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Raw Deal

Notes From the Amish Dairy Underground

Photos by Michelle Gienow
ON THE HOOF: Farmer X's barn on a day too cold for the cows to be outside in the pasture.
MILK-FED: Del. J.B. Jennings (R-7th District), a former dairy farm worker who is co-sponsoring legislation to make raw milk sales legal in Maryland, mingles with a volunteer at a raw milk rally held in January in Annapolis.
SPECIAL DELIVERY: Gallons and half-gallons of Amish raw milk awaits pickup on a below-freezing day at a Baltimore co-op drop-off point (usually the milk is kept in a refrigerator).

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 3/7/2007

I'm feeling a little antsy.

It's been two weeks since I last hooked up with my supplier, and my stash is completely gone. There's no other way to score the stuff. My 4-year-old son is also stressing, since his addiction is even more pronounced than my own. This morning I tried to pass him off some inferior, uh, product, but he was onto me in a flash. "Mama," he said sternly, taking a whiff and then passing it back to me. "This milk is yucky. Where is the real milk?"

Actually, he means raw milk. As in, straight from the cow to the jug to you, do not pass go, do not pasteurize or homogenize. And most of all do not drink in Maryland, where raw milk sales for human consumption are strictly prohibited.

Even though it takes genuine effort to keep our family supplied with raw milk, and even though in using it we're apparently breaking state law, and even though we risk preschooler scorn in attempting to serve "yucky" grocery store milk when our raw supply runs out, my husband and I remain committed to living la vida (raw) leche. Why? After much research and discussion--and visits to dairy farms--we are convinced that raw is best.

But it is illegal. And so a few weeks later I am on the phone with Ted Elkin, chief of the Division of Milk Control, which is part of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. My call deals with the mental hygiene aspect in that I'm looking to see just how much trouble I'd be in if, say, I got pulled over driving home from the biweekly pickup point with several gallons of the raw stuff. I can just see the headlines: RAW MILK MAMA BUSTED. My babies will grow up without me while I do hard time in prison.

Or not. "In Maryland, raw milk is prohibited for human consumption," Elkin tells me. "It's really that simple."

Is it? What about possession? Is simply having raw milk in our refrigerator equivalent, in a 5-0-coming-down-on-you kind of way, to stashing an ounce of marijuana? So I ask straight out: Is possessing raw milk in Maryland illegal? "Um, no, I don't think so," Elkin acknowledges.

Truth be told, I had been kind of hoping that Elkin would liken selling raw dairy products to selling pot, the way he did last year in the Oct. 1 Washington Post Magazine. In that interview, he further compared the selling of raw dairy to small-time heroin dealing; the Gestapo were also mentioned. Unfortunately, however, Elkin has been getting a lot of phone calls from the media on the topic of raw milk recently, and he seems a tad less freewheeling during my interview with him. In fact, he keeps steering the conversation back to public-health issues and E. coli outbreaks. And renal failure in young children.

Yikes. What exactly have I gotten us into here?

"Milk is probably the most regulated food in the United States," Elkin explains. "Milk is just a perfect medium for growth of salmonella, listeria, E. coli, all kinds of bacteria that can cause outbreaks of serious illness. So the primary reason for being so strict in terms of regulatory oversight is to prevent this from ever happening."

I point out that there are other unregulated raw foods bearing equal if not greater risk of contamination and serious illness--sushi comes to mind. But nobody's talking about busting raw fish, right?

Elkin gives the tiniest of sighs and says, "Something that always comes up in discussion with these raw milk people is, `Well, you allow people to eat sushi or raw oysters,' but generally babies are not eating raw oysters. The argument I always make is that you're talking about palates vs. immune systems--giving this to children, that is a huge concern of ours. If you look at these outbreaks nationally where people have died or had their kidneys shut down, it's mostly children, which would tell us that the immune system is not yet mature enough to handle [exposure to pathogens that can occur in raw milk]."

