By Sylvia Onusic
It is near milking time at Bear Meadows Farm near Boalsburg, just under the Tussey Mountain in central Pennsylvania, and not far from Penn State. What a beautiful sight! The cows are coming down from the pasture to the paddock outside the parlor, occasionally bellowing a long moo, which says it’s milking time.
I stand outside with the owner of the place and tell him that the cows look beautiful, and that I especially like the white one. He says, “Yeah, it’s all pasture, and that’s Elsie May, an old girl.” In fact, he knows each cow by name, their personality and habits. Nearby three farm cats are lined up closely together in silhouette, along with Jeff’s two guinea hens, anticipating that something good is about to happen. The farm dogs, Beauty and Susie, won’t be ignored and wind their way around your legs looking for attention.
Jeff originally purchased five guinea hens at his wife’s request, who read that they are great tick eaters. The females were killed by predators who left only a pile of feathers, but the two males remain, now fixated on Jeff, following him wherever he goes—his constant companions, even accompanying his truck into the field.
When I first turned into the long driveway framed by fields and made my way down the farm road, it was like a step back in time—the spring house on the left, the farm house set on top of the hill with crisscross curtains gently blowing on the clothes lines below it. I had to creep along so that I wouldn’t take out a couple of Jeff’s prime layers, some plump Rhode Island Reds ambling along. But they picked up to a strut when the wheels of my car came too near and veered off sharply out of the way. The duck and her ducklings made for the pond on the right and nipped into the water. Then slowly I continued down to the barn, paddock and milking parlor. In the paddock a number of young cows stared curiously at me but soon went back to their business of wagging their tails to knock off the flies. Susie and Beauty gave me a barking escort all the way to the milking parlor.
The last time I saw Jeff, he was doing some custom carpentry at my house. We got to talking and he told me he was getting out of the carpentry business, and wanted to “hang out with cows.” He had farming in his soul. I didn’t know the story and also didn’t know whether he was pulling my leg. Jeff can be a great kidder. But imagine my surprise and delight to actually visit Jeff’s farm for the first time.
Inside, Jeff maintains a consumer bulletin board in his milking parlor anteroom, which educates his customers about the types of bacteria in milk and the testing procedures required by various state and federal agencies. He pointed out his laboratory test papers, which were displayed with explanations on the customers’ bulletin board. The scores were good, in fact exceptional—some of the best scores in the state it seems. Copies of some of these scores were sent to Dr. Ted Beals for his collection of raw milk testing data.
Until 1948, farm fresh milk (raw milk) and pasteurized milk coexisted legally. But in that year a federal mandatory pasteurization law ended national access to fresh milk. Now it is up to the individual states to determine whether fresh milk is legal. In Pennsylvania we are fortunate to be able to purchase raw milk at the farmgate and in specific shops.
In most European countries, especially member states of the European Union, raw milk is legal. It can even be purchased in automatic raw milk vending machines stationed in farmers markets and shopping centers, which are owned by the farmer and inspected by the local health authorities. The milk is changed every 24 hours and any changes in temperature are reported to the farmer’s mobile phone. Over 2,000 raw milk machines are now in operation in Italy alone.
Estimates of the number of raw milk drinkers in the U.S. vary from ten to fifteen million, and the number continues to grow. When people are asked why they drink raw milk, the majority proclaim, “the taste.” And Jeff’s milk is creamy, its distinctive taste is determined ultimately by the soil and what is growing in it, something that the French call terroir. The plants and grasses growing on Jeff’s fields and nourishing his animals are the product of this terroir, which ultimately translate into tasty milk.
Another major contributor to the taste of raw milk is the amount of butterfat which it contains. Cow breeds vary in the amount of butterfat in their milk with Jerseys being high fat producers. Jeff’s herd is a variety of breeds, among them Ayrshires, Jerseys, Guernseys and Holsteins, which contribute to the ultimate taste of the milk product in Jeff’s bulk milk tank, but he tends to favor Guernseys.
The types and number of bacteria it contains also influences the taste of the milk. We know that bacteria can be friendly and good for digestive health, as well as useful, helping us prepare fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir (probiotic); or, they can be unfriendly (pathogenic), which can make us ill. Pasteurization destroys some pathogens but more so the friendly probiotic lactobacillus bacteria, enzymes and healthful substances that raw milk contains. The beneficial bacteria in milk produce lactase, the enzyme that enables digestion of the lactose in milk. Pasteurization renders the lactase-producing bacteria inoperable. Many people who are lactose intolerant and cannot drink pasteurized milk, can drink raw milk without problem, says raw milk safety expert, Ted Beals, MD.
