Drinking It Raw
Beside the reach-in cooler at Bread and Butter Farm in Shelburne, a two-foot sign rests behind a crate of empty milk jars. It reads:
Unpasteurized (Raw) Milk. Not Pasteurized. Keep Refrigerated. This product has not been pasteurized and therefore may contain harmful bacteria that can cause illness particularly in children, elders, and persons with weakened immune systems and in pregnant woman can cause illness, miscarriage or fetal death, or death of newborn.
That’s not exactly the message you want to read before popping the lid off a half-gallon of raw Jersey milk. Even if the whole milk is pearly white and soft like velvet; even if there’s pale yellow cream cradling the mouth of the Mason jar.
“Those words are stronger than a pack of cigarettes,” says Henry Cammack, indicating toward the signage. “They’re stronger than alcohol.”
But Henry smiles anyway as he looks to his small herd on the farmstead, eight solid Jerseys dipping their noses to the earth to chew on grass and weeds. Aided by Henry, these bovines produce the cool gallons of milk in the farmstand’s fridge. The jars are dressed with a black-and-white label reading “Henry’s Dairy, Raw Milk.” In the bottom-right corner, a cartoon Henry stands with an easy smile, hands tucked in pockets. He’s flanked by a couple of cows and two herding dogs named Harper and Scout; the landscape of Bread and Butter Farm lolls to meet the Green Mountains behind him. Each jar is dated by hand with blue sharpie.
It’s a screen-grab of the farmer and the place, so spot-on that it couldn’t be anyone or anywhere else. And that’s the point: in the age of industrial dairy farming, a transparent label is as much a luxury as it is an anomaly. To Henry, the crux of raw dairy is this: know the milk, know the animals, know the farmer.
Henry grew up outside Baltimore. Despite proximity to the city, he “always loved dairy cows.” The love was probed further during a semester at the Mountain School in Vershire in his junior year of high school. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 2014 with a self-designed degree in Diversified Farm Management, a combo-program of business planning and soil and animal science. College studies were fortified by his participation in UVM’s small student-run dairy, known as the Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management—or CREAM, for short. After graduating, Henry spent two years as a pasture manager and assistant herdsperson at Shelburne Farms. He then went to Bread and Butter Farm to become their first livestock apprentice, where he’s now found each day—at five in the morning and five in the evening—to milk Skittles, Atlanta, Cherry, Green Bay, Champ, Casper, Jade and Cheesy.
Forty-five minutes south on Route 7 from Shelburne, Chad and Morgan Beckwith, the husband-and-wife duo behind Ice House Farm, coax their Alpine goat Annie onto a milking stand. Annie’s brown and white coat swirls like cream curling into light roast. The black fringing on her back and tail extend to her black-spotted tongue, which corrals a couple alfalfa pellets from a cup into her wide mouth— a milking-time treat, courtesy of her farmers.
“Annie’s got prime nips,” says Morgan as she begins to milk Annie by hand. The frothy white milk hits the tin pail in long, even streams. Before milking, Morgan brushed Annie’s legs and belly free of hay and treated the teats with “pre-dip,” an iodine-based antiseptic solution. “Teat wipes” were swabbed over and around the udders, both to sanitize and to moisturize the teats with lanolin, a nourishing ingredient derived from sheep’s wool. Before breaking out the tin pails, Morgan takes a strip cup sample to test for any irregularities in the milk.
“That’s the nice thing about a small herd,” says Chad, picking up the water bucket Annie fortuitously overturned in her excitement for alfalfa pellets. “You’re so up-close and intimate with the animal. You have that one-on-one time with them, and in that closeness you can tell if anything’s wrong.
After milking, Annie’s teats are treated with “post-dip” (the same solution as “pre-dip,” but kept in a separate applicator). They then get a good swipe of Bag Balm—“This one from Craftsbury’s mostly beeswax and olive oil,” adds Chad—before Annie returns to the field with her sisters: Rory, Truly, Juno, Adel, Veda, Poppy and Gilmore.
“We call this process ‘teat spa,’” says Morgan. She covers the fresh pail and whisks it to the farmhouse, where the milk is filtered and chilled.
The raw milk dairy farmers behind Henry’s Dairy and Ice House Farm have a few things in common, as you’d expect. For one, they’re young. Henry, 24, Chad, 34, and Morgan, 27, were all born in an era where the expected fare in dairying included bulk tanks, machine power, manipulations in animal breeding, fertilizers, pesticides, grain feed and genetic engineering. Jack Lazor, Henry’s former UVM professor and the founder of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, lays out the history in his September 2016 article, “A New Direction for Vermont Agriculture.”
Lazor writes that Vermont’s present land grant college system bloomed in the late 19th century, both “to study improved agricultural practices and encourage farmers to adopt them.” The emphasis, he continues, “has always been on increased production accompanied by easier and more efficient ways of doing things.
