Still difficult to find (and still controversial), raw milk is emerging from the shadows as health-conscious consumers connect with quality-minded farmers.
photography by Julie Kramer
Not so long ago in the history of domesticated animals, raw milk didn’t exist, because pasteurized and homogenized milk didn’t exist. Milk was just milk, either sweet (fresh) or cultured. If you wanted fresh milk, you raised dairy animals yourself, or lived close to someone who did.
Gradually, the process of milk production changed. The way we drink milk changed. And our expectations of milk changed. The milk we typically buy in stores has been through a lot before it ever hits our lips. It’s been centrifuged, pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized, and fortified with vitamins. It’s had a specific, predetermined percentage of fat homogenized back into it. It’s a mechanized product designed for high profit margins.
Increasingly, pockets of consumers are thinking critically about what’s missing in their milk. Interest in—and demand for—raw milk and raw milk products has seen a steady uptick in the past few decades, but it’s hardly as black and white as the images of cartoon Holstein cows that invariably grace cartons of dairy items.
Scratch the surface and you’ll discover how raw milk can be a flashpoint for many explosive topics in our country: government regulations telling small businesses and private citizens what they can and can’t do; the nutritional value of food that’s been heavily manipulated; the security in knowing what we are feeding ourselves and our families is safe and pure.
To many, milk exemplifies two definitions of purity. One is something that’s been unaltered. The other is something free of contaminants and pathogens. Food, including raw milk, can meet one, none, or both of those definitions.
A Living Product
“Raw milk is live. It’s a live environment,” says Diane Phelps, who helps coordinate the herd share program for Highland Haven Farms in Hillsboro, OH. That’s the biggest difference between raw milk and industrial milk. When milk is pasteurized, it’s heated to a certain temperature to kill bacteria (both harmful and beneficial) and pathogens; pasteurized milk is not alive.
Since raw milk is also not homogenized, its fat (the cream) will separate and rise to the surface.
Almost unfailingly, raw milk has a higher butterfat content than its grocery store counterpart. Farmer Sarah Mancino of Farm Beach Bethel in Bethel, OH, eschews the term “raw milk”; she prefers to call it “real milk.” “You’d think that all the cream has risen to the top, but the milk underneath is quite thick and rich,” she says. “You have this sweet, wholesome flavor. There are microorganisms in that milk—it’s alive. And you can transform it into something new, if you’re savvy enough. Yogurt, butter, cheese, kefir … that’s what people did before they had refrigeration. Milk will only last so long in a root cellar.”
Real milk proponents believe its diversity of good bacteria aids in a robust microbiome and strong immune system, and that its active enzymes promote better digestion (particularly for those who have historically had issues digesting dairy). Farmers who offer real milk often pasture their cows and raise heritage breeds, making its nutrient content denser.
But Wait …
Curious? Wanna try some now? Slow down. You can’t buy raw milk in Ohio and many neighboring states, because selling it to consumers is illegal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it unsafe to drink. “Raw milk can carry dangerous germs, such as Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, which can pose serious health risks to you and your family,” its website states. People, including young children, have indeed become ill from drinking raw milk, and such outbreaks have risen along with the popularity of raw milk. It’s also true that every year, thousands of people get sick eating food produced in inspected facilities where contaminants tainted massive batches, and caused multi-state outbreaks.
Both those for and against raw milk present data on food-borne outbreaks to back up their viewpoint. One thing is certain: If you want raw milk in Ohio without milking a cow yourself, currently the only legal way is though a herd share.
A herd share is a contract between a farmer and a shareholder in which the shareholder is part owner of a cow or herd of cows. The shareholder gets an agreed-upon amount of milk periodically. How much, how often, and where it’s picked up depend on the terms of the contract.
A herd share isn’t about milk; it’s about developing relationships. It’s about a community of compassionate and health-minded people who support the cost and effort that go into raising an animal.
Mancino runs a small herd share at Farm Beach Bethel. She milks her single cow by hand every morning. In a herd share agreement, she clarifies, the shareholder does not technically buy the milk. “You’re getting that free gift of milk because a herd share is focused on a community helping an animal and a farm. It’s a community effort. The free gift—whether they choose to have it or not—is a certain quantity, so prescribed by a farmer and consumer, every week. It fluctuates based on the lactation of the animal.”
If “know your farmer” is the call to arms of the local food movement, a herd share is one of the most intimate manifestations of it. And with that commitment comes responsibility. “I always trust that people who are interested in a herd share program are consciously making a choice to take responsibility for their health,” says Mancino. “Folks that come to me are in that same mindset. Once milk gets into the hands of the shareholder, it is completely their responsibility to take care of it.”
Two words Mancino uses here—‘trust’ and ‘care’—are essential in this exchange. The consumer trusts the farmer to maintain cleanliness and sterility throughout the entire process; to keep their animals clean, cared-for, and healthy; to use safe milking and bottling practices. Fresh milk must be chilled as quickly as possible and kept cold. And farmers trust consumers to be careful with this living product—to keep it properly refrigerated and to use it within one week or so (after which the milk can sour or clot). Speak with your farmer about how to store and use fresh milk; for example, since it already contains living probiotics, the process of making your own yogurt is a bit different than if you use store-bought milk.
