Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget would eliminate the state’s only dairy inspector, making it nearly impossible for up-and-coming dairies like Kodiak Baptist Mission’s Heritage Farms to sell milk commercially. The House passed a workaround to the issue in their version of the bill last week, but it remains to be seen whether that makes it into the final budget.
Dressed in work boots and a chore jacket, Kelli Foreman bends to milk a mother goat named Jellybean. Just across from them are four baby goats in a pen. Foreman explains that the newborn kids are bottle-fed with milk she collects from the mothers.
Spring is kidding season for Foreman’s goats, meaning the babies get first dibs on milk. But in a couple months, the mother goats will be able to start producing milk primarily for human consumption.
Continuing a tour of her farm, Foreman walks through a spotless, industrial-looking barn with an indoor milking rack and a shiny new holding tank and pasteurizer.
“This is where the magic happens,” she says with a laugh.
By summer, Foreman predicts that her brand-new automatic milkers will be able to collect about 10-20 gallons of fresh goat milk per day.
For the last two years, Foreman has been working to get Heritage Farms certified as a “Grade A” dairy, the FDA standard for farms that sell the bottled milk you can buy at a store. She says a lot of people tried to convince her that starting a goat dairy was a terrible idea, but Foreman isn’t the type of person to be easily discouraged.
“I remember having people in my life growing up that didn’t take the easy way out, that worked really hard, and those are the people that inspired me,” she says. “And we’re about the kids and families and our community, and so … let’s try it.”
Heritage Farms has been working closely with the Department of Environmental Conservation, state veterinarians and the state dairy inspector to get certified. Every month the state inspector takes samples for lab testing, and every three months they do a facility check. Heritage Farms isn’t too far off — Foreman says they’re set to be certified and ready to sell goat milk, cheese and ice cream by late May or early June.
But Dunleavy’s budget would eliminate the state’s one dairy inspector, leaving Foreman’s dairy without a lot of options for getting their milk Grade A certified.
Dr. Sarah Coburn, assistant state veterinarian, said Heritage Farms is the farthest along in the certification process.
“They’re the closest, as far as their investment and planning over the past year,” she said over the phone. “They’re the closest to being permitted and going into production this year.”
According to Coburn, the effects of eliminating the dairy inspector are much wider-reaching than just forcing an end to Foreman’s endeavor. Like Havemeister Dairy in Palmer, the last certified cow dairy in Alaska, Foreman purchases her goat feed in-state from Alaska Mill and Feed. Havemeister even purchases the plastic for their milk jugs from a local plant in Palmer itself.
“Really it’s part of a bigger connection of the economy for that community,” she said. “So that’s one thing that I think there’s a bigger impact than just saying it affects that one dairy. And of course, the consumers that are actually purchasing from these dairies.”
Coburn added that other options, like bringing an inspector up from the Lower 48, are just not feasible.
“Basically if the program goes away, as things stand for them, they would not be able to operate,” Coburn said.
And while she admits she was shocked when the proposed budget came out in February, Foreman said her mind went quickly to figuring out next steps, including contacting her legislators and speaking at a budget town hall in March.
“For me, the best thing to do is show, ‘Look at this, we can do it, don’t take this away from our state, we need this,’” Foreman said, adding, “Even if it’s six months, well, we did it for six months. We did it. I can at least show our kids, ‘We can do it, we did it.’”
And that’s because for Foreman, Heritage Farms isn’t just a business. It’s a way of making sure that Kodiak is a little more self-sufficient.
“I’m not saying our microdairy tomorrow is going to be able to supply all the milk for Kodiak, but it’s a start,” Foreman said. “And that’s a big part of all the agriculture for our state. Maybe not today or maybe not tomorrow, but we really need to think towards food sustainability.”
Foreman said she’s willing to put her skin in the game to achieve that goal. But realistically, she can’t do it alone.
And it’s possible she might not have to.
Last week, the Alaska House of Representatives passed its version of the budget — including an amendment that would allow the state to continue performing inspections while a “fee-based system and fee schedule” is set up. The idea is that dairies would pay a set amount for their own inspections. But it remains to be seen whether that amendment makes it into the final budget — and even if it does, whether Dunleavy will spare it from a line-item veto.
In any case, Foreman said she’s holding off on placing an order for milk bottles until the budget shakes out.