Raw Milk Is an Ingredient, Not Just a Drink

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter
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Raw meat. Raw eggs. Raw milk. Which of these is not like the other? Two are unremarkable features of American cuisine; consider rare steak and eggs over-easy. The other is unthinkable to many palates. Two are everyday staples; envision the cases of meat and eggs anchoring the back wall of most grocery stores. The other is a highly controversial substance sold, where legal, through loopholes and hurdles. Why the difference? Among other factors, we tend to think of the first two as ingredients, and the last as a final product, and this affects the way we produce, market, and consume milk.

All raw animal products carry an element of risk; this is why packaged meat and eggs, and restaurant menus, carry that ubiquitous warning to proceed at our own risk. For various reasons, our regulatory system and our culinary culture don’t treat milk the same way. Can you imagine if all meat and eggs came pre-cooked, in order to protect the consumer from possible harm? That’s effectively what pasteurization does for milk, changing it from a raw, “hazardous” ingredient into a finished, “safe” product, and altering our perception of its potential. Most consumers know lots of ways to prepare meat or eggs, but milk? That’s just for drinking.

Yet there’s a middle ground for milk-handling, one that is mostly ignored but is highly relevant for those with small dairy herds or who want access to fresh, local dairy: view milk as an ingredient, not as a drink.  As Anne Mendelson points out in her excellent book Milk (excerpted by MOTHER EARTH NEWS in 2011), for most of dairy’s history, fresh/raw milk was not something widely consumed for the simple reason that it spoiled too quickly in the absence of effective refrigeration and transportation. Most people soured, fermented, cultured, or otherwise altered the fresh product to make it tastier and/or more stable. This is a similar concept to cooking or curing raw meats, with the same benefits and results, yet it’s mysterious to most Americans, including our own farm’s customers.

When we started our home dairy goat herd many years ago, we began learning to make cheese, yogurt, and other products right away. Neither of us cared much for milk as a drink, but loved its products passionately. We could easily use 3-4 gallons in a week without drinking a drop. The goats were an important part of our diversified farm’s fabric, providing fertility, food, and land management services. But as our herd expanded to support our ingredient-milk addiction, we decided we had to start selling milk to pay for the significant extra work and investment, and to balance the spring overproduction that resulted from keeping enough goats to get our household through the winter. And that’s where we ran into trouble with raw milk’s unique status.

Missouri, fortunately, has one of the more lenient raw-milk laws on the books; anyone can sell raw milk on the farm, or deliver it to the final consumer, exempt from all other regulations including inspections. This was key to the economics of our situation, as we certainly couldn’t justify building a minimum-5-figure dairy facility to legally make cheese or bottle pasteurized milk, not for a small goat herd on a full-time vegetable farm. Yet we were uncomfortable selling raw milk for direct consumption; it really does carry some safety risks, and our local and state political climate wasn’t supportive of raw milk sales, despite the law. Other Missouri dairies had been persecuted by the government for perceived mishaps in milk and cheese handling; in two incidents we blogged about, a dairy was entrapped into selling milk the wrong way, and another was publicly accused of contamination without sufficient proof. We weren’t going to bet our farm on a few goats’ worth of extra milk. So we decided to sell our milk the way we consumed it: as an ingredient.

We marketed the raw milk to our CSA customers as a way to take control of their dairy needs: if you can boil an egg, you can make yogurt and chevre, we told them. Making cheese is fun and fascinating, making custards and soufflés adds to your culinary repertoire, making ice cream is a treat in Missouri’s long summer, and most preparations naturally pasteurize the milk through some form or heating or cooking. And if they don’t, or you really want to drink it, home-pasteurization is as easy as gently heating it to 145ºF for 30 minutes or a higher temperature for a shorter time. It’ll still be more “whole” than the ultra-pasteurized chalk water that passes for store milk. This all blew the minds of most who heard the message; people really thought that cheese and yogurt, much less pasteurization, were these complicated industrial processes that only companies had the knowledge and ability to undertake. Nonsense, we said, peasants had been doing it for thousands of years before industry came along.

Our milk jars carried labels saying “not for raw use” with instructions for safe handling, and each customer signed an agreement that they would not consume the milk raw, at least without making it into cheese and aging it long enough to meet FDA standards. Whether or not this was truly necessary, we reasoned that in the climate of concern over raw milk risks, this would cover our potential liability for selling a controversial product, and brought the raw milk onto the same plane as raw meat and eggs. Consumers had now been warned, and safe milk handling was now their responsibility.

Too often the debates over raw milk focus on the outlying questions of safety and nutrition, factors that require more and fairer study and are difficult to pin down. Too often it’s forgotten that raw milk can be the only practical way for a small, entrepreneurial dairyperson to get their start in the business, as the regulatory hurdles for doing anything else tend to be expensive and complex. Too often it’s ignored that raw milk can be a basic kitchen ingredient, and a potentially excellent way for consumers to support local foods and sustainable land management. Drinking it, unfortunately, exposes your farmer to significant regulatory risk, unfairly or otherwise. Cooking with it carries most of the benefits with far lower risk to everyone involved.

Unfortunately, not enough of our customers saw it this way. Too few wanted to bother learning to make cheese or yogurt, or to pay the premium over store milk for what we saw as a superior product. Conversely, we received regular calls from people up to 100 miles away who found “raw milk” on our website and badly wanted to buy some, but only for drinking. We just weren’t willing to risk our farm distributing raw milk across the state, but without the ingredient mentality, we couldn’t sell it any other way. Eventually we decided, in conjunction with other factors, to draw the herd down again and stop selling milk. But the potential is still there for American farmers, homesteaders, and consumers to redefine raw milk from a controversial health drink to a diverse kitchen staple, an ingredient we can all use to improve our diets and our food system. 

Eric and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and has also worked part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy.

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