T he crockery pitcher of raw milk was rounding the table and I steeled myself for what was expected. Earlier that day on a trip to my bad boy Uncle Bruce’s cattle farm in Mississippi, I was prompted in farm etiquette, which included savory responses when tasting what was for dinner. The caveat was that things “fresh from the farm” were a strange—new—world.
Surprise. Though I was not exactly a city slicker, the most I knew of “fresh” was the tiny crop of radishes that my mother harvested for “ole time’s sake.” It was the sixties and convenience food was etching its way into taste buds and psyches everywhere, the toll of which could not be imagined.
But in the meantime, I was, on that particular day, hungry. We had played hard, wandering the novel and exotic landscape, taking in the Herefords. Lunchtime would not come soon enough and we crowded around my aunt’s kitchen table. The sparsely arranged space was dotted with platters of fresh meats, cheeses, and vegetables, all well and good—but the milk stands alone.
I have always loved milk. That is, the commercial milk of my thirsty childhood. And in no way did that cold, quenching beverage, the one that went best with a Swanson’s TV Fried Chicken Dinner, resemble the drink that was served up on that hot farm field trip.
At first gulp, the backlash was minimal due to shock. I remember the mild taste of onions, which my aunt explained was simply a product “of what the cows ate while grazing in the fields.” Fancy.
Like my aunt, I am not the first mother to say that family is worth the extra mile, but I do enjoy observing my own behavior when it comes to nourishment. So how far would I go for quality groceries, and why did it matter? I awakened to the fun fact of a job that could mean gathering new friends, purchasing their goods, and adding to the most imperative of economies.
But what about the heralded speed and convenience of the day? Oh, those. Could such hot topics be overrated? Could such hot topics wreak havoc in the long run?
Perhaps the time had come to reconsider the lilies.
Some twenty years ago, while running a dish for my family, I perceived the food, in spite of my best efforts, to be strangely tasteless and without pleasure. I got it. In haste, I had cut the daily corners and threw out flavor with dismissal of the source—local farmers.
I began to feel a tug of what tasted like earth. A solitary return to the farm appeared to be unavoidable, but none of my farming ancestry were there for consultation.
Still it felt victorious to marshal my own directory of resources with providers of poultry, lamb, beef, eggs, vegetables, cheese, jam, jelly, honey. Astonishingly, they were all around me. Devotion to these local purveyors and their products has proved a brilliance.
Only one stands alone, yet to be discovered—fresh milk.
In debate with my dead grandfather, I accept the possibility that I am at an age when digesting milk is no picnic, but then I remind him of steel-cut oats and chocolate chip cookies hot from the oven.
And there is that uber-popular “got milk” campaign cavorting around my brain—the big blitz created for the California Milk Processor Board and later licensed by other milk processors and dairy farmers to increase sales nationwide. The ad premise was fabulous—portraits of well-heeled glitterati satisfied by one beverage. Got Milk?
Well, yes, we got it—any time, any place—but, it turns out, not the milk of our forefathers. Without some research that is, because that particular drink, known as “raw milk,” is not pasteurized or homogenized and is agitated with regulatory issues that were instated in the 1890s to control contagious diseases.
I have discovered that obtaining that original fresh raw milk that I tasted as a child is no small matter and the journey to my first gallon is fraught with considerations and distractions of a well-intentioned history on behalf of the commercial milk industry. Twenty-eight states in the United States today still prohibit the sale of raw milk.
And I can buy the simplified explanation of pasteurization as a heating process used to prevent pathogens such as E coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, as well as the process of homogenization, a technique in which milkfat globules are made smaller—but I’m not deterred. Consumer demand is growing and I am still as curious as the child in the Mississippi farm kitchen.
Shawn Dady, President of Tennesseans for Raw Milk, and blogger by the same name, reports that some 5 people a day request the whereabouts of a raw milk dairy farmer. “They are on a journey to health as I was,” says Shawn, who first tried fresh milk after exploring the tenants of Dr. Weston A. Price. As a dentist, Dr. Price traveled to isolated parts of the earth in the 1930s to study populations untouched by western habits. The result delivered a startling photo journal of superior human specimens and yielded a recommendation that would shape the doctor’s bias “against foods of modern convenience.” Dr. Price’s 20 Dietary Guidelines include drinking “full-fat milk produced from pasture-fed cows, such as raw milk.”
And while we dish health, my quest for fresh raw milk turned up some stunning notions. In a letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the chairman of The Milk Institute shared data in an effort to inform the AAP of a longtime and “oddly out of sync” position. Recent studies support a decrease in allergies and asthma with the reminder that cows’ milk is raw just like human breast milk, which has hundreds of bacteria that help with babies’ immunities.
Even so, one farmer friend, Mary Gresham Buchannan Barr, feels there is a reason to be cautious. Her jersey cows, Minnie Pearl and Octavia, provide her family with 4 gallons of milk a day, an arrangement for which she seeks a middle ground. “I have found that certain methods like maintaining clean udders and usage of a home pasteurization kit to be the compromise.”
Another acquaintance, Kathryn Holley, a young mother of girls, is giving raw milk a try because the yogurt and kefir she makes using it tastes better. “And we drink less milk. This is not the commercial milk we drank like water. It is rich,” she says.
Shawn Dady’s research was rewarded by improved personal health and a conviction to launch the right to purchase raw milk legally in the state of Tennessee.
It’s a fact today that law in Tennessee prohibits a dairy farmer from selling fresh raw milk for human consumption unless the customer first buys a one-time cow share, a ruling that Shawn structured and the legislature put into effect in 2009 with a stroke of bipartisanship.
Shawn’s website, which locates convenient local raw dairies, has encouraged me to add a farmer to my table. She touts the wondrous byproduct of a farmer/customer relationship. “In this way dairy farmers are paid a fair price for their product,” she says. “That’s the ticket,” I say.
And so later this week, with a cow share investment of 25 dollars in hand and with the assurance by Shawn that good animal husbandry takes care of onion-flavored milk (bad boy Bruce), I’m headed to Bethel for another crockery pitcher of fresh raw milk. Since I know that Jersey D Farms’ cows graze on 50 acres of commercial fertilizer-free pasture and are void of antibiotic and growth hormones, I’m ready, set.
Particularly when Jersey D farmer, George Dodson, who currently serves 160 cow share owners, says “We don't let our cows want for anything. People are looking at their tables more like our grandfathers did and we want to give people the best we possibly can.” Besides his wife Nett is amazed at the remarkable healing stories shared by those who come from long distances to buy a jug.
When I get home from my sojourn, I'll own a 5-dollar gallon of raw milk, some eggs, pork sausage, and an experience of a dreamy country store (pickup site), because that is the way this glorious return to the farm works. Delicious products for a fair local price, a quick and easy sausage omelet and milkshake for dinner, throw in some new friends—Got Community? I’ll bet the future of farming on it.