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Why We Farm: Trying Raw Milk

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Neysa working 2

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?

PaperMilkPhoto Source

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

Why We Farm: Country Folk vs. City Folk

Friday, January 21st, 2011

Neysa working 2

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.

There was a young woman, about my age, who regularly bought from our stand in New York City’s Greenmarket.  Whenever she came by, we’d talk for a while about food, cooking, and whatever else was happening in our lives.  One Saturday, she invited me to a tango class she and her roommate took on Wednesday nights.  “I’d love to, but I don’t live in the city,” I told her.  She raised her eyebrows, “Oh, so you’re the real deal.  You’re not just a city girl pretending to be a farm girl.”  I laughed,  “Something like that.”  I looked after her as she walked away with a canvas bag full of kale.  A city girl pretending to be a farm girl.  That’s exactly what I felt like.

By July, whenever I had a day off at Ryder Farm, my first impulse wasn’t to explore the natural beauty around me, but to reconnect with urbanity.  I would go into the surrounding towns seeking out independent theaters or museums.  In New York City after market days, I would go hear music or have a drink somewhere.  But because I wasn’t surrounded by a group of peers who would be creative and urbane with me, I ended up doing a lot by myself.  Two months into my internship, I still enjoyed the work on the farm, but I was beginning to feel like the lifestyle it afforded was cramping my style.  Once I had so closely identified with city life and culture.  Now, I felt disconnected from it.  The larger farming community I had entered was uninterested in city life, even hostile to it (Joel Salatin asks why New York City should exist if it’s too big and dense to feed itself). Conversely, people I’d meet in NYC treated me differently when they found out I was a farmer.  If they didn’t express outright confusion or condescension, they usually treated me like some romantic revival of rural life.  I felt caught in between two stereotypes.  Country folk vs. city folk: was there really such a deep divide between the two?  Could I be a part of both communities?

Boggy Creek Carrots

Without a doubt, there were massive differences between working on a farm in Brewster and working at a university in Boston.  Some of these differences were so fundamental, they didn’t translate from city to farm, or vice versa.  The most apparent of these was the very definition of work.  It was the difference between working with things and working with ideas. When you did things on the farm, you were actually doing things—you were acting on the world; changing your observable environment; creating things that weren’t there before: weeding, planting, potting, harvesting.  Doing back at university had had a distinctly cerebral slant: organizing, rethinking, formatting, planning, writing, researching.  At Northeastern, most actions were intangible.  The world I was acting on was inside my head.

But there were similarities between farm life and city life, too.  For one, the relationship between person and space.  It’s easily accepted that a farmer has intimate knowledge of his land.  But I discovered from being separated from Boston that I had cultivated a similar relationship with the city.  I knew Boston.  Every day I rode the T or dodged a Nor’easter, I was participating in a relationship with it.  For two years, Boston welcomed me, comforted me, hassled me, and pushed me around. Boston is not the easiest city to live in, and among its residents there was a prevalent and constant attitude of perseverance, independence, and making one’s own way.  There was a toughness about Bostonians that I really admired, and I’d say in all that, they have the same characteristics that drive farmers to move to the country and live off their land.

DSC01597

So was it possible for me to occupy both worlds?  In the end, I couldn’t let go of either, so I really didn’t have a choice.  I still shop for high heels and read the New Yorker and listen to Lauryn Hill, at the same time that I drive tractors and spread compost and plant onions.  Is this a contradiction?  Does it make me less of a farmer because I love the culture of the city?  I don’t think so. I’ve found the city vs. country standoff unrealistic.  The truth is that the two need each other.  The relationship between cities and farms is less antagonistic and more symbiotic.  Cities would starve without farms, and farmers would have few ways to make a living without a city market.  It has taken me time to come to terms with it, but that day at the farmers market, maybe I wasn’t trying to pretend I was somebody else at all.  Maybe I was just discovering who I was all along.

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

Why We Farm: Enter a Mentor

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Neysa-working-23-150x150

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.

First posted June 2009 on Dissertation to Dirt

The first month of our internship was consumed by seeding and transplanting, and by early June the cool weather crops were flourishing at Ryder Farm—lettuce, cabbage, bok choy, kale, spinach, rhubarb, and radishes. Ryder Farm participated in two farmers markets a week: Wednesdays at the local Brewster market, and Saturdays at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. In the city, the farmers market meant one thing: spring.  Time to brush the snow off your shoulders and venture outdoors again, the market’s colorful produce providing a needed embellishment to New England’s monochrome winter. Back at Ryder Farm, the farmers market meant Travis and I had to learn how to harvest.

Three mornings a week at 6am, the intern crew entered the field, harvest list in hand. We always started with kale, which was loving the cold, rainy spring. As the season progressed, the routine of waking up early, picking greens, bunching them, washing them, packing them, and then going in for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee would become very pleasant for me. Our first harvest day, though, didn’t go as smoothly. As we stumbled into the field, bleary-eyed, Travis and I met Omar, Betsey’s field manager. Omar had studied agriculture at UC Santa Cruz and had been farming for over 20 years. He had been away for the early part of the season, but returned just as the farm was gearing up for the summer.

We started, as we would so many times over the next five months, by harvesting kale. We learned to snap off two or three leaves from each plant until we had a good handful, then rubberband the leaves together.  A bunch like that would go for about $2.50 at the market. When we finished kale, Travis and I went to pick spinach. Assuming the same rule applied to all greens, we began snapping off 5 or 6 spinach leaves and rubberbanding them. We fussed with the leaves, trying to make them look pretty like the kale.  A minute or two later, Omar sauntered over. He stood watching Travis and I pick spinach for a moment, then very casually asked, “Why are you picking the spinach that way?”

Travis looked at Omar, then looked at the small bunch in his hand, then admitted, “I don’t know.”

Omar walked over, pulled three full spinach plants out of the ground, roots and all, rubberbanded them and said, “This is a bunch of spinach. Spinach cooks down a lot, so you want to think about your bunch as something a family could eat for dinner.”

I had never thought about it that way. A family would go hungry on six spinach leaves.

Omar’s simple lesson touched on an aspect of farming to which I hadn’t given much thought — the relationship between farmer and consumer. There is an attitude that organic food is specialty food–that it needs to look prettier, cost more, and feed fewer. That was why Travis and I at first saw nothing wrong with charging $2.50 for six spinach leaves. But Omar was telling us that harvesting for market was about satiation first, selling second. Because if people can’t really eat from your farm, they won’t be back to your stand, anyway. Harvesting with people in mind has been one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in farming, and has added a sense of understanding and pride to every bunch of spinach I’ve made since.




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. View last week’s post.

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.