A herd share might not be right for everyone. “Our job is to make people feel comfortable and share what we do. I want to make sure they understand what they’re stepping into,” Mancino says. She has had a family eventually leave the herd share. “They weren’t quite ready for it. Sometimes people fall out because there’s too much [milk], or they don’t know what to do with it. And that’s the learning curve. People are waking up and learning how to eat. When you have fresh food, you’ve got to work with it right away.”
Highland Haven Farms shareholder Nancy Brogden wasn’t actively seeking raw milk, but she discovered the herd share as a produce customer. “What got me started with Highland Haven were the organic vegetables,” she says. “I had not considered [raw milk] before. In fact, we were drinking almond milk or coconut milk more than we were cow’s milk. My husband has felt like he’s lactose intolerant for years, and he seems to be able to drink raw milk just fine. He does not have the bloating and uncomfortable distress that he would have with pasteurized milk. The more I looked at the raw milk, it just made so much more sense.
“I feel very strongly, just like I do with the vegetables, I want to know who grows it and where it’s coming from,” Brogden continues. “There’s never been a hesitancy from the farmer to say, ‘Come visit.’”
Phelps notes that calling to inquire about the herd share is just a first step. “People who have done their research, they don’t ask a lot of questions [on the phone]. They come and look at things. Very few people who are true raw milk drinkers don’t want to see their farmer,” she says.
Highland Haven is listed on RealMilk.
com, an online resource promoting raw milk. However, not all herd shares in a given area are listed—and that’s because some operate on a word-of-mouth basis. Mancino, for instance, has a weekly presence at several farmers’ markets, and was able to fill any vacancies by getting word out to her regular customers.
That was also the case for Back Acres Farm in Georgetown, OH. Though they dissolved their herd share program in November 2016 because they wanted to lighten their daily workload, farmers Patty and Jim Schwartz ran the herd share for 10 years, and never once needed to advertise for shareholders. “I was really sorry to stop and I knew the people depended on us,” Patty Schwartz says. Before last November, Jim hadn’t been on a vacation in 16 years. They’re still tied down to the farm to harvest crops, she says, “but not in the same manner. Our shareholders appreciated what we did, because it was a lot of work to milk the cows two times a day. Seven days a week, 365 days a year.”
They still have cows and can milk them as needed for their own purposes. “We leave their babies on the mothers,” says Schwartz. “We’ve always got milk cows in the field.” Like Mancino, Schwartz does not prefer the term “raw milk.” She calls it “fresh milk.” “I know it has many health benefits, but that’s not my main concern. It’s an everyday practice for us. I realize there are many people that would like to have [raw milk] and they don’t have a cow. And that’s where the herd share comes in. When they paid their monthly fee, they were not paying for the milk. They were paying for us to care for the animal and to milk it and to jug it, and deliver it to them at the market.”
Since that’s so different from how many of us get our milk, there’s a realignment of expectations in being new to a herd share. “Our cows got into wild onions one time,” says Schwartz. “Well, you cannot consume that milk. It’s just horrible. It takes about five days to get that through their system. And one week, nobody got milk. They understood. There’s so much more to it than picking up a jug and pouring a glass of milk. So much goes into that jug before you get it.
“There were always a few people who did not understand that we were not a grocery store, people who did it because it was the ‘in’ thing to do,” Schwartz continues. “The majority of the people did get it.” When they had excess milk, Schwartz used it to make “the most fabulous Feta cheese, cottage cheese. I’d make it available to the shareholders. It was fun for them to get different things, and I tried to tell them, ‘You can do this, too.’”
Raw milk is in an in-between place right now. As enriching as herd shares might be for some shareholders, not every milk drinker seeking fresh milk can run out and join one. Why do some state laws make it so difficult? Is raw milk really that dangerous? “I drink raw milk and it’s no big deal,” says Brogden. “If I lived in California, I could walk in the store and buy it.” True, because that’s one of the few states where raw milk can be sold at a retail level.
Meanwhile, regional authorities in Ohio have a history of raiding farms that produce raw milk. “They raid, they create fear, and the farmer backs off from selling,” Phelps says. Even farmers who are confident in their practices can be reluctant to discuss raw milk with the media, because they want to protect their family business and their shareholders.
Raw milk advocacy groups favor loosening state laws so farmers won’t have to operate in the shadows and consumers can make their own informed choices. “The more people demand what they want, the more it might happen,” Schwartz says, pointing out that farmers are busy farming, and that consumers need to be their advocates. “I’m always going to raise my own food. But if they shut us down, then you don’t have our stuff anymore.” It’s our job, then, to be farmers of ideas.
If there’s a silver lining to the limited access real milk aficionados have in Ohio and neighboring states, it’s that it forces them as consumers to engage with and support farmers on a much more personal level. Real milk is inspiring people to have conversations they wouldn’t have otherwise, and to ask more questions about our local and national food systems than ever before.
Once the genie is out of the milk bottle, you can’t force it back in.
The Weston A. Price Foundation actively supports dairy farmers who produce raw milk and advocates for increased consumer access to raw milk. Their Campaign for Real Milk includes state-by-state details on raw milk laws, listings of raw milk producers, and information on safety and health. RealMilk.com is a good source of information on finding, buying, and safely consuming fresh milk.
The Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is a grassroots group that “protects the rights of farmers to sell the products of the farm and the rights of consumers to access the foods of their choice from the source of their choice.”
Sara is a chef and writer. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, her writing has appeared in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2014, and two Full Grown People anthologies. Her cookbook Tasting Ohio: Favorite Recipes from the Buckeye State is forthcoming from Farcountry Press. She lives in Marietta.