He is speaking specifically about a 2005 outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 that sickened 18 people in Washington state and Oregon, 13 of them children, at least two of those seriously enough to require life support in an intensive care unit. (There were no deaths).

So, you may rightly ask, why on earth would anyone who considers him- or herself a responsible parent give a potentially lethal food to a 4-year-old?

It's not just the Maryland Division of Milk Control talking the scary anti-raw talk. The Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Institutes of Health are all united in opposition to the consumption of raw milk. In a 2004 FDA report snappily titled "Got Milk? Make Sure It's Pasteurized," John Sheehan, director of the FDA's Division of Dairy and Egg Safety, compared drinking raw milk to "playing Russian roulette with your health." This is a favorite saying among public-health officials whenever the topic of raw milk arises (and also, apparently, a required quote in all media coverage of same).

Across the country, state laws reflect the federal government's preoccupation with raw milk's potential health risks. Only three states allow the sale of raw milk in stores; 24 others allow on-farm sales only, and five further states allow the sale of raw milk only as pet food. Recently, spurred by rising concerns over food-borne illnesses after last September's E. coli contamination of spinach, some states where raw milk is legal, like Ohio, have moved to outlaw it.

Invariably, whenever raw milk is condemned, pasteurization is presented as the only path to salvation from milk-borne pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7. Interestingly, however, the official government anti-raw milk statements and reports never seem to mention the numerous outbreaks of food-related illness associated with pasteurized milk that also occur every year. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that pasteurized milk may even be more likely to cause illness than the raw stuff.

In one dispatch from Emerging Infectious Diseases, the CDC's monthly bulletin, investigators discuss an April 2000 outbreak of multiple drug resistant Salmonella enterica in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in which 93 people became ill with bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, and vomiting after drinking pasteurized milk. Six people were hospitalized, and the bacteria was eventually traced back to a source the report identifies as "dairy plant X," where it was determined that unsanitary conditions had contaminated the milk after pasteurization. The report also makes reference to eight other pasteurized milk-related outbreaks spanning the last 25 years, plus a table listing still others.

Of course, other foods can--and very frequently do--make us sick. Seventy-six million Americans are felled by food-borne illnesses each year, the CDC reports. Some 325,000 of those so sickened are hospitalized, and 5,000 die. Chew on that while considering that the FDA says raw milk-related illnesses sickened "more than 300 people" in 2001 and "nearly 200" in '02.

So what's a concerned eater to do, other than give up ingesting apparently everything?

One possible answer: drink raw milk. And not just because the numbers are in your favor, since the chances of getting sick from raw milk are statistically lower than for many other foods (hamburger comes to mind). Raw milk contains a secret weapon: The living beneficial bacteria it contains can help protect you if ever you are exposed to a bad bug.

There is actual science behind romantic-sounding notions of living milk and its white-hat bacteria. In California, one of the handful of states allowing the retail sale of raw milk, Organic Pastures Dairy sells over 4,450 gallons of state-certified raw milk each week. E. coli dares not show its face here: Despite frequent and vigorous testing (two to four times per month) by state inspectors, not one pathogen has ever been found on its premises or in its milk.

Organic Pastures owner Mark McAfee has also done some experimenting on his own. In September 2006 McAfee hired an independent lab to introduce pathogens into raw milk from his dairy to see what would happen. He duplicated the test in his own lab, using his own diagnostic equipment. "We looked at salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, listeria, and tuberculosis," says Kaleigh McAfee, spokeswoman for Organic Pastures. "In every case, the pathogen levels either did not increase or disappeared entirely." Apparently, resident microorganisms either contained the pathogens or simply extinguished them: In other words, the raw milk killed the bad bugs.

This comes as no surprise to nutrition activist and raw milk advocate Sally Fallon, who says, "40 years ago, germs were the enemy and we had to get rid of germs. And now we know that we'd be dead without germs. Germs in our intestinal tracts are what digests our food. The whole issue of probiotics is becoming well established, but unfortunately old paradigms die hard." Especially old paradigms enshrined as government statutes, which are increasingly aimed at outlawing raw milk.

