Give raw milk a chance
Lindsay Harris, shown with Eric Reiss, founded Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, a micro-dairy that produces raw milk. She no longer operates Family Cow and now farms in Tunbridge, but she is an advocate for the fair regulation of Vermont’s micro-dairies.
As the Vermont Legislature considers S.70, a bill that would allow the delivery of raw (unpasteurized) milk to farmers markets, there has been a spirited discussion on the value of raw milk sales as part of Vermont’s agricultural economy.
As the founder and former operator of Family Cow Farmstand, a raw milk micro-dairy in Hinesburg, I’d like to share a farmer’s perspective.
We Vermonters are blessed to have an abundance of local foods; however we are at a crossroads in building a local food system that is truly sustainable. Raw dairy production can be a part of the solution, if Vermont has the courage to move forward and not stay stuck retelling a story that dates to the late 19th century and early 20th century.
Raw milk and raw dairy products have sustained many cultures across the globe for thousands of years. Raw milk in its various forms is mentioned in the Bible more than 50 times. Pasteurization is a recently developed technique only becoming a widespread practice within the last 60 years. Despite this, we often hear how pasteurization is essential for food safety. This disparity has everything to do with modern production methods.
In the early 1900s the rise of industrial milk production was the cause of a terrible public health crisis. Confinement dairies started popping up next to whiskey refineries so the waste grain mash, called “swill,” could be force-fed to cows, producing low-cost milk for poor city dwellers who no longer had access to fresh milk from farms. These early industrial dairies were terrible places where both the cows and the workers were filthy and often sick. Illness spread to people who drank the raw “swill milk” and something had to be done.
Instead of requiring that cows be healthy and milked on small, clean farms, regulators allowed low-cost, low-quality swill milk to remain on the market, and required that it be “cooked” (pasteurized) before sale so it wouldn’t spread infectious disease. For a long time there were two milks in America: “certified” raw milk that came from clean rural farms, and low-cost, cooked swill milk produced in the cities. With the gradual industrialization of most dairy production, milk became a commodity and pasteurization became the norm and the law.
Dairy regulation has come a long way since then, but it still allows for: large, confinement housing systems; feeding cows with concentrates, industrial food wastes and GMOs; commingled milk from many thousands of cows; regular use of hormones and antibiotics; and milk from unhealthy cows to enter the food supply.
The feasibility of industrial milk production depends on pasteurization. But there is another way to farm where pasteurization has never been necessary. It is the way humans have been successfully raising dairy animals for many thousands of years, in small herds fed on grass.
Cows with a grass-based diet are much less likely to harbor pathogens. A recent University of Vermont study tested more than a hundred milk samples from 30 small-scale, Vermont farms. The results consistently showed outstanding milk quality and zero pathogenic cells in any of the samples. Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control show a person is many times more likely to get sick from consuming seafood, chicken, beef, spinach and many other common perishable foods than from drinking raw milk. Furthermore, recent studies show significant health benefits to drinking milk that has not been pasteurized.
Current regulations surrounding raw milk production and sale in Vermont reflect a fear and bias that are not supported by scientific evidence. This fear and bias are evident in the Vermont dairy industry’s vehement opposition to allowing sales of high-quality raw milk from small farms. Currently, Vermont’s raw milk producers are held to a higher standard of testing and inspection than conventional dairies and they are unfairly restricted from selling their product even when they meet these regulations. Let’s follow other states’ lead in allowing farmers who produce excellent, high-quality food to sell it and return control over food choices to informed consumers.
Please contact Gov. Peter Shumlin and ask him to support greater economic opportunity for raw dairy farmers by signing S.70, and by directing his Agency of Agriculture to develop policies that encourage and support the development of micro-dairies and regulate them fairly.
Lindsay Harris is a dairy farmer who founded and ran Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg for the past five years. She now farms in Tunbridge where she produces butter, buttermilk and ricotta cheese.