Every couple of weeks I get a variation of the same telephone call.
An eager, tentative voice. “Hello, I hear you have a cow? Do you sell raw milk?”
My response is always the same. “Raw milk sales are illegal in New York State unless you are a licensed and inspected raw milk dairy. I’m sorry.”
“Could I just buy some for making cheese? Just this once?”
“No, I’m sorry. I wish I could help you.”
Meanwhile I live at a place that attracts a lot of young, idealistic, back-to-the-land types. They’re eager to buy my raw milk too.
Over the years I’ve given away milk to friends but I won’t sell it. I am aware it sounds paranoid but state health departments have set up sting operations to entrap farmers selling raw milk. (Envisioning it, I always picture the police cars nosing over the horizon at the Amish farm in the movie Witness.) Though milk sales at $5 a gallon would help considerably with my feed bills, I’m not willing to run the risk of a government raid.
Things weren’t always so stringent. Ralph Moody, in his wonderful memoir Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers, tells of dining out for breakfast with Father in Colorado in 1906.
Now, I love raw milk but I have no desire to be able to buy pails of it in the store. I have a strong grasp of history and of the diseases that flourished and will still flourish in unsanitary conditions. (In fact, Ralph’s father died the following year of tuberculosis.)
The typical cow barn does not resemble a tiled, antiseptic lab or catering kitchen with workers dressed in gleaming white. It is a place with manure and muddy boots, hay chaff and occasional flies. For these reasons I would not buy raw milk from anyone I did not know personally and trust.
• I know that my own cow is healthy and (knock wood!) has never even needed an antibiotic. She is fully vaccinated and is tested every year for TB and Johnes, expensive tests that my vet tells me are unnecessary but I pay for anyway, just for reassurance.
• I know that I provide my cow with the best feed I can find, and that none of it contains medications or animal parts. (“Mad cow disease” is caused by the practice of feeding cows — herbivores designed to eat grass — dried beef by-products for extra protein. Commercial cattle may also be fed chicken litter, ground feathers, and many other bizarre things in an effort to lower costs.)
• I know that I brush my cow and wash her udder before milking, and if by odd chance any stray flick of manure later falls into the milk pail, the milk is discarded to be fed to the pigs or clabbered for the hens.
• I know that my milk pail is sterilized in the dishwasher between uses.
In short, I “know my farmer.” I’m the farmer and I trust that my milk is safe. I drink a warm creamy glass of whole milk every day, straight from the cow after straining and bottling.
There are a lot of claims made for raw milk. It’s live, it’s teeming with beneficial microbes and vitamins, it can cure asthma and a host of other ailments. I really have no idea. Meanwhile gourmets rave about the better taste. This is probably true, but I’m a culinary Philistine — I drank TAB as a teen! I love it, and to me that’s all that matters. I also know part of what I love about my glass of milk is its immediacy, its intimate cycle from Katika to me, as well as my feeling of connection to all the people in history who ever leaned into a cow’s warm flank to strip an udder.
Raw milk is getting a lot of popular attention these days. My friend Larry tells me that a group of local people carpool once a week to a dairy in Potsdam to pick up raw milk. Potsdam is two hours away! He also says that the farmer is shutting down and they are going to be looking for a new supplier.
With all the requests I’ve fielded lately, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of becoming licensed as a micro-dairy. I know someone who has done it. I wonder, though, how I would like to have my hobby turned into a business. As it is, I am secretly impatient when friends do not show up to pick up their (free!) milk and later interrupt our dinner hour.
Moreover, I am a terrible salesman. Just selling my lamb, beef, and pork is an ordeal. It’s so much easier just to give it away. I constantly under-price, discounting my labor, and apologize as I pocket the checks. I would really have to grow up and learn to be cool and firm. Is it too late at 51? Most likely.
I should probably simply stay my eccentric Lone Milkmaid self. My sister found this perfect antique postcard for me. (Click to enlarge.) The ideal raw milk business model! The caption reads: From Producer to Consumer, Direct.