By Connor Lynch
GOLDEN LAKE — Renfrew County raw milk dairy farmer Michael Ilgert had originally planned on a legal battle with his local health unit that ordered him to shut down operations last summer.
Ilgert, who works off-farm as a drywall contractor and farms near Killaloe, about 90 minutes west of urban Ottawa, had braced himself to be raided by police at any time and geared up to argue his case in court.
But then in Western Ontario, the public face of the raw milk movement and one of its longest-standing and most vocal advocates, Michael Schmidt, was shut down for good (see page A29). A permanent injunction was slapped on him and his Grey County co-op.
Ilgert knew his legal battle was lost before it even started. But according to stats from Public Health Ontario, he was far from fighting a lonely battle. Excluding dairy farmers, about 217,000 Ontarians consumed raw milk in 2011. Considering that Ilgert had about 50 customers, the number of clandestine cow-share raw milk providers in Ontario could well be in the hundreds.
An American health blogger and supporter of raw milk published a post on Jan. 25 explaining the easiest way for Canadians to get raw milk; cross the border. The blogger wrote that her email inbox was “overflowing with Canadians seeking raw milk” after West Virginia legalized raw milk, although it only did so under a herd sharing arrangement, where raw milk consumers have to buy in to the farm. In Ontario, enthusiasts can only get raw milk in New York State, where farms can sell it. The other border state, Michigan, also only makes raw milk available in herd share agreements.
According to 2011 numbers, the most recent statistics available, 1.85 per cent of Ontario’s population consumes raw milk. And so do dairy farmers; 88.7 per cent of them said they consume raw milk from the bulk tank and 36.3 per cent said the public should be allowed to legally purchase raw milk.
Ontario Landowners Association president Tom Black said that he believed raw milk consumption to be higher than what most people assume. “I was shocked when I found out who wasn’t a raw milk dealer around here,” said Black, who lives at Stittsville, west of urban Ottawa. “A big dairy man in the area is also one of the biggest suppliers of raw milk.”
Ilgert arranged a pre-trial meeting and pleaded guilty. Since the deal was arranged ahead of the trial, his five charges were dropped to three, and his fines could drop from $25,000 to $1,500.
“I had no choice,” said Ilgert, adding that he has not given up on fighting for raw milk. He is no longer milking. He was milking six cows.
Ilgert has partnered with local raw milk advocate, James McLaren, to rally public support to pressure the government into conducting research and getting politicians to change the law. Ilgert said that part of the Milk Act obligates the Dairy Farmers of Ontario to undertake research about how to produce safe raw milk and how to market it to consumers. The DFO disagrees.