Rachel Shockey, dairy program manager for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, said the state’s biggest dairy farm has about 300 cows. The farms are dotted along the state’s borders, because that’s where the land is best for farming.
“Because of the geography and layout of the state, there’s not large acreages for large farms,” she said. “Our farms are spread out.”
Dairy in West Virginia is in transition. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture just took over the regulation of milk on the first of the year. Before that, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources handled the regulation of Grade A milk.
Now that the agriculture department is overseeing milk, it hopes to do more than just regulate. The department held five public meetings in November throughout the state. Part of it was to talk about the regulatory changes. But the meetings were also about hearing from farmers, processors and the public about how to move the dairy industry forward.
“I don’t know that West Virginia will ever compete against 50,000-cow dairies in California, but I think we have a niche market,” Chad Linton told those gathered at the Nov. 19 meeting in Triadelphia. Linton is assistant director of regulatory and environmental affairs for the department of agriculture.
Shockey said 92 people went to the meetings altogether. The department came out of it with a list of ideas to tackle.
“We’re going to do what you ask us to do, whatever that is,” Linton said. “Nothing is off the table right now. Anything is a go, until it isn’t.”
But let’s go back a little bit. This all started in 2018, when the West Virginia legislature formed the Joint Task Force on Milk Rules and Regulations, in response to concerns about how dairy was handled in the state.1 The task force heard from farmers, processors, other industry folks and regulators from other states. The task force found the industry wanted the department of agriculture to be handling things, not the department of health.
With the department of health overseeing things, the sanitarians in charge of inspecting dairy farms were also the same people inspecting nursing homes, hospitals and schools. They didn’t have dairy knowledge or expertise.
The transition began officially July 1, 2019. But it takes time to get records transferred and to get new policies in place. The change was official Jan. 1.
Now, industry inspectors are doing inspections for the state, since they’re already on farms for their cooperatives or processors. West Virginia is accepting Pennsylvania’s and Maryland’s industry inspection licensing for their inspectors.
That’s the most noticeable change. After they get the new regulatory program established, Shockey said they have ideas how they can help West Virginia farmers.
One of them is a mobile processing unit to allow dairy farmers to make their own value-added products that could carry the West Virginia Grown logo. The West Virginia Grown program, run through the ag department, assures consumers that the product was grown or produced completely in West Virginia or that 50% or more of value was added in the state.
“[Value-added] lets farms have a little more control over where their milk is going and the price of their milk,” Shockey said. “West Virginia is not going to be a place where you have a thousand-cow dairy or that makes enough milk to negotiate their price.”
The department of agriculture is also drafting legislation to create the WV Dairy Exempt Rule. It would exempt small dairies from following the Grade A milk standards but allow them to create and sell dairy products in-state. The milk would still have to be pasteurized, and the facility and its processes would have to be state-approved.
“A lot of calls we get are people who have maybe 10 cows they want to do something with, but the investment to get a Grade A facility is not something they can do,” Shockey said.
They’re working on another piece of legislation that would allow for dairies to produce manufacturing grade milk, which would allow for a slightly higher somatic cell count than Grade A milk. The hope is that this would attract some kind of manufacturing plant to the state that would make cheese, ice cream, butter or something similar.
Those two pieces of legislation are still in the works. Shockey said they hope to have them complete in time for next state legislative session.