 

My own illicit dairy product adventures began with The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's literate 2006 exposť of the U.S. food industry. As a parent responsible for nourishing both a picky preschooler and, even more directly, the second baby I was pregnant with at the time, Pollan's book deeply affected me. As he writes in the book's introduction, "I realized the straightforward question `What should I eat?' could no longer be answered without addressing two even more straightforward questions: `What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?'"

The answers Pollan uncovers as he works his way down the industrial food chain deeply disturbed my husband, Alan, and me and led to profound changes in both what we eat and how we buy it. Essentially, we are now determined to live beyond the bar code. We try to procure our groceries directly from the producer whenever possible, food grown or produced locally using low-tech, old-school methods, organic being preferable but not mandatory.

We also became aware for the first time how industrial agriculture has led to raising our cows in closely crowded, utterly artificial conditions while feeding them foods nature never meant for them to consume: corn, yes, but also leftover baked goods, citrus peels, pineapple rinds (right here in Baltimore County, that one), chicken litter (bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed scraped up from the bottom of chicken houses), and, out West, the leftovers from ethanol processing. Oh, and not to forget the feed-added pharmaceuticals.

It's a startling fact that E. coli 0157:H7, the most lethal food-borne pathogen of all, did not exist before 1982. It apparently evolved in the acid guts of feedlot cattle standing around all day in their own feces, eating a diet of stuff the cows' systems were never designed to accommodate. We, the American people, with our oxymoronic national obsession with cheap abundance created one of the most lethal food-borne pathogens in nature, or are at least responsible for perverting nature to create the conditions that allowed it to evolve.

Fortunately, with a little effort and education it's not that difficult to steer out of the dietary groove that industrial agriculture has steered us into. Good, Maryland-produced grass-fed beef is easy to come by, for example, and it turns out someone right down the road from us raises pastured eggs for sale. The alternatives are everywhere, once you have the right eyes to see them--everywhere, that is, except for the dairy case.

Pollan, alas, spends no time investigating the dairy industry. Around here, however, with a 4-year-old who eats scant few items other than milk, cheese, and yogurt, it became a priority to find out what exactly is up with milk.

What I learned both disturbed and frightened me. First of all, milk as it now exists in your grocery's refrigerated case is no longer the wholesome beverage of the rosy-cheeked heartland we Americans so romanticize. Instead, it's more of a heavily processed milk product. Once milk leaves the farm it goes to a processing plant where it is essentially remade during a process that few ever witness. A Los Angeles Times reporter made it into one such plant back in 2000 and describes the procedure:

    First it is separated in centrifuges into fat, protein, and various other solids and liquids. Once segregated, these are reconstituted to various levels for whole, lowfat, and no-fat milks. What is left over will go to butter, cream, cheese, dried milk, and a host of other milk products. Of the reconstituted milks, whole milk will most closely approximate original cow's milk. When fat is removed, it is replaced with protein- and vitamin-rich skimmed milk powder or concentrate. Standardization also ensures that the milk is consistent: that one glass of any given type tastes exactly like the next.

The article goes on to state, "Once processed, the milk will last for weeks, not days." Because of this extended shelf life (which enables milk produced in Wisconsin to be shipped to, say, Texas grocery stores) and the expensive facilities required to create it, milk processing has become increasingly centralized. As a result, 70 percent of the nation's milk supply is produced by four large corporations: Nearly one-third of America's milk--30 percent--comes from one processor alone. Small family-owned dairy farms, which for centuries provided the nation's milk supply on nearby pasture, have difficulty competing with factory-farmed milk. In 2002, 16 dairy farms went out of business each day, according to an article in U.S. News and World Report.

