Trouble on the farm: loss of a dairy goat farm sparks push for new law

PENDLETON COUNTY, W.Va. (WHSV) — Some farmers in West Virginia say their small family farms are struggling, and they blame a lot of it on a lack of support from the government.

The Umlings lost their farm operation after only five months in operation.

Dave Umling was raised on a farm in the Appalachian Mountains. His parents told him that there was no future in farming, and he had to do something else. The 'something else' he decided to do was become a city planner.

After years as a city planner, he and his wife Barb decided to start a dairy goat farm operation in Pendleton County, West Virginia, called "Peeper Pond Farm."

The couple had no idea the challenges they would face — having to shut down their operation after five months.

"To watch it go, just after five months, and know that it was futile, it certainly made everything my father told me, it made it make sense, and I was coming down here to do this, to prove that wrong," said Umling.

Their goal was to use the goat milk to sell and make other products with, but unpasteurized milk is illegal to sell in West Virginia without a herd share. A herd-share is an agreement between a farmer and a shareholder of the live stock, where the shareholder is able to get products from the animal, like milk. However, the Umlings' operation was too small to support a herd-share.

"I would have a half-gallon to sell every once in a while, and if you came by the farm, I'd be eager to sell it to you, but you can't do that because it's illegal," said Umling. "Without any ability to sell the milk, or any products we might produce from it, it just made no sense, and the cost for raising just six goats for just myself and my wife, was just too much on our retirement income to be able to sustain it."

The couple sold all of their goats, one of them named Essie, to a neighbor. Essie still recognizes Dave when she sees him, and comes running toward him when he yells, "Essie, Essie, Essie."

Dale Carroll is the neighbor who bought Essie. He is the former chief medical officer at Sentara RMH, but now that he is retired, Dale runs a small family farm.

The Carrolls feel the struggles to sell products from the farm, because of the tight pasteurization laws, and insurance.

"We'd love to be able to do this, but nuh-uh, we can't do it now," said Carroll.

With his medical background, he understands the risks of raw milk, but says the fear comes from days past when cattle had tuberculosis, which got into the milk.

"I understand where they're coming from with pasteurization and stuff, however, that's really, really based on the old days," said Carroll.

Umling argued there is "inverse engineering" when milk is pasteurized — meaning it kills the good and bad bacteria.

"That's designed to strengthen your immune system, because mother's milk is the very first thing that any mammals drinks or eats," said Umling.

He said killing these bacteria causes it to mutate and become stronger and more resistant.

Carroll Ours lives in West Virginia, and is no stranger to the farm life. He used to work for a pharmaceutical company, and agrees with what Umling said about the bacteria mutating.

"We had to develop bugs that would not be the normal sewage treatment normal bugs, that you have to be resistant to the antibiotic that was going into the sewer," said Ours.

As Umling looks at the remnants of his dairy goat operation, he is writing legislation to try to change things around.

"This law needs to change for there to be any real, sensible opportunity to make it work, and until then I know I can't run this farm in a way that I can afford on our reitrement income," said Umling.

Umling said he wants to change things for not only himself, but to help other small farms that are also struggling in the area.

"We really need to re-think, we really need to get back to where you are using some of the small family farms, because those people can't afford to do all those extra things," said Ours.

Umling is hopeful that lawmakers will listen to what he has to say, and work together to make the sale of raw milk legal in West Virginia.