On a small farm in the shallow valley of North Chittenden, the Elliott family is doing something ancient yet avant-garde. And they need to be discreet about it. They are drinking, and selling, raw milk.
You wouldn't know it by looking at the family's porch, on which a cooler of fresh eggs announces itself with a modest sign. There's no cow in the back yard, and the field across from the house is empty. Up the hill a ways, however, a brown Jersey cow named Godiva stands with her head down, pulling green grass from the ground and macerating it between her teeth. The milk from her udders is expressed twice a day, yielding about three gallons, and is put into plastic jars in the Elliotts' kitchen refrigerator. They sell it to about six other families for $1.25 per quart. No pasteurization, no homogenization. Just milk, plain and simple.
Well, not quite. The sale of milk ceased to be simple sometime in the early 1800s, when fledgling urban areas started to feed "swill" grain — waste from breweries and distilleries — to cows, and people got sick by the thousands from drinking tainted milk. High infant mortality and disease rates continued through the end of the 19th century before two different remedies were proposed: set rigorous standards for milking operations, or pasteurize the stuff to kill the germs and bacteria. Pasteurization — the process of heating a liquid to reduce its harmful organisms — won out, but it wasn't until 1987 that the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the interstate sale of unpasteurized milk.
In-state sales of milk are still regulated by individual state governments. It's unlawful to sell raw milk for human consumption in 15 states, while 26 states allow the sale of raw milk with various limitations. California is one of the few places where you can buy raw milk in the grocery store.
Vermont's raw-milk laws strike a middle ground, according to Byron Moyer, chief of the dairy section at the Agency of Agriculture. Basically, Vermonters can sell fewer than 25 quarts of raw milk per day without having to procure a milk-handlers' license, which comes with a set of strict, expensive guidelines for commercial dairy farms. Additionally, raw-milk purveyors can't advertise their product, and it can only be sold on the farm where it originates.
"The legal term for that," Moyer says, "is caveat emptor — buyer beware." The rationale behind the on-site rule is that if someone sees the farm and the cow, then they are ultimately responsible for assessing its cleanliness.
Even though the sale of raw milk is legal in Vermont, that doesn't mean the state recommends it. Following the lead of the FDA in March, the Vermont Department of Health issued a reminder about the health risks associated with drinking unpasteurized milk. "Raw milk potentially contains a wide variety of bacteria — including salmonella, E. coli, listeria, campylobacter and brucella," the warning states. State epidemiologist Curt Lohff adds flatly, "Consuming raw milk may be harmful to your health."
Those are measured words, however, compared to statements from John Sheehan, the Dairy and Egg Safety Director of the FDA. According to him, drinking raw milk is "like playing Russian roulette with your health," and it "should not be consumed by anyone, at any time, for any reason."
Tim and Stacey Elliott, both 35, don't appear the least bit worried. Neither do their five children, ranging in age from 2 to 12. The Elliotts have been growing their own beef, pork and chicken for four years. They started milking this past February, when the kids begged their parents to adopt a neighbor's Jersey calf. "I said, 'All right, as long as you promise to milk it,'" Tim tells. He's the fifth-generation Elliott to farm in what used to be called the Holden Valley, a quiet, out-of-the-way neighborhood anchored by the North Chittenden Wesleyan Church. By day, Tim is a project engineer at Omya. Although he doesn't have a bumper sticker declaring it, he says he'd rather be farming.
Not long after the Elliotts brought Godiva into the family, they had to begin milking her. The family — though not lacking in child laborers — wasn't about to start a commercial dairy operation with just one cow. Instead, says Tim, "It was a good opportunity to save money for ourselves with milk." Quarts these days at Shaw's start at $2. So they purchased a milking machine — a vacuum-operated mechanism with suction cups — and, in the tradition of eons of dairy farmers before them, made cow's milk part of their daily diet. Soon the family was getting calls from friends who wanted to do the same thing. Because they had a surplus, the Elliotts attracted a few customers.
