The man ain’t got no cultures

Got milk?

Last week, Pennsylvania Mennonite farmer Mark Nolt was found guilty of selling raw milk without a permit. In California, dairy farmers are fighting strict new regulations that would require raw milk to be as biologically sterile as its pasteurized counterpart, and at least one dairy has faced a federal investigation into allegedly selling raw milk for human consumption across state lines. Why are consumers so eager to buy raw milk, and why are authorities cracking down on the people who sell it to them? That’s the topic of my new article at Reason Online.

As part of my research, I visited farmer Kitty Hockman-Nicholas at Hedgebrook Farm in Winchester, VA. It’s illegal to sell raw milk in Virginia, but dedicated dairy drinkers buy into cow shares to get their supply. By becoming part-owners of cows and paying Hedgebrook to care for them, they ensure a steady supply of the raw milk they crave.

Kitty couldn’t sell me any of her milk, of course, but she was nice enough to provide me a sample jar. After several enjoyable hours spent wandering around her farm on a spring day, watching the animals, learning about her milking process, and being introduced to her cows by name, my friends and I couldn’t were eager to get home and try the stuff for ourselves. One of us was a bit nervous, though. “I don’t know if I can drink this. It came out of a cow.”

“All milk comes from cows,” I said.

“No, it comes from plastic jugs!” she replied. And that’s the way most consumers think about milk these days, living their lives completely disconnected from its origin. Having watched the care Kitty took in milking, however, we tried her product feeling confident that the cows were as sanitary as they get for being, well, cows — a far cry from the many bulk milk operations that feed into pasteurized dairies.

Once we tasted the milk, we were all converts to its superior flavor. Having it side-by-side with ordinary store bought milk made the difference even clearer: the mass-market milk has a processed aftertaste that I’d never picked up on before, but that stands out terribly next to fresh, pasture-fed, unpasteurized milk.

A blind tasting with different friends a few days later brought similar results. One person preferred the standard milk, but the rest of us liked the fresh stuff better. (It helps that Kitty’s milk is unskimmed and therefore has a higher fat content, but that’s not the only factor going into its appeal.)

Visiting the farm was one of the most enjoyable weekend outings I’ve had in a long time. Hedgebrook is occasionally open to the public, and I recommend checking it out if you get the opportunity. Unfortunately, the experience of trying Hedgebrook’s milk is harder to come by. Part of the madness of our current dairy laws is that if Kitty were to sell her product, she would be shut down by the state of the Virginia. Unless the law changes, you’ll have to commit to owning a cow for all its days on Earth or take your chances on the underground black market for raw milk products.

Below the break, more photos from our trip to Hedgebrook…

One of the braver sheep dares to approach

Content sheep
A content sheep gets a pat on the head

Me and an indifferent sheep
Indifferent sheep is indifferent


Baby lamb

Mama llama. Or is that papa llama? I don’t remember.

Baby llama
Cute baby llama

Happy hog
This hog is living the dream

Did I drink from this cow?

Tucker, the farm’s friendly — and enormous — Great Dane

Paul and Tucker
Tucker, at scale with my friend Paul

Farm cat
Farm kitteh

Kids at play
Kids at play

Peacock strutting
It’s hard not to sympathize with this peacock. No matter how much he struts and shakes, the peahen just wants to eat in peace.


5 thoughts on “The man ain’t got no cultures”

  1. I like the goats!

    Out of curiosity, how much higher is the risk of illness with the non-pasteurized milk? I assume that the risk of illness is why the law mandates pasteurized milk… or is there another reason?

  2. Oh, you answered this, sort of, in the Reason article: “In his testimony at Florez’ senate hearing, University of California-Davis professor Michael Payne testified that although raw milk accounts for just a tiny percentage of milk consumption in the U.S., it is responsible for twice the number of disease outbreaks as pasteurized milk.”

    So, the answer is, the risk of illness is enormously higher with unpasteurized milk.

    Again, this is a case where clear labeling should be enough to allow people to decide on their own. A big old “Hey, if you drink this milk, you’re 1000% more likely to get sick than if you drink the milk in the next carton over” should be enough warning. The people who really want the milk can get it, the rest of us who don’t care will stay healthy, and all will be right in the world.

  3. Figuring out the relative risk is more complicated than that. It’s not obvious from the number cited how many of those cases came from farms that specialize in raw milk and therefore take extra care to avoid contamination, versus farms that sell pasteurized milk and just occasionally sell raw milk to curious customers.

    Raw milk is definitely riskier, but I agree: honest labeling should be all that’s needed.

  4. What also needs to be accounted for are the natural immunities that raw milk provides, and that it is not loaded down with hormones and antibiotics, which over longer term consumption actually proves to be beneficial.
    Good thing big brother makes our choices for us….

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