Raw Milk Series, Part 1 (anecdotal)

So I’ve been working on this post about raw milk for over a week now, and it’s gotten to be sort of painful.  Somehow the length is already out of control but the details are scant and there’s still so much more that should be said.  My friend (and newly appointed Editor) saved my sanity and suggested I break it up into parts.  So here it is, the first in a multi-part series on raw milk.

For the entirely uninitiated, raw milk is simply milk that is totally unprocessed, unpasteurized, straight from the cow to you (well, not straight, precisely, more like by way of sanitized food-grade holding equipment and bottles that are sometimes glass and quaint).  My very first encounter with raw milk was uneducated and borderline traumatic.  An adventurous friend (hippie) had seen raw milk for sale at Whole Foods, wanted to try it, and bought a half-gallon of raw goat’s milk.  We took turns bravely swigging from the carton, only to realize mid-swallow that this milk had passed its prime, and though not rancid, it was intensely goat-y.  I have not been able to eat even the mildest goat-milk product since.  You can perhaps appreciate, then, how reluctant I was to give raw cow’s milk a try, a mere 7 months or so after the Goat Milk Incident.  But I had been gardening, and cooking, and working at the farmer’s market, and learning about nutrition, and learning about the many failings and dangers of the conventional food system.  I was working on a farm in Connecticut for the summer, and more than ever my diet consisted of whole, organic, unadulterated food.  My fellow apprentices were pretty serious about their raw milk consumption and it really became an inevitability that I would try it.  This time the milk was from a farm less than 45 minutes away aptly named Local Farm, and it was impeccably fresh.  Similar to previous experiences with truly fresh, wholesome carrots and tomatoes, it was like I was drinking milk for the first time.  It was what milk was clearly supposed to taste like, and all the milk I’d consumed until then was just a weak wannabe, failing utterly in its attempts to resemble milk.  It’s hard to remember precisely what it tasted like, but I remember being struck by the milk’s simultaneous purity and richness.  So much cream.  Simple and undeniably satisfying.

Later that summer we went to visit that farm as part of a series of field trips to expand our knowledge of small-scale organic food production.  This is the farm I remember most vividly.  It was that it is one of the few farms I’ve ever known to be run principally by a woman.  It was the closest I had ever been to a living cow (they are Huge and sort of terrifying), and I even got to milk one of the lucky ladies by hand.  We learned about the importance of healthy pastures for nutrient-rich milk, how the cows developed a symbiosis with the pastures, deriving most of their diets from the mix of plants, while keeping the fields well-maintained and fertilized.  We learned why raw milk makes sense for small-scale production.  The farmer’s partner told us how, when he started working on the farm many years previous, he thought he was lactose intolerant, but currently drinks at least half a gallon of whole raw milk daily and has never felt better.  Perhaps what affected me most is the obvious compassion, knowledge, and consideration with which this woman ran her farm.  All her cows had names and personalities.  She kept her herd small so she could care for them all personally.  When the cows had calves, the calves were nursed and raised on the farm, and if they weren’t going to become a family dairy cow, she insisted on slaughtering them herself.  This way, she could make absolutely sure that the animals experienced as little suffering as possible, but in listening to her I think there was an important note of closure and responsibility for her as a caretaker of those cows.  Maybe I’m projecting, here, but the idea has definitely stuck with me.  I happily lapped up raw milk for the rest of the summer.

Romanticized memories behind me, I returned to Florida and began to grasp, really, the political dynamics of food (especially the kind of food I had worked so hard to grow and learn about).  Connecticut is one of the few states in the nation, along with California, Maine, Vermont, and my new home State of Washington, where raw milk sales are fully legal.  To me, that means I can buy it at the grocery store or farmer’s market without dire warning labels indicating the dangerous nature of unpasteurized, unsanctioned food.  In most other states raw milk occupies some quasi-legal realm, with sales being legal if and only if they meet some combination of the following requirements: direct, on-farm sales; warning labels; certification; a physician’s prescription for raw goat’s milk only.  In a few states the sale and consumption of raw milk is entirely illegal.  You can check the status where you live here.

In Florida, you can buy raw milk at retail outlets as long as it has a label stating “For pet consumption only.”  This is a relatively minor inconvenience, and I was able to get raw milk at Whole Foods, though sometimes I had to ask someone to get it out of the back room for me because they didn’t want to put it on the shelves.  And more often than not, the milk was already started to sour when I brought it home because who knows how long it had been sitting in that back room.  Tiring seriously of paying over $8 a gallon for sour milk, I searched for a more direct sources and found a local buying club.  This club was run by a couple, real estate agents by day, raw food activists by afternoon (I don’t know what they did at night), who are some of the most enthusiastic raw milk supporters I’ve ever met.  Because of all the hours they spent weekly, organizing and ordering, myself and a number of other grateful renegades were able to order all manner of wholesome, humane, direct-from-the-farm food in bulk, and often at a discount.  Most of this kind of food simply isn’t available in stores, so unless you happen to live near such a farm, or can afford to have perishables overnighted to you from other parts of the country, it’s not always easy to find.  The buying club made it easy and enjoyable to buy real food, and more than that it engendered a little community in a place where individualism and capitalism are mostly unquestioned.

During the short time I live in Brooklyn, I was also the member of a much larger, but also more illegal, buying club.  The laws in New York are a little more strict: you can only buy raw milk on a certified farm, and there must be a sign at the point of sale that states “Notice: raw milk sold here.  Raw milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.”  (HA!  But more on that later…)  The club, which as far as I can tell had at least a few hundred members, ordered raw milk and raw milk products (cheese, sour cream, kefir, etc.) directly from various cow and goat farmers in New York and Pennsylvania.  The farmers would deliver the goods to rotating locations around the city, and we would collectively pay them directly, so even though we weren’t precisely getting the milk on the farm, there were at least no intermediaries.  The whole thing was orchestrated by the members (volunteering was a membership requirement), with no storefront, no mark-up, and no profit margin.  In true New York City fashion, most of the members didn’t pretend to make it a social event, but everyone was at least polite, considerate, and cooperative.  Which is more than can be said for the rest of the city, even if the spirit was mostly conspiratorial.  I can get into conspiratorial bonding.

Here are some great resources if you want to learn more about raw milk, but simply can’t wait for me to write the next installment (I understand your excitement entirely):

Katz, Sandor Ellix.”The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements.” The Raw Underground. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006.  161-181.

A Campaign for Real Milk

Weston A. Price Foundation (Notice the quote on the left side of the homepage: “They’re happy because they eat butter!”  Amen.)