PROPONENTS OF RAW MILK GENERALLY ACKNOWLEDGE that pasteurization may eliminate bad bacteria and make milk a little safer to drink. But they also argue that the heat applied during pasteurization kills beneficial bacteria and enzymes that make raw milk a nutritionally superior and bioactive food. They claim that raw milk tastes better, improves gastrointestinal health and reduces susceptibility to common viruses and allergens.
Close to 99 percent of the milk consumed in America is pasteurized. To kill any pathogens that might be present, raw milk is subjected to a high temperature (usually 161° F) for a short time. The process dates back at least to the midnineteenth century and the work of the French chemist and microbiologist, Louis Pasteur. Pasteurization became widespread in this country in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1987 that it became mandatory after a ruling by the FDA that effectively made it illegal to ship raw milk across state lines. Today, most—but not all—people accept pasteurization as a standard practice and do not question its efficacy.
I’m not a milk drinker (though I am fond of cheese), but I decided it was time to take a closer look at what my generally robust workforce seems to be so enthusiastic about.
Regardless of which side of the fence you come down on in this debate (if you’re curious, you can find plenty to read online, both pro and con), one thing is certain: Raw milk is gaining in popularity across the U.S., and though federal law makes it illegal to transport raw milk across state lines, many individual states have changed their laws to make it legal to sell this age-old food, though usually with some restrictions. Currently, all but 13 states permit some form of raw milk sales for human consumption. In New York, for example, on-farm sale of raw milk direct to consumers is legal for farms that have obtained a special license from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and submit to periodic inspections and testing of the milk for harmful bacteria. Off-farm sale of raw milk in retail stores is not legal. In Pennsylvania, on- and off-farm retail sales are permitted. In New Jersey, a state with relatively few dairy farms, all raw milk sales remain illegal.
Over the past half dozen years, many of the workers on my organic produce farm have taken to drinking raw milk purchased from a local dairy about 20 minutes from us in the Town of Otisville (Orange County). So far, to the best of my knowledge, none of my crew has gotten sick from it. I’m not a milk drinker (though I am fond of cheese), but I decided it was time to take a closer look at what my generally robust workforce seems to be so enthusiastic about.
Rick Vreeland, 62, has been around cows most of his life. For 30 years, he ran a large conventional dairy but he found the work was impersonal, exhausting and brought him little satisfaction—he says in the end it just didn’t “feel right.” After a hiatus of several years as a heavy equipment operator for the county, he and his wife, Julie, decided to change course. In 2007, they returned to the farm where Rick was born (and which is still owned by his father), and set about creating Freedom Hill Farm—a small, raw-milk dairy with fewer cows than Rick was used to and a strong sense of community and Christian ministry. (Members of their church donated money, time and vital skills, such as carpentry and plumbing.) Rick and Julie are partners not just in marriage but also in their farm enterprise: Rick takes care of the cows while Julie helps with milking and handles the retail end of their business.
A total of 60 Jersey cows live on the farm. Each one has a name and a recognizable personality. Thirty of them are milked twice daily; the other 30 are either calves under two years of age or “dry cows” that stop lactating before giving birth. All of the animals spend most of their time outside on pasture. For eight months, their primary food is grass; in the winter months, they eat hay and a small amount of pelletized feed. Many remain healthy and productive for 12 years or more.
The Vreelands’ operation is in stark contrast to many of the dairy farms across the country. In the last few decades, dairy farms in America have gotten a lot bigger. The bucolic green fields dotted with small herds of grazing cows often displayed on television and billboards advertise a false reality. Forty years ago, 50-cow farms were common and produced most of the milk Americans consumed; today, 500-cow operations are the norm. (And many are much larger than that: One of the largest dairy operations in the country—Fair Oaks Farm, located 75 miles north of Chicago—milks 30,000 cows every day. In California and other western states, the number of 10,000- and 20,000-cow operations is on the increase, while small, family-run dairy farms have become a rarity.)
The Vreelands have been selling raw, non-homogenized milk, as well as yogurt and kefir, for nine years.
Cows on these megafarms are essentially units of production and are treated as such. Milking begins soon after they reach the age of two. Usually they spend the remainder of their short lives indoors in gigantic, airplane hangar-sized barns or, when not being milked, in confined feedlots. They live in cramped, often unsanitary conditions, surrounded by their own manure and with no place to sit down. To enhance milk production, they are given growth hormones and fed a high-protein diet of corn, soy and animal byproducts (none of which is a natural food for cows or other ruminants, for that matter, whose multiple stomachs are designed to draw nutrition from grass and other leafy plants). After three or four years of being pushed to provide ever greater amounts of milk, these “factory farm” cows are sick, worn out and disposed of. (It almost goes without saying, but drinking unpasteurized milk from these animals is probably not a good idea.)
The Vreelands have been selling raw, nonhomogenized milk, as well as yogurt and kefir, for nine years. At first, a handful of people showed up to sample the new offerings, but very quickly the pace of sales increased, mostly through word-of-mouth. Today, the Vreelands have a thousand steady customers, many of whom travel from Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess, northern New Jersey and even New York City to pick up their milk of choice (and often say hello to the cows while they’re at it). The more distant customers are generally members of buying clubs—they take turns driving to the farm to get their weekly supply, then distribute to fellow members in their neighborhoods.
An average of 125 gallons of raw milk is sold on the farm every day, along with 30 quarts of plain yogurt and 30 quarts of kefir. Prices are reasonable: A gallon of milk in a glass mason jar sells for $5, plus a deposit on the returnable jar; yogurt and kefir go for $4.50 per quart. The storage life of the milk, if kept refrigerated, is around 10 days; the yogurt and kefir can keep for a few weeks.
All sales are on the honor system. Most customers call ahead to place orders that are set aside for them in large refrigerated cabinets. Each order, whether for an individual or a buying club, is identified by name; the customer drops an envelope containing cash and a note (with name and items purchased) into a box. Rick told me that in nine years, the system has failed only twice—once was an honest mistake, the other was regrettable.
With a broad smile, he hastens to add that he would gladly give milk to any of his customers who could not afford to buy it. “What we’re trying to do here,” he says, “is go back in time to the way things used to be.”
You can’t buy unprocessed, raw milk at any grocery store in New York State, but specially licensed farms can sell raw milk directly to the consumer on the farm. A few other Hudson Valley locations where you can purchase raw milk from the farmer are Hawthorne Valley Farm (Ghent), Udderly Fresh Farm (Washingtonville), F&C Brooks & Sons (Kingston), Old Ford Farm (Gardiner) and Edgwick Farm (Cornwall).