Bright and early at Avery’s Branch Farms in Amelia Court House, you’ll find five of the six Alexander children herding Jersey cows to the barn and hooking them up to a pumping system. The milk flows to another building where it is filtered and put into bottles still warm. The bottles are then put straight into an iced cooler and delivered directly to the consumer.
This milk is unlike the kind placed on the grocery store shelves — it’s raw. It is illegal in many states, including Virginia, because of health risks. But for every rule, there is an exception.
Although the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk is illegal, drinking milk from a cow you own is not, so consumers join “herd sharing” programs. They pay an upfront fee to buy a portion of a herd and then pay a monthly fee for “room and board.” In return, consumers get a share of the raw milk the cows produce.
Originally, Joy and Tim Alexander purchased a cow to supplement their children’s home-school education with agriculture lessons. Joy, originally from Virginia Beach, said the first time she ever touched a cow was when the family purchased their first one.
“We actually had no experience in agriculture, and neither of us were ever in 4-H,” she said. “We learned it through a lot of reading and YouTube.”
Joy was familiar with the herd share program from purchasing milk through one in the past, so when the family decided to purchase a cow 10 years ago, she thought other people might be interested in the raw milk. The Alexander family stood outside Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Carytown handing out flyers and ended up with more interested customers than expected.
“There was a huge need for raw milk in the area, and so it became tremendous; it grew fast,” Joy said. The farm now has about 50 cows.
Ben Beichler, owner of Creambrook Farm in Middlebrook, started offering a herd share program to Richmonders early this month. The Shenandoah Valley farmer explained the raw milk hype by comparing it to craft beer.
“What most people don’t realize is that, same as tap houses and local breweries, each dairy has its own specific flavor, depending on the breed of cow they’re milking, the feed the cows are consuming (and) the management involved in milking,” Beichler said. “You can get multitudes of really unique flavors from farm to farm.”
Raw milk is appreciated by many cultures, especially in Europe, because of its unique taste. New York maître fromager and author of “Mastering Cheese,” Max McCalman, said that raw milk is important to French cheese because it creates more flavor and better textures. Raw milk cheese is allowed to be imported to the United Sates after a 60-day aging period. But many will never experience some of France’s best raw cheeses because young types, such as Camembert, Reblochon, Saint-Marcellin, are illegal, he said.
Raw milk may be trending, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health are strongly urging people to stay away from it. The CDC recommends refraining from consuming unpasteurized milk because it carries harmful bacteria that are cooked out during the pasteurization process.
Seth Levine, VDH epidemiology program manager, said the department recommends consuming only pasteurized milk because raw milk may contain harmful bacteria, such as E. coli, Campylobacter and salmonella.
“Raw milk has some risks to it mainly because the milk or milk products that are made from raw milk can be contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, and that can be harmful to people’s health,” Levine said. “Raw milk has some dangers that pasteurized milk does not present.”
But Beichler thinks the data the CDC and the VDH are using is outdated and that the pasteurization process was invented to make milk that was already coming from unclean farms safer.
“Consuming raw milk is no different than if you’re consuming raw oysters or seafood, or any of those things you can get at those high-end restaurants,” Beichler said. “Yes, there is a chance that something could be in there that can make you sick or kill you in an extreme case. However, we now have many more things at our disposal now to produce raw milk at a much purer state.”
The CDC and VDH also recommend refraining from consuming all raw foods from animal origin, such as meat, poultry, eggs and shellfish.
To help keep their product safe, some farms such as Creambrook test their milk for bacteria before sending it out to consumers. But not all farms test their product, such as Avery’s Branch Farms, because it is not required by Virginia law for the cow share program.
Pasteurization was originally created by Louis Pasteur to prevent abnormal and harmful fermentation of wine and beer. But soon after, the methods were being applied to raw milk for young children, whose consumption was leading to high mortality rates.
Pasteurization became standard in the late 1800s before it became law. It prevented such common food-borne illness as tuberculosis, but Beichler said it wasn’t raw milk that was unsafe but rather the poor sanitary conditions.
“The real culprit was the cows were filthy, most of them were actually being milked in city dairies,” Beichler said. “They didn’t have refrigeration; they didn’t have stainless steel; they didn’t have hot water — we’re talking about the horse-and-buggy era.”
According to a recent study by the CDC looking at years 2009 to 2014, unpasteurized-dairy consumers make up only about 3 percent of the U.S. population, but the risk of illness in those people is more than 800 times higher than those who don’t consume raw milk and account for 95 percent of all dairy-related outbreaks.
With any food, some more than others, there are risks. Most farmers are aware of the risks they face. Beichler said the best way to remain safe while consuming raw products is to get to know where your food is coming from.
“If you’re going to do raw milk, get to know your farmer. Ask the hard questions about the operation or ask them if they are doing basic sanitary steps, testing, etc.,” Beichler said. “Don’t just get it from anywhere.”