Connie Mackintosh, 40, is one of the regular ones. She grew up drinking raw milk, but went through a period when none was available to her. At about the same time she had to revert to pasteurized milk, she got a bad case of eczema, a type of skin rash. Her dermatologist said it was caused by stress, but Mackintosh, who lives in Shrewsbury with her husband and four children, didn't believe it. "I said, 'I really don't think I have a stressful life. I love my life,'" she recalls. She decided to give up milk, her main beverage, and the eczema went away. She's been drinking raw milk for four years now with no skin problems; her family goes through nearly a gallon a day.
The Mackintoshes and Elliotts are examples of the increasing number of people who believe that raw milk has special nutritional and immune system benefits that pasteurized milk does not. Proponents of raw milk say the pasteurization process kills valuable enzymes, vitamins and beneficial bacteria. Further, they claim that homogenization — the process of breaking down the fat cells so they are evenly distributed throughout — creates molecules the human body doesn't know how to process. The implication is that run-of-the-mill pasteurized and homogenized milk is an unnatural, maybe even unhealthy, cocktail that bears little resemblance to the real thing.
The Vermont Department of Health doesn't see it that way, stating, "Research has shown that there is no meaningful nutritional difference between pasteurized and raw milk." The FDA has also taken great pains to dispel what it believes are myths about pasteurized milk — notably that it causes lactose intolerance and allergic reactions and may contribute to heart disease.
The truth about raw milk probably lies somewhere between the two extremes, with a handful of concessions and exceptions offered by each side. For example, Tim Elliott would not drink raw milk from a grain-fed, commercially milked cow. Cows, he says, were not meant to eat grain — their stomachs just aren't designed to process it. "They were created to eat grass, so that's the way we intend to do it," he asserts.
Elliott is also of the opinion that commercial dairy farmers don't have time to make sure each of their cows is as clean and healthy as it should be. "When you're doing raw milk," Elliott says, "you've got to make sure the animal's healthy, and that you're feeding it the right stuff."
The ag agency's Moyer understands the Elliotts' perspective. Moyer was raised on a dairy farm in Middletown Springs, where he drank unpasteurized milk growing up with no adverse consequences. Moyer acknowledges, "To this day, it's almost a routine practice for farm families and their employees to consume raw milk that's produced on the farm — it's a longstanding tradition." All the same, the ag agency is deeply concerned about food safety and is not willing to compromise its protection of public health.
But what about public access to local food systems and economic justice for family farmers? That is what's driving Amy Shollenberger, director of Montpelier-based Rural Vermont, to scrutinize current food-safety laws. Rural Vermont has been focusing on raw milk for more than two years now, and Shollenberger says she's "seen a significant increase in people who call us" looking for it during that time.
Raw milk — or, as Rural Vermont refers to it, "farm-fresh" milk — turns out to be a great source of income for family farms, since it's a year-round commodity that fetches far more per gallon than pasteurized milk, and all the proceeds go directly to the farmers. In contrast, the long-standing milk-distribution system, wherein farmers sell their milk at a fixed rate to regional coops, involves a slew of middlemen. It also makes it next to impossible to buy pasteurized milk from the farm down the road.
Health regulations limit the public's access to raw milk, and Rural Vermont is angling to fix that over the next two years by lobbying the legislature. In general, Rural Vermont has three goals for the farmer: to be able to sell as much raw milk as he or she wants, to advertise its sale, and to deliver pre-purchased milk to customers via CSAs or farmers' markets, or directly to their homes.
"What we're not asking for is retail sales of milk," Shollenberger stresses. That's because farmers say they don't need it, and it would likely be prohibitively expensive to comply with retail sales regulations. Plus, farmers realize that it's essential for customers to know the farm the milk comes from.
Moyer has heard that Rural Vermont might try to introduce new raw-milk legislation in the upcoming term, and he prefers to see what they offer before commenting on it. But he knows where he stands today. "I'm not the policy maker for the agency — the secretary is," he explains. "But if asked, my recommendation to him would be that we not promote this activity, because of the public health risk."
Meanwhile, Rural Vermont has been field-testing its ideas for raw milk by way of a series of ice cream socials — with, of course, raw milk — this summer. The Elliotts made ice cream for the event at Wood's Market Garden in Brandon in June and say the turn-out was "impressive."
Back on the farm, however, raw milk is almost always on the menu. Tim cracks a fresh container and pours a glass for a Seven Days reporter. The one-day-old white liquid is cold, creamy . . . and tastes just like milk.