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The Grassroots Raw Milk Movement

Raw milk may be the single most briskly traded illicit commodity in the US, after illegal drugs. So what’s the attraction?

Author Sandor Katz sheds some light on the underground raw milk trade.

The following article is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz. It has been adapted for the Web.

I’ve been astounded by how widespread the raw milk underground has become. It really is a grassroots movement because obtaining raw milk, in most places, involves community-organized effort bringing people together for a purpose, and generally that purpose involves breaking the law. It’s happening all over. The New Yorker reported in 2004, “In a Hell’s Kitchen basement the other day, Manhattan’s first shipment of raw milk—unpasteurized, unlicensed, unhomogenized, and illegally transported across state lines—was delivered to the grateful, if wary, members of a private raw milk coven.” An Atlanta raw milk organizer I know is part of a “totally illegal” goat milk co-op: “I split the drive once every five weeks with five other women to a farm that’s one hour away. We buy raw milk, cheese, and yogurt she makes.”

In many places a gray area exists between raw milk that is specifically illegal and that which is specifically legal. It is in this quasi-legal realm that much raw milk distribution takes place. For example, in Australia real milk is being distributed and sold as beauty products: “body milk” and “body cream.” There is no law prohibiting this and no way to control what people do with their body milk when they get it home. Where I live, in Tennessee, as in several other states, farms may sell raw milk directly off the farm “for pet consumption only.” A Wisconsin cheesemaker is marketing her raw cheeses as “fish bait.”

The most widespread means of circumventing laws prohibiting the sale of raw milk is to redefine the relationship between the parties so that no sales transaction takes place. Generally the way this works is that a group of consumers will enter into a “cow-share” or “goat-share” contract with a farmer, whereby they technically own the animal and pay the farmer to maintain it on their behalf. In this way the sales transaction is eliminated, and so laws restricting the sale of raw milk are not actually broken. The economic exchange is for a service, which the farmer provides by feeding, caring for, and milking the animals. Raw milk drinkers from an area often enter into a share together and take turns picking up the milk. This is a great food-consciousness and community- building exercise: shareholders get to know each other, and they all get to experience the farm and the farmer and the animals at regular intervals. And they get good, real, raw milk.

Grassroots raw milk distribution networks like this are happening all over the United States. The Web site of the Weston A. Price Foundation’s Campaign for Real Milk lists hundreds of contacts around the United States. Though the details of state laws vary widely and are shifting somewhat (see pages 172–174), people everywhere want access to better milk.

Interest in raw milk has been growing thanks in large part to a woman named Sally Fallon. Sally has devoted herself to spreading the nutritional teachings of Weston A. Price, an Ohio dentist who in the 1930s traveled the world exploring the relationship between diet and health and wrote the book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939). Price’s studies of isolated populations still practicing traditional diets led him to the conclusion that traditional diets—featuring milk and other animal fats with enzymes intact as well as live ferments, and excluding processed foods and refined sugar—held the keys to human health.

Weston Price’s research was respected but relatively obscure until Sally Fallon began popularizing it in her 1999 book, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. She formed the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) with the ambitious mission of “restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research, and activism.” The foundation now has more than three hundred local chapters in the United States and more than fifty chapters abroad, mostly in Canada and Australia, but also in Brazil, China, and elsewhere. Sally’s work has galvanized a grassroots movement of people organizing access to real milk and other farm products at the local level.

The first time I met Sally Fallon was at a conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association in 2003. Sally delivered a keynote address that posed the question, “What kind of economic and political system would we have as a consequence of making food choices that are truly healthy and fundamentally supportive of optimal development and superb well-being, instead of merely convenient?” In exploring this question, she made it vividly clear that she is much more than a nutrition guru.

Sally Fallon has a radical analysis, and her dietary ideas are interwoven with an economic and political vision. Her vision of health encompasses not only individual nutrition but community well-being, with milk as the centerpiece of an economic revival. The farmers producing raw milk and dairy products are finding prosperity providing raw milk from pastured cows directly to consumers. The direct-to-consumer raw dairies stand in stark economic contrast to the standard arrangements that are driving small dairy farmers out of business at an alarming rate: purchasing all the inputs (such as grain, rBGH, and antibiotics), then selling the milk to bulk processors, who pasteurize, homogenize, package, and market the milk and receive most of the profits. Providing healthy milk directly to consumers is dramatically more lucrative for the farmers. It takes prosperity back from the mass processors and returns it to the farm and the community.

“The one major impediment to this happy picture,” says Sally, “is the anti-raw milk agenda—scare-mongering propaganda and compulsory pasteurization laws.” But rather than accepting these laws as prohibiting a raw milk revival, she sees the possibility that they can actually benefit farmers and appealed to the assembled organic farmers to join the raw milk underground:

In fact, now that we are rolling back the propaganda and creating more and more customers for raw milk and related products, these pasteurization laws can actually work to the benefit of farmers. If people can’t get raw milk in stores, they will make the effort to come to the farm, or pay you for the service of delivering your products to their doorstep. The farm-share system also allows you to provide other value-added products which health laws prevent you from selling directly—farm-butchered meat, sausage, baked goods, and so forth could be “provided,” not “sold,” to farm-share owners.

Like community-supported agriculture, this is a structural revolution.

The people who are part of this growing market for raw milk defy any easy political categorization. The raw milk scene is very “family values”— because the people who get most passionate about milk are mothers. “Passionate moms will win!” is Mark McAfee’s raw milk movement mantra. Sally Fallon is a passionate mom who became a nutrition crusader as a result of what she learned while trying to feed her kids well. S., the organizer of the Nashville-area raw milk underground, is another passionate mom. She’s a Christian who homeschools her two kids, and for a while she embellished her e-mails with a quote from George W. Bush: “The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat, it is to prevail.” I’m not accustomed to being allied with people who find inspiration in Bush, but I am never one to demand total ideological agreement.

S. sent an e-mail to Tennessee raw milk enthusiasts recommending that we support a Republican candidate for governor who had been sympathetic to the legislative effort to legalize on-farm raw milk sales. “According to my sources, if all the raw milk supporters out there got busy and started supporting her we could see some real progress made for the raw milk bill,” wrote S. “I know some of you are Democrats, but I guess how you vote will depend on how much you want to see raw milk legalized in this state. You may have to hold your nose and vote for the Republican gubernatorial candidate this time, if raw milk is important to you.” Raw milk is important to me, but not more important than environmental protection, or health care, or the rights of queers and immigrants to exist, or of women to control their own bodies, or of workers to organize into unions. Even if I were a single-issue voter, raw milk wouldn’t be that issue.

It’s interesting how an issue such as raw milk, which is a question of freedom from regulations ostensibly designed for consumer protection, challenges peoples’ political ideologies and alignments. Is the state really just trying to protect milk drinkers? How much influence do the milk processors—the major organized stakeholders—have in blocking legal reforms that would regulate direct farmer-to-consumer raw milk sales? How much freedom should people have to reject the prevailing public health dogma and assume the risk of drinking raw milk? Is the answer different if they are feeding it to their children?

Though we have not explored the differences in our political values, S. and I find common ground to stand upon. Our shared interest in the availability of raw milk—as well as a shared sense of the absurdity of the very concept of the state prohibiting the trade of a food in its unadulterated form—speaks to the broad appeal of issues related to food quality. “How can we buy raw oysters, sushi, and other raw things at restaurants, and not have the freedom to buy fresh milk off the farm?” asks S. “Official health restrictions are discriminating and arbitrary.”


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