Why We Farm: Trying Raw Milk
A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.
Have you tried raw milk? Maybe you’ve noticed that opinions about it vary pretty drastically. To hear the CDC tell it, raw milk will instantly kill you. If, on the other hand, you listen to some raw milk proponents, raw milk cures cancer and gives you the power of mind bullets. Since it’s the FDA and CDC who get to influence policy, raw milk is pretty difficult for average people to get their hands on. There are only a handful of states in which it is legal to sell raw milk in stores. One of those states is Connecticut, and the state line, as it turned out, was only 5 minutes away from Ryder Farm in Brewster, New York.
One Sunday in early August, Travis and I decided we were going to try raw milk and decide for ourselves. We headed into Danbury, Connecticut, to a little health food store that sold raw milk from a nearby farm. We walked into the dairy section and picked out a half gallon. As we made the short drive back home, we began to talk about what we were doing. Were we really “playing Russian roulette with our health” like the FDA’s John Sheehan has said? Or would we feel incredible and never go back to store-bought milk? Was this stuff poison or magic? We walked into the farmhouse kitchen and each poured our own glass. Travis and I looked at each other, braced ourselves, then took a swig at the same time. My immediate reaction? Disappointment.
It wasn’t sour; it wasn’t yellow; it wasn’t thick. I didn’t die, and I didn’t turn into Popeye. It was just … milk. This is illegal in most states? I thought. It was milk. From a cow.
Death and super strength aside, the core of the raw milk debate is whether raw milk is an inherently dangerous product. That is, whether milk from an animal is very likely to have harmful bacteria in it. According to the CDC, that’s exactly the case, and in response it has launched a general assault on raw milk, its producers, and its consumers. The information on the CDC web site is presented as an honest look at raw milk, but taken as a whole turns into a collection of horror stories designed to scare people away from raw milk and delegitimize small dairy farmers. But look closer, and the CDC’s own numbers don’t back up its message. According to the site, over the last 10 years raw milk has caused 1,600 illnesses and 2 deaths. There aren’t solid numbers for how many people are consuming raw milk, but the estimates I’ve seen consistently hover around 3 million. That means that over 10 years, 0.05% of consumers have been sick from raw milk, while the number of deaths is miniscule. In contrast, a different product that has full support from the CDC, pasteurized eggs, caused 2,000 illnesses during the 2010 outbreak, from May to November. That’s one and a half times as many illnesses in half a year from pasteurized eggs than raw milk caused in 10 years. Thinking about it that way, what reason do I have to think that raw milk is inherently dangerous?
So why is the CDC so adamant that raw milk is the major health risk of the millennium? Do they just want to destroy the good nutrients in milk, keeping the population perpetually anemic and therefore easier to control? I don’t think so. Pasteurization, even ultra-pasteurization as is currently practiced in the United States, makes sense for our current milk distribution system: mass production, factory farming conditions, nationwide shipments, long shelf time. Try putting raw milk into that equation, and you’re sure to get health problems. But there is no reason why small producers selling milk from their cows (or goats or whatever) can’t work outside this system and provide a safe and nutritious product.
Does raw milk have more nutritional value than pasteurized milk? Personally, I think it does, but I don’t have the science to back it up. What I think is more important, though, is that current pasteurization laws for milk prevent market competition. Farmers cannot start small, independent dairies because they cannot afford the pasteurization equipment, which often costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then, if they do somehow manage to purchase the equipment and pasteurize, the price of milk per gallon is so depressed by the large milk producers, remaining solvent becomes unlikely. If a producer tries to do raw milk, the restrictions are so tight and the difficulty to sell so high, that the model is often unworkable. What we have, then, is a monopoly of large dairy farms selling to large food processors. Raw milk has arisen as a tiny pocket of competition, and raw milk producers should be encouraged, not slandered and shut down.
I continue to drink raw milk whenever I have the opportunity. There are a few producers in and around Austin. At www.realmilk.com, you can find a list of distributors of raw milk in your area.
Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa