur said they were prepared and took special care not to get defensive. Their presentation included nutritional data and various experts, as well as the moms. Though the raw milk advocates picked up votes, the committee again defeated the bill.
Majors dabbed tears from her eyes, vowed to return next year and then joined the mothers who herded the children outdoors to go play on the State Capitol lawn.
“They’re political novices in that they’re not here all the time,” LaFleur said. “We rarely have that at the Capitol.”