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Our Right and Responsibility to Choose Our Food
Farm-fresh, unpasteurized milk availability varies from state to state. Often the consumer must do your legwork to seek it out and make sure it's safe. For instance, in Oregon we only allow micro-dairies, typically milking 1-10 cows, and milk must be picked up on the farm.
The raw milk industry is unregulated in Oregon. Dairies are not inspected and there are no food safety requirements to sell raw milk. It becomes your duty to assure your supply of raw milk is safe. Find out the requirements of your state on http://www.realmilk.com/real-milk-finder/.
What Do I Look For?
If a farmer follows the proper procedures to produce safe, clean, nutritious raw milk, it is very easy to do so every time. Unfortunately, with the lack of training and education available to raw dairy farmers, the consumer is the one who has to do the check for proper procedures in many states.
In our culture we are used to government regulations telling us what to do – can we talk on our cell phones while driving? Or, should I wear my seat belt? Or has this food been properly processed? Raw milk is your chance to embrace your rights and freedoms and do your research and ask the hard questions – you have no one else to rely on to do this for you.
When looking for a farm to purchase raw milk from, I recommend the consumer take the following steps. None are cost-prohibitive and all are easily attainable by all raw milk producers, whether you have one cow, 50 or 500.
1. Only drink raw milk from farms that test their milk at least monthly and can show you results in the format of "Standard Plate Count" and "Coliform Count." If the farm doesn't or won't test for this, do not drink their milk. They have no idea what’s in there.
For a small monthly fee of $35, the farmer can conduct these tests. Testing tells them so much about their milk and keeps them on top of their game.
Acceptable test results are Standard Plate Count under 15,000 and coliform count of 25 or lower.
The farm should be able to provide the past 3 months lab test results and have the current month's lab results posted in the milk pickup area and on their website.
2. Request a tour. Do not buy milk from a farm until you tour the facility. This includes the milking parlor, pastures, barn for winter shelter, feed/water, and milk processing and storage area. When you meet the farmer they should be open to sharing their practices and answering all your questions. Do you trust this person, what they say and do? Ask for references that have been getting milk from the farmer and contact them.
3. Look at the cows out in the pasture/winter barn. Are the cows on tall (4"-8") green grass vs. mud? Or in wintertime are they in a covered shelter with deep, clean bedding underfoot with little visible manure around? Are the cows clean? Is the feeding area clean? Is the barn clean? How does the place smell?
4. What does the farmer feed the cows, in addition to pasture? The most nutritious and safest milk comes from grass-fed cows on tall, green pasture. These cows must be supplemented with some grass hay to balance their rumen. They usually will get some kind of grain equaling 1% of their bodyweight is ideal, perhaps rolled barley or oats. They need minerals daily properly balanced with their feed. In the winter months when grass is dormant, feed should include high-quality grass and perhaps alfalfa hay, a few pounds of some grain balanced with proper minerals.
5. Look at the milking area. Is it clean? A dirt floor in a barn can be a clean place to milk, look to see if it is free of manure and bedding. How is the milking equipment cleaned and sanitized? And how are the milk jars sanitized? Where is the milk handled and is that area clean? How is the milk chilled? (Jars immersed immediately in an ice bath are ideal. If the milk is just placed in a freezer or fridge, it cools down much slower … which means it will sour faster.)
Also, the barn and milking area should be free of other animals such as birds.
6. Ask if they use organic and/or sustainable farm practices. No hormones; occasional antibiotics only when necessary, 50% or more of the feed coming right off the farm. Regular vaccinations should be used following an organic dairy plan.
7. The farm should be a member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. Membership for the Fund is $125 per year and the benefits far outweigh the cost. The farmer has free access to raw dairy consultant Tim Wightman who will help them balance nutritional demands of their herd. In addition he will assist with any questions they might have about raw milk production. Support your raw dairy producer in becoming a member. Set up a donation fund if they can't afford testing or FTCLDF membership. It is guaranteed they will quickly raise the $125 annual fee to join and additional funds for testing, or support them in increasing the cost of the milk to cover these two items.
Overall, be an informed consumer. Be confident in the choice to drink raw milk so you can educate your friends and family who will surely ask how you can be sure it’s safe. If you follow these procedures you will be assured the milk you bring home is safe to drink. Once you bring your milk home make sure it’s kept covered in its container and refrigerated to 37-40 degrees F.
Consumers of raw milk also have the responsibility to educate themselves on the high costs involved with producing food on a small scale. If raw milk dairies are following the proper procedures for feeding and handling the cows and the milk, they are lucky if they cover the costs of production. It is a very difficult lifestyle to own dairy cows on this small scale. If you plan on enjoying the remarkable taste and health benefits of raw milk, plan on paying what it’s worth.