But finding out that our beloved national beverage isn't the pure product the dairy industry would like us to think it is was hardly the most disturbing thing I learned about milk. Far worse things are going on back at the dairy.

In a typical industrial-scale dairy operation, where some estimates say that at least half of all our milk is produced, hundreds or even thousands of cows--almost universally Holsteins--spend their working lives indoors, tethered in place, and eating a diet of almost anything but grass. The problem with these confinement dairies, as they are called, is not so much that they are increasingly common, but that the milk they produce can be, well, crappy. Both literally and figuratively.

Literal first: Cows confined in stalls for most if not all of their working life (42 months, vs. 10 to 14 years for pastured cows) spend a lot of time, like all cows do, shitting. In a pasture, the bovine shitter shits and, having shat, moves on; in the confinement dairy, and even in less-restrictive feedlot dairies, she stands around in her own excrement for extended periods of time. Naturally, the fecal matter, which can contain all manner of bacteria including good ol' E. coli 0157:H7, can end up on the low-hanging udder and often gets into the milking apparatus along with the milk.

But pasteurization, the dairy industry says, takes care of the bad bugs: "E. coli, for example, and listeria are not limits that we are testing for because we know that pasteurization kills them," explains Ted Elkin, the state Division of Milk Control chief. "For us it's a nonissue because pasteurization takes care of the things that we are concerned about."

Milk, however, is a complex substance. When taken straight from the teat, cow's milk, like human breast milk, is rich in vitamins, essential minerals, enzymes, and myriad microorganisms dedicated to fighting pathogens (bad bacteria) and infection. After all, when you think about it, cow's milk is breast milk for baby cows.

Milk from cows fed on grain all or even most of the time has fewer beneficial components like omega-3 fatty acids, fewer beneficial microbes, and even reduced amounts of plain old protein and vitamins: All these occur in abundance in milk from grass-fed cows. To put it plainly, pasteurized or not, today's industrially farmed milk from grain-fed cows kept in confinement facilities or grassless feedlots has fewer nutrients and more potential for contamination than milk from traditionally raised dairy cows.

Of course, there are still quality-conscious dairy farmers out there producing excellent milk from healthy herds for the conventional milk market, but, unfortunately, during processing their milk gets mixed in with that of the factory dairies'. Paying extra for organic milk may or may not ensure better quality; the only difference between the milk from Horizon Organics, which owns more than half of the nation's organic milk market, and that from any feedlot dairy is that Horizon's cows eat organic instead of conventionally grown grain while crowded together in their grassless pens, and when they get sick (as do many cows living in these conditions do; mastitis, for example, affects an estimated 40 percent of the U.S. dairy herd) they don't get antibiotics--they get slaughtered.

The way conventional milk is processed doesn't help matters. When milk is heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, as is done in HTST (high temperature short time) pasteurization, the process not only kills the bad bacteria but also the many beneficial (probiotic) bacteria that proliferate in raw milk, along with enzymes that aid in digesting and metabolizing the milk (hello, lactose intolerance) and infection-fighting antibodies. In addition, C- and B-complex vitamins and minerals like zinc and iron are reduced or destroyed through pasteurization. In fact, standard pasteurization reduces the calcium content of milk by 21 percent.

A newer and increasingly popular process, UHT (ultra-high temperature) pasteurization takes milk to 285 degrees Fahrenheit for two seconds, and then flash cools it. This process, also called ultrapasteurization, denatures milk even further than the standard method but extends its shelf life exponentially.

Or, as one raw dairy farmer of my acquaintance summarizes it, "Raw milk is a living, vital thing. Pasteurized milk is almost dead, but not quite. Ultrapasteurized milk is completely dead. Ultrapasteurized milk has no value whatsoever. None."

So if pasteurization isn't the public-health magic bullet it's widely presumed to be, and it also destroys vital nutrients and microorganisms found in milk as it comes out of the cow, then why do it?

