I’ve been asked by people with befuddled expressions why we buy raw milk. (You have to have a cow or cow share to get raw milk in Michigan.) I think in a lot of cases the thought never occurred them that you would get milk anywhere other than a store. And honestly, it never occurred to me as a possibility until we moved to an area of Michigan where we are surrounded by small and medium farms selling directly to consumers.
Pasteurization, hailed by some as a modern miracle and villianized by others as being the root of a host of modern ailments, has its merits, when you don’t know where your milk is coming from. To me, it is a lot like boiling your water. Boiling drinking water is not something we do daily in the United States, but it is something that I have drank when visiting family in Peru and people do all over the world everyday. Pasteurization of beverages produced in an industrial setting (i.e., milk and juice at the grocery store) is necessary because it assures cleanliness and shelf-life. Pasteurization brings down costs allowing greater access to people in all income brackets. Pasteurization has its short coming in how it changes milk. It was not designed with the small dairy farmer in mind. Generally, the small dairy farmer does not run his farm like an industrial dairy. Cows are meant to be pastured animals. Cows are meant to have a certain amount of space. These things cost more than the conditions industrial dairy cows are kept it. They are not meant to be over milked or kept in confined spaces. (If you really want to know about animals in industrial settings, Rolling Stone has a piece worth reading.)
But this post is about why we decided to leave the pasteurized milk behind in the store and drive nearly an hour (used be a half hour before the first dairy we used closed) each way once a week “just to get milk.”
It all started with my decision to make Gluten-free cookies, which my recipe said I needed grass-fed butter for and the realization that my grocer didn’t have any. (I later found an Irish brand at Costco.) Not finding it, I asked my husband to find me a local shop that might sell it. Well, that is when we fell down the rabbit hole as Alice would say. He started with local farmer websites and ended up on sites for real milk and the Weston A. Price foundation (not that we follow all of that). Next he came with, “What do you think about getting raw milk?” There was a large potential upside. The risks were all largely in the unknown. Safety? Taste? Campylobacter, said to be a risk of raw milk produced in unclean conditions, had already been proven to be as much a risk from being around other people when our youngest contracted it Fall of 2013 – our pediatrician having decided she likely got it at a certain public place (germs can happen anywhere). We tossed the question around for about five weeks before we signed our one year cow share agreement.
The things in our lives that made it make sense:
1) The cost could be absorbed/offset to a large degree (especially if we compare it to Organic milk) and the health/taste benefits outweighed the added cost.
2) I have a family history of reproductive cancers. We have three little girls that pasteurized milk was giving artificial hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. Raw milk would not.
3) Raw milk tastes better.
3.5) My husband hated the taste of the pasteurized skim milk I bought. Now he drinks milk – and eats yogurt. (He’s lost twenty pounds since we started with raw milk.)
4) The vitamin and mineral content in raw milk would be higher and easier to digest and absorb.
5) Our oldest has allergies – one a class five and a few class three. Some sources say that raw milk can prevent the forming of allergies in children. Some also said that raw milk can potentially eliminate allergies or reduce allergen sensitivity.
6) We had already begun getting closer to our food by planting gardens the three preceding springs and buying local produce when available.
7) It had the potential of positively impacting the heart health of our family.
8) It would be an experiment. We would try it, but we would not continue to drink it if it did not continue to make sense for our family. This would not be a forever lifestyle change if we didn’t want it to be. And it did not mean anything else about other areas of our diets.
We had to trust our farmer and get a good feeling about the farm. The cows had to have good living conditions, access to pasture, and a diet that was natural. The milk had to be kept in a sanitary way. The farmer and his wife are passionate about their products, they works hard, and care about the animals. They take the time to share their passion with others, even your kids when you bring them along. The farm we now use is grade A USDA inspected, not because of the cow shares but because they provide milk for cheesemaking to a small creamery.
The verdict on the milk: Raw milk tastes better. My four year old no longer demands chocolate milk at home, just “cow’s milk.” She associates it with the cows she has seen at the farm and it tastes better – hence the more specific title. Even skimmed it tastes better than whole milk from the store, richer somehow. It makes yummy yogurt (cheaper than store bought) and better tasting butter (and making butter makes buttermilk – yum). My eighteen-month-old won’t drink pasteurized milk unless she is really, really thirsty and it is doctored, but she drinks raw milk like some people drink soda – constantly. Our family is healthier. We have been sick less, and everyone seems to fight off things easier. We haven’t gotten anything where everyone was sick at the same time. We haven’t gotten stomach viruses.
Things I’ve learned: It does matter where your milk comes from, even when it is raw. Not every dairy is the same. There are operational differences that can make a difference in taste consistency. There are so many more was to incorporate fresh dairy into your diet other than just drinking the milk.
Is raw milk the right choice for everyone? I’m not sure. Is it the right choice for my family, right now? Yes.