The system was a huge success. It generated more output with more efficiency than our 19th century grandparents and great-grand parents imagined possible. And by the time Herbert Hoover gained presidency in 1929, industrial agriculture wasn’t just a new way of farming; it was a technological miracle. America was at once post-war, pre-war and mid-Depression, and like the super-birds that promised a chicken in every pot for Sunday supper, the animals of industrial dairies secured a jar of milk in the icebox for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In Vermont, the dairy reign runs especially high. Let’s put it into perspective: According to the dairy sector of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Vermont dairy brings in 2.2 billion dollars of economic activity to the state each year. Today alone, it will amass almost three million dollars of circulating cash. Dairy is 70% of the state’s agricultural sales, and in one year, 850 dairy farmers will produce nearly 321 million gallons of milk. That’s enough to fill 16,000 swimming pools. Vermont dairy, in short, is a big-time breadwinner.
But the environmental and ethical cost of industrial dairy farming is no longer revolutionary info. On the Vermont front, writes Lazor, these dues include the fact that the average dairy farmer runs ragged each day by the amount of ground to cover; dairy cows are spent so early that most don’t reach their fifth birthday; there is so much oversupply of milk that it’s being dumped back into manure pits, and immigrant workers are replacing the labor force as cash-strapped farmers struggle to pay livable wages. Meanwhile, the environment is pummeled in many different directions, from the continuous sprawl of silage corn to the energy stress of mass machinery and 18-wheeled milk tanks. “Vermont dairy farmers are good people with wonderful families,” he says, but the fact remains that an all-industrial system only half works.
Henry, Chad and Morgan help diversify the Vermont dairy market by selling raw, whole milk from small herds of cows and goats. Yet raw dairy doesn’t always glean communal support, as is indicated by the government-issued sign at Bread and Butter’s farmstand.
“There’s a tradition of raw milk in Vermont because of the density of farmers and the transparency of farmer-consumer relationships,” says Henry. In many places across the state, it’s not uncommon to get raw milk straight from the source—no middleman necessary.
“But a big portion of the state is still very conservative on the raw milk front,” he continues. “Even though raw milk is a very niche market, the large-scale dairy farmers are afraid; perhaps of competition, but also of their reputation being marred by someone getting sick.”
These reservations are understandable in a state that’s nationally famed for its dairy. Chad explains further: “The Vermont brand is so strong. Obviously nobody wants anyone to get sick, but also nobody wants Vermont’s name in dairy farming to be tarnished by someone that’s not properly executing their raw milk practices.”
But when did “raw” become synonymous with “risky,” or even “dirty”? If modern industrial agriculture is a relatively recent invention, why has drinking raw milk gained the stigma of “proceed with caution?
According to Chad, the routine pasteurization and homogenization of milk began when modern techniques in dairy farming encouraged farmers to produce maximum outputs of milk with minimum inputs of pasture. These practices changed the composition of a cow’s environment as much as it changed the composition of the cow.
“People started feeding their cows the by-products from grain mills,” adds Henry, “but cows aren’t supposed to eat a diet based on grain. True, you’ll get more milk from a grain-fed cow, but you’re also changing the make-up of the cow itself.
Unbalanced levels of gut-bacteria in the cow made pasteurization and homogenization failsafe ways to ensure that consumers didn’t fall ill while eating their breakfast cereal. What’s more, says Chad, “a few farmers at that time had bad practices—they weren’t clean and careful, and they didn’t have the science and equipment we use now to control bacteria.”
“Unfortunately,” states Henry, “the few dairies that weren’t doing a good job were making people sick, and the cases got national attention.” The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, mentions that a multitude of illnesses and at least two deaths can be linked to consumption of raw dairy between the periods of 1998 and 2011. The stigma stuck.
Despite the stain, Vermont consumers continue to seek raw milk as a part of their general diet. That the trend towards raw is growing, mentions Chad, is a good sign for the health of both the environment and the buyer. To all three dairy farmers—Chad, Morgan, and Henry—high-quality milk is an indicator of an animal’s high-quality lifestyle. Just as a ruby-hued tomato is more delicious and nutritive when grown in rich soil and fed by natural sunlight, milk is highest in taste and quality when attention is paid to the farm’s entire symbiotic system. Along with proper sanitation and consistent milk tests, a grass-fed diet is another essential step.
“We use pasture rotation through fresh browse,” says Morgan, “and alfalfa pellets on the stand to keep them occupied during milking; sometimes in the winter we’ll supplement with first-cut hay.” Henry’s cows are also on an all-grass diet, which is apparent in the milk’s pale-yellow coloring; the fat is lush with beta-carotene. Grass-feeding also promotes higher amounts of trace minerals, essential nutrients and vitamins like B12, A, B2 and D. Raw milk in general is more easily digested, even by the lactose-intolerant, since it contains the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose; lactose is a natural sugar that lends milk its sweetness and gives the lactose-averse stomach cramps. Henry adds, “the healthy stores of good bacteria in raw milk change the constitution in the microbiome of your gut. That’s good for everything from metabolism to a boosted immune system.” Also, raw milk lasts—usually between 7 and 10 days.
“The pasteurized and homogenized milk that you buy in the store are pretty vulnerable to bacteria, since they don’t have their own store to fight off invaders,” says Chad. “Also, that milk might have traveled greater distances, or been subjected to different temperatures, or mixed with other milks from other dairies and processed down to one and two percent fat.”
In that sense, Chad continues, “You only know what the label tells you.” That’s unless you have the advantage, or the incentive, to live in a state where it’s possible to know the milk, know the animals, and know the farmers behind the stuff in your glass.
Photographs by H.B. Wilcox