"Everybody thinks you can't drink milk raw, that it has to be pasteurized, but the only reason it's really pasteurized is to extend the shelf life," says Del. J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore County Republican who represents the 7th District in the Maryland House. Along with main sponsor Del. Mary Ann Love (D-32nd) and more than a dozen other co-sponsors, Jennings is supporting a bill that would make raw milk sales in Maryland legal when done directly from farmer to consumer.

"I hear the Farm Bureau is against it," says Jennings, who raises beef cattle and has worked for many years on dairy farms--and drank raw milk while doing so. "I think they're all scared of what could happen if a bad batch of milk got out there. Dairy farms are just barely hanging on as it is."

But Jennings supports allowing raw dairy farm sales in Maryland in part because of the higher profits it could reap for the state's struggling dairy farmers. Currently, dairy farmers get about $1 per gallon for their milk--about the same earned at the close of World War II. If they were able to sell raw milk directly to consumers, they'd get about six times that amount.

 

Extensive reading research, as well as serious consideration of the possible risks, led me to the firm conviction that raw milk is the milk my family should be drinking. We're in it for nutritional reasons, though others turn to raw milk for health purposes. Lactose intolerance, mainly--I have spoken with countless raw milk users who claim they can't tolerate regular dairy products but can guzzle gallons of raw. Then there are seriously ill folks, raw milk true believers who use it medicinally, treating everything from diabetes to autism to cancer.

We all share the same problem, however: how to get some, raw milk being illegal in Maryland and all.

California's Organic Pastures is one option; it is, after all, the gold standard for raw milk producers, and it ships its products to Maryland. The bottles come labeled "pet food"--a common dodge in the dicey legal limbo of raw milk sales, it turns out, but that doesn't bother me. The deal breaker is cost--not so much the $10 per gallon price as the $40 more to ship it from California to my door. Multiply that times the three gallons we drink a week and, well. Anyway.

A second option is to drive the hour-plus each way across the border to Pennsylvania, where both farm and retail sales of raw milk are legal. But the time and gas money required for this option presents a pragmatic problem, as well as a philosophical one: Although this might count as eating locally in a broad sense, burning a tank of gas every week to do so ultimately runs counter to the whole local-food movement's core philosophy.

After a few weeks of discreetly asking around--including a visit to a local organic farm that sells grass-fed milk, where the farm lady looked at my by-then extremely pregnant self as though I had nine heads when I quietly asked if they could sell me some raw milk--I finally get a lead. It seems there is more than one Amish farmer supplying the Baltimore area through a series of private raw milk buyers' clubs, or co-ops. Maybe the most appropriate term would be "speakeasy," since it's definitely a friend-of-a-friend kind of thing. Fortunately an acquaintance is willing to refer me, and within 24 hours I am looking at a list of the co-op's products, ready to place my first order.

Besides raw cow's and goat's milk, there is also raw yogurt, butter, cream, kefir, and 10 different kinds of raw milk cheeses. As a bonus, the co-op turns out to be something of a one-stop local-foods shopping experience: pastured beef, chicken, pork, eggs, and even organic produce in season are all on offer. In about 10 seconds flat I've got over a hundred bucks worth picked out. (It turns out I'm shopping in good company; other Maryland raw milk customers place their orders from e-mail addresses originating from the FDA, CDC, USDA, and even NIH, according to the woman who helps run one local co-op. "Imagine my paranoia when I see requests to join come in from these e-mail addresses," she says.)

Deliveries are made every two weeks, with orders due a week before delivery day. A non-Amish coordinator here in Baltimore handles the front end via e-mail and her garage is where we go to get the goods, which are delivered from Pennsylvania via refrigerated truck. As we pull up for our first pickup, my husband, Alan, starts singing under his breath--Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law."

I'm all set to explain who we are and how we're approved to be there, but we're all alone. It is strangely anonymous, the otherwise empty garage, the extra-large fridge full of contraband dairy products. Cow's milk has yellow caps, goat's milk pink, pick your own produce out of the bin, leave your check in the envelope. Somehow I expected it to feel more, I don't know, illicit.

