This blog features a lot of food posts. Meals are the one thing I reliably photograph. I come from a line of talented home cooks, as does Mr. Vine. Over the years, we’ve continuously sought better food sources. We’re doing a great job reducing our restaurant spending and it’s largely because the food that comes out of our kitchen is tastier than whatever a restaurant has to offer. By “better sources” I mean more local, more seasonal, less processed, and direct from the farmer.
I’ve posted about our experience with community shared agriculture (CSA) and bulk meat. But the first thing that revolutionized our kitchen was a dairy share. When we moved to our current city, I searched for a summer produce CSA and stumbled upon a local dairy farm. In my state, as in several states, it is illegal to buy raw milk. Based on my research, the rationale behind these laws is protection of public health from disease. It’s true that unpasteurized milk was dangerous at one time, and still could be today without proper handling. Over the years, dairy became a huge industry. It benefitted large conglomerates to prevent small dairy farmers from selling milk, raw or not, directly to consumers. Although it is possible to safely consume raw milk, especially when you personally know your farmer and trust that they are safely handling it, for political reasons, misinformation about unpasteurized dairy abounds.
As a preface, neither Mr. Vine nor I are at-risk populations for food-borne illnesses. We’re relatively healthy and fit. If I were pregnant or had young children, or if we were elderly, I might assess the risk differently. But in the unlikely event we did get sick from raw milk, we’d likely recover. That being said, after considerable research, we have concluded the risks of illness are very low, much lower than a lot of other eating behaviors we have.
More on the risks
One of my favorite side effects from our raw milk journey is the education. We are aware of the risks raw milk can present, and how those risks can be prevented or mitigated. Our dairy farmer informed us. And, it’s all over the internet. I am able to analyze the danger and make informed decisions. Knowledge, as they say, is power. The more processed a food is, the more difficult it is to understand its potential danger. More hands touch it and it travels a greater distance to reach my table. I have no idea where the milk on a grocery store shelf came from or what kind of care the cows that produced it received. Likewise with that romaine lettuce that came from some far away state. In the case of dairy, the milk is pasteurized–or processed with very high heat–to kill the bad bacteria that invariably exists in it. I say invariably because when milk is bound for the pasteurizer, there is little motivation to ensure clean milking procedures or prevent mastitis in cows, because pasteurization will take care of any problems. I was ignorant to all of this before I began researching raw milk.
Those early conversations and visits to our dairy farm were so enlightening. I learned about all of the ways our farmers keep their cows healthy. They take many steps to keep the milking process clean. And then they test the milk–constantly. If there’s any question that the milk is safe, we are notified and that milk doesn’t get delivered to customers. Bottom line, raw milk can make you sick, but so can romaine lettuce.
What are the benefits?
Just as with CSA, I have experienced many intangible benefits, like getting to know my farmers. I am grateful for their labor in a way that seems more direct than buying something in a grocery store. I also find meaning in being able to tell our farmers “thank you”–both in words and in paying them for their produce, without any middlemen. As important as these “feel good” benefits are, there’s more to it than that.
Buying raw milk direct from a small farm is more sustainable for the environment. Raw milk is less processed–from the cow, it is cooled in a bulk tank and then bottled. That process is less resource-intensive than pasteurization. Our dairy farm keeps mostly Jersey and Jersey-cross cows in their herd. These breeds produce less milk in a day, but have a longer milk producing life. This means that these cows will tend to live longer lives in general before they are culled. Our farm feeds 100% grass and hay, and the cows graze all day. They live out in the sunshine and get to be cows for the most part.
I want to say that raw milk is healthier. But I can’t be sure. Mr. Vine and I weren’t trying to fix any dietary issues when we made the switch. Many people talk about improved skin and fewer allergies after converting to raw milk. Some people say that raw milk is easier on those with lactose intolerance. We didn’t have any of those problems. We consume dairy products more regularly because we get a set amount of milk every week. We do more with it, though. Buying any dairy product (other than good cheese) is a rare occurrence now, because we can make almost everything we need from raw milk.
It saves money. The cost is similar to what we’d pay for organic milk, but we can stretch raw milk so much farther. My favorite secret of raw milk is that it doesn’t go bad like pasteurized milk. It does reach a point where it isn’t good to drink and won’t foam up nicely for a cappuccino. When it gets older or clabbers, it is perfect for cooking. I use older milk for mashed potatoes and soaking pancake batter (or batter of any kind–biscuits, cornbread, etc.). I use it to make paneer (soft Indian cheese) and yogurt. It’s also perfect in breakfast smoothies. We’ve also made ice cream. Raw milk is not homogenized–another treatment grocery store milk commonly undergoes to keep the cream from separating. We separate out the cream and use that to make butter (or ice cream). Making butter and ice cream in particular have given us a much better appreciation for the true cost of these items on grocery store shelves. With few exceptions, our homemade dairy tastes a lot better than the conventional stuff.
Raw milk and financial independence
The versatility of raw milk helps us insource more food preparation. We don’t go out for ice cream when there’s a batch of homemade goodness in the freezer. It’s easy to say no to a coffee shop latte when I can make an equally delicious one at home. The upward impact on our grocery bill is much smaller than the downward pressure of enjoying more food at home. We also share some milk processing activities–making ice cream is a fun activity to do together. And butter-making is often a two person task.
Have you tried raw milk? What was your experience? How about any other direct-from farmer food purchases?