The only raw milk that I could successfully clabber is Jeff’s. Clabbering is my test of a positive bacterial milieu in raw milk. Clabbering was done in Grandma’s day by putting a covered container of raw milk in a warm place, such as on the back of a counter or in a cupboard, for a few days depending on the time of year and temperature of the room. After the souring process was finished, the thickened milk was used to produce outstanding pancakes and other baked goods. This milk product is still a popular traditional beverage in eastern and central European as well as Middle Eastern countries, especially during summer months. It has a refreshing smooth rich taste with an acid finish.
“Sour” is not the same as “spoil.” Pasteurized milk will not sour but it spoils because undesirable bacteria in the milk continue to grow during the refrigeration process. Pasteurization does not kill all bacteria, molds and fungus. But in raw milk, the probiotic bacteria multiply to retard spoilage and give the milk a smooth, rich taste with a tangy, refreshing flavor, which means that the probiotic bacteria are of high quality and intact. Jeff said that off-flavors in the milk are caused by the ”wrong kind of bacteria present where it shouldn’t be.”
The second reason people give for drinking raw milk is it offers many health benefits. In the early 1900s, the “raw milk cure” was successfully used at the Mayo Clinic to cure a host of diseases. Up until World War II, a number of studies compared the effects of raw versus pasteurized milk on animals and children, and most results favored the use of raw milk. After mandatory pasteurization began, these studies ceased.
Raw milk contains many nutritional and immune-enhancing properties. Pasteurization affects the nutritional quality of vitamins A, B6, B12, C, and D in the milk by reducing, inactivating, degrading or destroying them or their carrier proteins. In fact, artificial forms of A and D are added to pasteurized milk to make up the loss. Heat also denatures the protein in the milk and deactivates the minerals and the lactoferrin, which is necessary for absorption of iron. Lack of iron causes anemia in children, a serious condition that affects growth and mental ability. Lactoferrin also kills a wide range of pathogens.
Local athletes in the area are interested in Jeff’s milk because of its health benefits. Tim Argiriadi, general manager of Victory Sports and Fitness in State College, Pennsylvania recommends raw milk to his clients, “across the board.” Tim has been at Victory Sports for about five years. His sports career includes playing football at Penn State, professional football in the NFL Europe Draft 04, the CFL (Canadian Football League), and the AFL (American Football League). At Victory Sports, he says they see a variety of athletes from professional to high school. Tim explains that “nutritional protein is pivotal in the body’s ability to perform, and a great source of protein is raw milk. The pasteurization and homogenization processes denature the protein and it loses its constituent nutritional quality, making the protein no longer as effective or bioavailable.”
He says that he has been drinking raw milk for about three years, since one of his trainees brought some to the gym. He is lactose intolerant, but tried raw milk and now views it as “a good staple in a nutritional regimen.” It “ brings a lot of value and packs a nutritional punch.” His motto is, “If your body is your business, get plugged into raw milk.”
Tim is especially interested in the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content of the milk. CLA is helpful for athletes because it plays a role in protein synthesis and muscle repair. “Unless the trainee has a food allergy, there is no reason that raw milk couldn’t be a part of a daily beneficial routine.”
Milk that is produced from cows on pasture is much higher in CLA than milk produced from grain- and corn-fed cows, says Dr. Ton Bars, an organic dairy expert in Austria. Research from Europe shows that CLA and omega-3 fatty acids are high in raw milk from cows on pasture and alpine grasses.
The government requires frequent testing of raw milk to ensure that it is safe for human consumption, which means that it does not contain organisms which are harmful to health. Milk safety is an ultimate goal in raw milk production.
In connection with milk safety, Penn State researchers are currently conducting a study funded by USDA of licensed raw milk dairies in Pennsylvania. Veterinarian Ernest Hovingh, PhD, from the Veterinary and Biosciences Department in the College of Agricultural Sciences, is heading the raw milk part of the study. About forty of the ninety Pennsylvania raw milk dairies with permits, including Jeff’s Bear Meadows Farm, were recruited to participate in the study, which is part of a larger project entitled “Milk Safety Improvements for Milking Equipment and Raw Milk Production.”