All the way home, with a mix of excitement and apprehension, I'm thinking about tasting the milk. I am certain of my decision to do this, but the FDA/CDC/etc. scare tactics are apparently at work, at least a little, in my brain. After all, raw milk advocates don't promise that you can never get sick from unpasteurized milk, just that it's unlikely--so long as it comes from grass-fed cows kept in healthy living conditions.

That first glass was something. We didn't think to shake the jug so it was almost straight cream, which of course rises to the top of unhomogenized milk. "Look at the legs on this!" Alan marveled, holding up the glass for inspection, its sides thickly coated with streaks of white. It was good stuff, dense, creamy, and very flavorful, with a slight nose of green grass.

That was six months ago, and we've been happily riding the Amish underground milk railroad ever since. No one has gotten sick. Still, one further frontier remained: to visit the source of our illegal milk booty.

 

One of the central tenets of raw milk drinkers is Know Thy Source. Having joined the raw revolution, I eventually made the acquaintance of other mothers with young children who have elected to do the same. (It seems we are everywhere, once you know how to look, although I have not been able to find even estimated figures on how many people in the U.S. use raw dairy products.) Impressively, most of them had been to visit whichever farm they score their raw milk from.

It was a little harder than I thought it might be to make the run across the border; it actually took a little pleading, probably because I had to out myself as a journalist. The Amish farmers themselves weren't the ones holding back; it was the people on the Maryland side of the organization who were trying to protect the farmers and, naturally, their raw milk resources. In the end they relented.

I arranged to visit two farms, located only a few miles from each other. Collectively they serve about 1,200 customers in Maryland. Farmer Y furnishes raw milk to one group in the Baltimore area and seven more in and around Washington, while Farmer X--my connection--has been around a little longer and sends his products as far away as the Eastern Shore.

We (it was a family road trip) started at Farmer Y's place. The winding back roads of Lancaster County are a little confusing, and we first visited his neighbors by accident. I was greatly relieved to find it was the wrong farm, because we passed a confinement barn on the way in--this place appeared to be producing milk for the other side.

"Oh, sure," Farmer Y told me when I asked him about it. He said that many if not most of the Amish use conventional farming methods, such as using petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides on crops and raising animals in factory-style sheds instead of farmyards. "Not so long ago I was doing it, too" he says. "Until eight years ago hardly anyone in Lancaster County was grass feeding."

Back when he was producing milk using confinement methods, he says, he would not have sold it as raw: "We were using soy protein and corn silage. In three or four days it would have a bad taste. Now, with grass, it's much better milk and the cows do their own work. They get their own feed, haul their own manure."

When I ask how he feels about breaking the law--at the state level, by selling raw milk in Maryland, and violating federal regulations prohibiting the transportation of raw milk across state lines--he says, "It has nothing to do with me. It's not against the law if the customer gets it. If they come to my farm to get it, the customer can take it wherever they want and there is no problem." This is precisely the arrangement he has made with his co-op buyers: They send a truck to pick up the goods and take care of the distribution. Farmer Y just makes the milk.

And the milk by-products. Some gyrations to stay in sync with the law are required here, since Pennsylvania allows on-farm sales of raw milk but forbids the sale of raw cream, butter, yogurt, etc. "What we do is, we started selling pet food," Farmer Y explains. "Everything is labeled as pet food--how people use it is up to them--so that kind of takes care of the legal issue. I actually got a state-issued permit to sell pet food."

The whole pet-food angle is a common tactic in the raw milk world, since most laws specifically prohibit raw milk for human consumption. Though some states, seeing through this dodge, require pet-food raw milk to be dyed, say, blue, making it less attractive to humans. Another strategy is the cow share, which works in states like Virginia that prohibit the sale of raw milk while allowing owners to drink milk from their own cows. People buy a "share" in a cow, becoming part owner, and then are legally entitled to the milk from their own demi-cow. In August 2006, Maryland added code to its milk regulations specifically outlawing cow shares.

