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Farmers, consumers, activists discuss raw milk issues at NOFA symposium

Raw milk.

To supporters, the phrase conjures images of a life-enhancing whole food good for the body and good for farmers’ economic sustainability.

To opponents, the phrase denotes a pathogen-carrying demon worthy of big warning labels and prohibition-style government raids.

The Northeast Organic Farmers Association hosted a raw milk symposium as part of its annual conference last Friday where more than 100 farmers, activists, consumers and interested participants discussed raw milk’s benefits and challenges.

Raw milk — or “real milk,” as some food advocates call it — is unpasteurized and has not been heated over 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the federal Food and Drug Administration contend that pasteurized milk is safer because it’s been sterilized.

But raw milk supporters say pasteurization alters the whole food chemically like breaking an essential protein called lactoferrin that carries vitamins and enzymes. This causes an immune response in the body. 

From one cow to six

“[Raw milk] sort of chose me,” said Lindsay Harris, farmer and co-owner of Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, Vt.

It is the first certified Tier II raw milk dairy in Vermont. Tier II farms are subject to more state oversight, can sell 40 gallons a day and deliver to customers’ homes. She sets her own price for milk.

Harris spoke as part of a five-person panel at the symposium.

She started milking one cow three years ago, before Vermont passed the current Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk Bill in 2009, using the milk for herself and feeding the excess to her pigs. Neighbors asked to buy the extra milk. Harris sold out so she bought a second cow. She sold out again.

Now she and husband Evan Reiss milk six cows selling about 12 to 14 gallons a day at $5 a half-gallon. The milk is tested regularly at a federally accredited lab in Waterbury, Vt., for pathogens and contaminants normally killed during pasteurization.

For a year, the Family Cow Farmstand’s test numbers have been “outstanding” and below what state inspectors thought were possible for any milk.

One milk inspector during a site visit looked at her barn and said, “Damn, this is clean!”

Harris said jumping through the state certification hoops was worth it.

It wasn’t possible for her to dairy if she was part of a wholesale dairy farm. Wholesale farmers earn around $1 to $2 a gallon, or roughly $11 a hundredweight — which is about 11.6 gallons of milk. It costs about $18 a hundredweight in feed and labor to produce milk.

“I really like having control over my business,” she said.

She says selling raw milk gives her the opportunity to “produce the highest quality” product in a manner that allows her to respect her cows and land.

Harris, who has a background in biology and wetland ecology, says raw milk had its “dark past” referring to the “Milk Problem” of the 19th century.

At the time, many dairies serving metropolitan areas were located inside cities and subject to the same unsanitary conditions.

But “with science, we can do it right,” she said.

According to CDC statistics, she says, no one has died from a foodborne pathogen in milk for 30 years. People are 10 times more likely to get listeria, a pathogen the USDA and FDA say raw milk may contain, from deli meat.

She feels the government’s stand against raw milk has less to do with epidemics and more to do with the politics of who controls the food we eat.

Farmers on the front

“I’m not an activist and don’t know how I got so involved,” joked panel speaker and farmer Pamela Robinson who runs Robinson Farm, a fourth generation farm in Hardwick, Mass., with husband Raymond.

The Robinsons have sold raw milk for six years and are starting a cheese factory.

According to literature from NOFA/Massachusetts, the number of raw milk dairies is growing.

Massachusetts had nearly 5,000 dairy farms in 1950.  Due to economics, the state has fewer than 180 commercial dairy farms left.

In 2008, however, raw milk farmers sold over 80,000 gallons. This generated $600,000 in revenue that stayed largely in the farmers’ communities.

Symposium speaker Sally Fallon Morell — a journalist, nutrition researcher and founding president of the Weston A. Price Foundation and A Campaign for Real Milk — highlighted eight studies performed between 1910 and 1943 on the benefits of raw milk starting with the Mayo Clinic’s 1910 “Milk Cure.”

According to the studies, said Fallon Morell, human and animal test subjects given raw milk experienced benefits like better bone health, calmer behavior, reversed infertility, and lower instances of tuberculosis, rickets and tooth decay.

“Milk is designed to build the immune system,” Fallon Morell said.

But, explained Fallon Morell, everything changed with the 1945 publication of a story in Coronet, a now-defunct general-interest magazine, called “Crossroads, USA.” The article detailed a town where the population contracted undulant fever from raw milk and died.

Reader’s Digest reran the story the following year. 

The fictional town and outbreak cooked raw milk’s reputation. The research stopped.

“There’s been lies ever since,” Fallon Morell said.

Robinson and fellow panelist Chris Newton of Baldwin Brook Farm in Canterbury, Conn., said they had to confront local officials’ fears around raw milk when they converted from a conventional dairy to raw milk.

“You have to be proactive until they understand,” said Robinson.

Harris said some of Vermont’s raw milk laws are frustrating, like the one dictating she has to post warning signs essentially declaring she is “selling an unsafe product that will kill your children.”

The rules governing distribution also frustrate her. She can only deliver directly to customers’ homes. She wants to to deliver to retail locations, widening her market and saving her time.

Nationwide, farmers face distribution issues. The government currently outlaws the sale or transportation of raw milk across state lines.

“How does the saying go? Progress and science are made one retirement at a time,” said Fallon Morell.

Despite these limitations, Harris feels running a raw milk dairy in Vermont is better since the raw milk bill was passed.

Before the bill, farmers had more freedom because the state Agency of Agriculture had no laws governing raw milk.

But, she said, farmers didn’t have any laws protecting them either.

“Now we have a statute giving us the right to sell raw milk,” said Harris.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #63 (Wednesday, August 18, 2010).

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