Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Real milk is available in Massachusetts

Milk is an important food. It’s one of the earliest foods of agriculture. It’s a whole USDA food group. But the milk sold in stores today is, by and large, not the same as the milk that we’ve consumed for thousands of years.

As was pointed out in a recent Grist article, one gallon of commercially available milk could contain milk from cows on farms around the country--even the world. In order for the food industry to safely process milk on such an enormous scale, they have to pasteurize the milk. Pasteurization kills bacteria, but also beneficial enzymes and organisms that are part of what makes milk so good for you. Homogenization, by which cream and milk are prevented from separating, and other modern processes routinely used in milk production change some of its fundamental qualities, making modern milk unlike the milk of the 1920s and earlier.

In a few places in the country, raw milk is available for sale, usually only directly from the farmer and not through a store. In Massachusetts, licensed raw milk dairy farmers can sell their own raw milk on their own farms. These raw milk producers are usually small, and are held to very high standards by the USDA. The USDA has cracked down on milk buying clubs, farmers who sell their milk raw, and even people who carpool to farms to buy raw milk, in places where these are prohibited by law.

While organic baby spinach and ground turkey are knowingly sold in this country with contaminants, and food recalls remain optional even in cases where people are sickened or die from food poisoning from a known source, raw milk sold directly from its farm of origin continues to be treated as a dangerous substance.


“The War on Real Milk” has been documented by Kristin Canty, independent film producer and director, small farms advocate, and Massachusetts local, in her debut film, “Farmageddon; The Unseen War on American Family Farms.” Canty tells the stories of farmers who people trust with their lives, their livelihoods destroyed in the name of public health. People fighting for access to raw milk are part of a political movement based on the freedom to choose what we put into our bodies.

My husband and I put our trust in our local farmers, not the USDA. This weekend there were at least two raw milk related events on farms in the “hill country” of  the northern Pioneer Valley. SideHill Farm, in Ashfield, held their “Raw Dairy Days” on Saturday afternoon. While we were late for the tour, any time is a good time to visit the farm stand: a shed full of freezers and refrigerators, where we stocked up on raw milk and frozen beef from their grass-fed herd of Normandes and Jerseys. Most milk sold in the US today is from dairy cattle of only one breed, the Holstein, which was bred for high milk production.

SideHill Farm is revered in these parts for their incredibly creamy yogurt, available for sale in area groceries as well as from the farm stand: I got a quart of that, too. Grass-fed can sometimes mean small and tough, even for what should be a fatty, tender cut. The ribeyes we bought from the SideHill freezer were a terrific deal, and large and well-marbled compared to some grass-fed steaks I’ve had from other area farms. 

On Sunday, we met up with a group touring Taproot Commons, a small dairy farm in Cummington. Here, Sarah Fournier-Scanlon uses intensive pasture management practices that fans of Joel Salatin will recognize on sight. As readers of Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” will recall from the chapter on Polyface Farm, this method allows livestock to engage in their natural behaviors, resulting in healthier pasture, cow, and hen, less work for the farmer, and more delicious, nutritious eggs and milk. When we arrived for the tour, the henhouse, which rested on a wagon, was parked in the middle of a small pasture. The rooster could be seen outside, guarding the house.

We joined the group of Weston A. Price Foundation members and Taproot Commons farm share owners in the milking barn. After talking about the milking schedule, we followed the farmer and a Jersey named Sparkle from the barn to the pasture. Here, we could see the hens, all within sight of the rooster, foraging along the tree line. As our farmer explained how she allows the hens to do the work of scattering the cow manure, rather than use a mechanical spreader, we stood in a semicircle around one tidy job and nodded. Next, we all picked our way across the mud to a neighboring pasture, and Sparkle joined two other cows, both Swiss. With the birth of Sparkle’s calf, Taproot Commons now has three dairy cattle in production. Fournier-Scanlon hopes to harness the new calf when it is older, to plow her vegetable fields.

Unlike commercial milk, which is both pasteurized and homogenized, raw milk separates into cream and skim milk. Shake the jar before pouring yourself a glass, and use it within five days to ensure freshness. The flavor is more complex, with sweet notes of pasture. If you like milk, or remember liking it as a child, raw milk will transport you with its purity of flavor. Normandes, Jerseys, and Swiss cows are all prized for the qualities of their milk, particularly in cheesemaking, because it is high in fat and protein.

After the Taproot Commons Farm tour, trays of milkshakes were passed around, and members of the local Weston A. Price Foundation sat at picnic tables and shared their packed lunches. If you would like to try raw milk and you live in Massachusetts, you can purchase a half-gallon jar from a local farmer who is authorized to sell raw dairy. Prices vary, but expect to pay $7 or so for your first half-gallon, which includes a deposit on the glass jar. For very small operations like Taproot Commons, properly washing and sterilizing the jars is time-consuming and not at all automated. The advantages of such hands-on dairy production, however, are a superior, raw, and very clean dairy product. As Fourier-Scanlon explained on Sunday, the standards for microorganisms in raw milk are exceedingly high, and USDA dairy inspectors visit frequently to ensure milk at Taproot Commons is safe to drink. The farmer of Taproot Commons is very proud of her raw milk’s test results.

To see “Farmageddon” this Friday in Boston, contact the AMC Boston Common 19 for show times and tickets; call (888) 262-4386 or visit For other screening dates and times, and to see the trailer, visit the Farmageddon website:
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