This all begs the question of legality in Maryland, where the sale of raw milk is emphatically prohibited. I mean, somebody has to be breaking the law here, right? But if Farmer Y is not breaking the law by selling his milk in Pennsylvania, where it is legal, and I am not breaking the law by buying and drinking it, then who is? The co-op?

Not me, says my co-op-running acquaintance. "The exchange of the food and the exchange of the money, it's happening directly with the farmer and the delivery person in Pennsylvania. We don't even arrange the delivery," she explains. "We're just the person who puts it on a piece of paper and sends it to the farmer. We're just the facilitator to connect the consumer with the farmer." (My guess is the delivery guy had better watch his back.)

All of these tactics, however--along with, possibly, the co-ops--will become obsolete if the Maryland legislature passes the pending House Bill 1010, thus legalizing the sale of raw milk from farmers directly to consumers.

 

We didn't linger long with Farmer Y because I was anxious to get to Farmer X's place in time for the afternoon milking. I was truly thrilled to be able to see for myself the place that produces so much of our family's food. It wasn't an ideal time to visit: early February, 18 degrees outside, and the cows in the barn instead of the field. "This is the first week all winter they haven't been to pasture," Farmer X tells me. "But I just can't bear to put them outside in weather like this."

Even so, it was a reassuring scene: The century-old structure was worn but tidy, the cows standing cozily up to their hocks in fresh, clean straw, contentedly munching hay that Farmer X grows and harvests himself. "Smell that?" Farmer X asks proudly. "You don't smell cow, or manure. Just hay."

Cleanliness is clearly a priority as Farmer X and his eldest son energetically shovel, sweep, mop, and finally squeegee the stalls and barn floor in preparation for milking.

They use a vacuum pump-based milking apparatus that doesn't require electricity to run but still moves milk from cow to tank in a sterile process untouched by human hands, which could introduce contaminants. The process is the same for each cow: First, the udders are wiped and then bathed in an iodine-based cleaning solution. Next, each teat gets another wipe with a clean paper towel and a quick experimental squirt (using a paper-towel-covered hand) to remove any solution that may be lingering around or just inside the opening, as well as to check for any signs of mastitis. Then the hydralike four-headed milking collar flups on to the udder, one for each teat, and starts cycling and releasing under vacuum pressure. The cow, a petite, caramel-colored Jersey, shifts her weight from one leg to another but otherwise doesn't seem to mind or even much notice.

You can see the milk flowing through a small observation chamber in the milking collar and hear it trickle into the sterilized stainless-steel collection tank. In two to three minutes a gallon of milk has been collected, and it's time for the next cow. The tanks then go to a bulk cooling machine where the milk is kept cold until bottled. A short time thereafter a driver (hired by the co-op) distributes it to the drop-off points in a refrigerated truck.

Except for actually inspecting the truck, I have now witnessed every step of the process that moves the milk from the cow to my fridge. It's every local-food devotee's dream.

 

On the drive home I get to thinking about Ted Elkin, the Maryland Division of Milk Control chief. I had asked if he'd ever tried raw milk, and he laughed. "No, I'm not a risk taker. I wouldn't do it," he said. "And you know, I have a lot of the things they say raw milk could cure, so maybe I'm making a big mistake. But I'm going to stick with science."

Science, however, presents us meat and milk from cloned cows, products the FDA recently announced are safe to eat even though we have no long-range evidence this is so. Science also gives us pasteurization, a demonstrably fallible process that compensates for dirty milk, a technological fix for the potentially nasty end results of industrial farming.

I think we'll be sticking with the people who do it right from the get-go, raising healthy herds that live outdoors and eat green grass, and give clean, beneficial milk in return--honoring the bargain man and cow have kept for 10,000 years.

Thanks, but I'll take mine raw.

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