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
A content sheep gets a pat on the head
Indifferent sheep is indifferent
Mama llama. Or is that papa llama? I don’t remember.
Cute baby llama
This hog is living the dream
Did I drink from this cow?
Tucker, the farm’s friendly — and enormous — Great Dane
Tucker, at scale with my friend Paul
Kids at play
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.