Researchers take samples of the raw milk from the participating dairies over a set time period for analysis. Dr. Hovingh explained, “We are looking at the efficiency and effectiveness of bulk milk cooling, and monitoring the milk fat, milk protein, somatic cell count, standard plate count, preliminary incubation count, lab pasteurization count, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria, and E. coli. Although not directly related to the objectives of the project, we are also providing participants with a ‘bulk milk mastitis pathogen analysis’ every month. This consists of culturing for, and reporting on, common mastitis pathogens such as Strep agalactiae, coagulase-negative staphylococci, and others.”
Jeff’s barn and sheds are immaculate, white and clean, with just a faint scent of “eau de cow.” As he filled my containers from the bulk tank, Jeff told me a little about how he came back to the farm. When Jeff and his parents made an agreement that he could farm the land and raise cows on it, he started using conventional methods. But then came the milk glut and Jeff and many other farmers were in serious trouble. He came to raw milk production for financial reasons and admits that he was very hesitant to start, maybe fearful even, but after three months, there was no turning back.
When he decided to produce raw milk in 2005, one of his first tasks was to rehabilitate the pastures, which were damaged from conventional farming. He has about one hundred seventy-seven acres, forty-four of those in pasture. He had seen farms where the damaged pastures could not be rehabilitated in a lifetime because they were destroyed by pesticide use. Jeff used cow manure, chicken manure and planted Italian ryegrass, three different kinds of orchard grass, two kinds of clover and four kinds of chicory to start the process. In fact his “salad bar” pasture today is home to about twenty-eight milking cows, and alive with many different plants. In periods of dry weather he has a pasture planted with sorghum and sudan grass, which is extremely high in energy and grows fairly well during those times.
But sometimes, he says, his cows just prefer dandelion or leaves from his chestnut trees, seeking out the special minerals these plants provide. Jeff observes his cows, and he says, “unlike humans, they know what they should eat.” He told me that they are selective and sample many plants. One day Elsie May will eat clover while the next day she prefers orchard grass. There are trees bordering the pastures and sometimes a cow will wander over and munch on some of the leaves.
When he first started the cows on pasture, he gave them a bale of hay every day. But gradually he noticed that they weren’t finishing the hay and preferred the pasture. Now they eat only grass during most of the year, from mid-April through mid-December. His cows love the snow, he says. Last year they were on pasture most of the year. He pastures them in the winter in the field where he will grow corn the next spring. Daily he supplements them with a round bale of hay. What they don’t eat, they stomp into the ground and what they do eat comes out as manure to fertilize the field.
Jeff milks his cows twice a day. But, he says, cows like to be milked 2.4 times a day, according to dairy studies. He averages one hundred sixty gallons a month, and sells about forty gallons of raw milk weekly for three dollars a half gallon. The remainder of the milk is sold through a local co-op. Raw milk represents about 13 percent of his milk sales, which provides about one-third of the farm income.
Considering the price of his feed (pasture), the health of his cows, the price paid for the milk, and the satisfaction he and his family get from producing an excellent product, selling raw milk is a “no brainer,” he says.
He does not advertise but “word gets around” and gradually the customers come. One family buys eleven half gallons a week. Being near a college town, many of his customers are of foreign origin. To show his appreciation, Jeff hosts a “customer appreciation day” every September with live music, down-home food, great company (including the farm dogs, cats, and guinea hens) and raw milk to kick off a farm tour.
It was clear that Jeff was in awe, pleased with the complexity yet simplicity of the master plan. It was plain to see that his cows were healthy and so was the milk, according to the lab reports he gets every month. He told me that he works very hard to produce great milk, and his customers are pleased. They bring him gifts that they make with his milk to show their appreciation. One customer uses lactose from the milk to make beer.
Jeff is happy with the way things are going, and never plans to go back to conventional dairy farming. He says that grass farming and producing raw milk is “just fantastic.”
He has succeeded in hanging out with cows. His website is bear-meadows-farm.com/ Why_Raw_Milk_.html where he has information about raw milk and also a photo gallery of “The Girls,” his milking cows.
About the Author
This article first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Wise Traditions, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation.