Fans of unpasteurized milk buy shares of cows to avoid health laws (Monday, March 28, 2011)

Rebecca Martinez/staff

STAUNTON — It’s thick. It’s creamy. It’s controversial.

It’s raw milk, and it’s in quiet demand among natural food fans across the country.

Bottled and refrigerated right from the cow, this milk skips the pasteurization process, during which milk would be heated to kill harmful bacteria and, raw fans argue, much of the nutritional value.

Raw milk is allowed for retail sale in some U.S. states, and absolutely illegal in others.

Virginia occupies a gray area; raw milk is illegal to sell for human consumption, so some farmers sell raw milk for pet consumption — you may have seen it at a local farmers market labeled for your cat’s use. But there’s no law prohibiting consumers from buying a cow share. In essence, they can pay a dairy farmer to feed and care for a single cow they share with other patrons, and in turn, receive a gallon of its raw milk per week.

She likes it raw

The first things Wendy Gray has to say about raw milk are that she loves its thick, creamy taste, and she happily gives it to her 4 year-old daughter, Madelyn.

“I am very careful about what I give her food-wise,” said Gray, adding that a nutritionist had suggested raw milk after Madelyn had trouble digesting other foods. “She’s never even had an ear infection. She’s a very healthy girl.”

Gray, who manages public relations for Polyface Farm, said she became interested in raw milk when traveling with her boss, farmer Joel Salatin, to a convention led by the Weston A. Price Foundation, which researches natural foods.

The foundation says data shows raw milk is better than pasteurized milk in protecting against infection, diarrhea, rickets, tooth decay, tuberculosis, asthma, allergies and lactose intolerance. On the other hand, the studies cited link consumption of pasteurized milk with lactose intolerance, allergies, asthma, frequent ear infections, gastrointestinal problems, diabetes, auto-immune disease, attention deficit disorder and constipation.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Center for Disease Control beg to differ.

The only safe milk is pasteurized milk, according to the CDC. Briefly heating it to 161 degrees is enough to kill harmful bacteria like E. coli and salmonella, but only slightly effects the amount of thiamin, vitamin B12, and vitamin C in it.

Wendy Gray said she’s not deterred.

“You have a bigger chance of getting E. coli from fast food, or going to buffets where food has just been sitting out. Or, you know, spinach from some random farm coming all the way from California that didn’t practice clean (techniques),” Gray said. “They’re always having beef recalls.”

Gray said she knows constant refrigeration is necessary for preventing bacteria growth in milk and she suspects that farmers may not have always refrigerated it consistently, which may have lead to contamination on other farms and in the past. The farmer with whom she has a cow share refrigerates the milk directly after it leaves the cow and keeps it refrigerated until it’s in Gray’s hand.

“It’s just a matter of getting it from a farm that is responsibly raising your food,” she said.

Down-low dairies

Don’t worry about buying raw milk by accident: The milk products you see in grocery stores all have been pasteurized and inspected, as mandated by the federal government.

Although cow shares are not illegal in Virginia, government agencies have scrutinized and pressed misdemeanor charges for small infractions by participating farms in the past.

Pete Kennedy, president of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, said he thinks the dairy industry feels pressure to suppress raw milk because an outbreak of food-borne illness could be blamed on the whole industry.

“The state’s position on cow shares is that they don’t regulate it, but if they hear about it, they might evaluate it just to make sure it’s a cow share and they’re not selling milk retail,” though, Kennedy added, the small farmer’s relationship with a customer is more valuable than a government regulation is threatening. “If someone does get sick, they could get sued anyway.”

Cow share farmers tend to gain customers on the quiet, through word-of-mouth referral. Several Staunton and Augusta County farmers declined to comment for this story.

Nathan Vergin, 22, who operates Silky Cow LLC in Staunton, grew up drinking raw milk and loves the way it tastes. He began his farm in May 2009 to meet the demand for raw milk from friends and friends of friends.

He handles Wendy Gray’s cow share. In fact, he now has cow share agreements with 110 families and receives calls from “two or three” new ones per week.

Vergin said humans have survived on unpasteurized milk for centuries, and it wasn’t until regulators began to mandate it around the turn of the last century, when many dairies had been operating under unclean conditions.

“Sanitation is so much easier these days with stainless steel and vacuum pumps that it’s a whole different ball game,” Vergin said. “What I’m doing is not 100 percent safe, but neither is anything else.”

Each morning, he moves his 22 cows onto a fresh plot of grass to milk them. The milk is filtered for impurities on its way into the bucket and immediately funneled into sterile plastic gallon jugs, like you’d see in the grocery store. He keeps them in refrigerators or coolers, where his customers to pick them up.

Commodity dairy farmers have been struggling for years under low regulated milk prices.

In 2009, regulated milk prices rivaled, dollar-for-dollar, those in the mid-1970s when they sank to about $10 a hundredweight, meaning Virginia producers were paid about 85 cents per gallon, said Eric Paulsen, spokesman for the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association. Despite the payoff, farmers still had to pay to feed their cows, at a cost of about $18 per hundredweight of milk produced that year.

Vergin avoids that arrangement. Customers pay $50 up front for a 10 year share — the approximate life of a cow — and then a monthly boarding fee of $28, which entitles each share holder for about a gallon of raw milk per week.

Pete Kennedy said this direct marketing model may be the best way to prevent more dairies from folding.

“You’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars in costs to get up and running,” Kennedy said. “Selling raw milk, or just distributing through a share program is a lot more feasible, economically.”

About gumshuz

I'm a writer and journalist living in Wyoming. Audio is my passion. My reporting has aired on Naitonal Public Radio, Wyoming Public Radio, BBC/PRI, APM and WAMU. My writing has been published in The News Leader, the Daily News-Record and The Star-Ledger. I deal in Americana and the human condition.
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