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June 05, 2008 - Black market milking

Farmers get raw product to the buyer

Meghan Howard

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

On May 5, dairy farmer Mark Nolt emerged from a court hearing in Mount Holly Springs, Pa., to find a band of supporters applauding him.

His crime? Involvement in a local black market: raw milk.

The Mennonite dairy producer was arrested April 25, then charged and fined for selling raw milk and other raw dairy products without a permit. Police seized and destroyed more than $25,000 worth of milk and some equipment at his small farm in Newville, Pa.

Mr. Nolt said he did have a permit at one time, but gave it up voluntarily because it did not include the sale of other products made from raw milk such as butter and yogurt.

While his case is on appeal, the farmer continues to sell raw dairy products on his Mount Holly Springs farm to 200 customers. Another hearing on his case is scheduled for today at a district court in Newville.

This story has legs. On Monday, the Food Network was on Capitol Hill filming a documentary about raw milk usage. Mr. Nolt has been compared by the growing number of raw milk aficionados to the late civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

"This is an outrage that this actually happened in the state of Pennsylvania. There's no excuse for this in our free society," said Jonas Stoltzfus, a friend and customer of Mr. Nolt who has been drinking raw milk his entire life.

Such followers will do nearly anything to get raw milk - the unpasteurized, unhomogenized product that comes straight from a cow - to the buyer.

"It tastes incredible. It's so rich and creamy," said Liz Reitzig, president of the Maryland Independent Consumers & Farmers Association who is working to legalize the direct sale of raw milk from farmers to consumers.

Since 1987, the Food and Drug Administration has required that milk sold across state lines be pasteurized to remove disease-causing bacteria. Twenty-eight states allow the sale of raw milk. but Virginia, the District and Maryland do not.

In Virginia, a consumer can skirt the law by investing in a "cow share." This agreement entails paying a farmer for the boarding, care and milking of a cow so that the consumer gets raw milk without any direct purchase involved.

"We pay $25 per share, and that gets you a gallon per week. I go to the farm and pick it up myself with glass jugs," said Sally Holdener of Nokesville, Va., a cowshare owner in the Manassas Milk Project.

At least 38 farms in Virginia supply raw dairy to customers, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, a health foods charity. Many customers order their product weeks ahead, then pick it up at locations throughout the metro area. These local organized networks have grown rapidly in the past few years, yet their illegality requires that they remain dependent on covert business.

"The popularity has grown exponentially," said Mrs. Reitzig. "I get people contacting me all the time to ask questions about where they can get raw milk." The health-conscious advocates of the "raw" lifestyle say they are concerned about what happens to the processed milk that sits on the shelves in grocery stores.

"We cannot buy the good, live foods in a supermarket. It's just literally junk," said one of Mr. Nolt's longtime customers, Judy Mudrak, who travels 3 1/2 hours from her New Jersey home to the Nolt farm.

"I'm a two-time cancer survivor myself, and for my own health reasons can never go back to supermarket milk. It is toxic to me, contains no nutrients or the much needed fat, and is loaded with dead pathogens and cows' excrement."

Maureen Diaz, a raw milk activist with the Price Foundation and mother of nine, said her adherence to a low-fat diet based on soy products contributed to four miscarriages and several difficult pregnancies. Then after learning about raw milk at a conference, she was persuaded to partake.

Since introducing raw dairy to her diet, "there have been no more miscarriages, and the rest of my pregnancies went smoothly with very little fatigue," Mrs. Diaz said.

Many raw milk producers graze their cows on grass, which they say is the natural diet of cows unlike the usual corn or soy feeds.

"The cows eat what they naturally ate for years," said Mr. Stoltzfus, a certified organic farmer. Organic farmers, who often produce raw dairy, cannot use chemical fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.

Raw milk fans argue that the milk industry's conventional pasteurization process kills the "living" elements of milk: digestion-aiding bacteria and enzymes that are destroyed by the heat of pasteurization. Many consumers now seek that beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, in yogurts and cheeses.

Ms. Mudrak, who considers raw milk "essential" to her health, said pasteurization benefits the milk industry far more than consumers.

"Raw milk ferments, whereas regular milk just spoils. It has no natural immunity," she said.

With global food shortages in mind, raw dairy producers say they are functioning on a sustainable basis, as few use the corn feeds, soy or heavy fertilizers that they link to major environmental problems.

"It's impossible for the trend to be turned around because more people are realizing it's better for environment and better for their health," said Mr. Nolt, the "milk martyr." "I'm not asking for a change of law here. I'm just asking them to obey their own laws and let the private sales be the private sales."

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