Raw milk demand growing in state
By JIM HOOK Senior writer
Article from publicopiniononline.com
Before the milk truck arrives, a farmer oftentimes will fill a couple of jugs with milk from the stainless steel tank outside his milking parlor.
Many farm children have been raised on this unprocessed, raw milk.
Raw milk is finding its way off the farm to consumers' refrigerators as part of the growing trend toward community-supported agriculture and consumption of whole, organic foods.
The state Agriculture Department lists 122 Pennsylvania farms as having permits to sell raw milk or aged cheeses made from raw milk. Last year just 70 farms were permitted. Nine are in Franklin or Cumberland counties.
A vast majority of milk is trucked from farms to a processing plant where it will be shock heated, or pasteurized, to kill bacteria before being sold in stores.
Producers and the Department of Agriculture are struggling with mass consumption of raw milk. Producers want more products approved for sale under a permit. The department, charged with protecting the public's food sources, has been aggressively enforcing its permitting.
The department yanked the permit for Hendricks Farms and Dairy, Telford, in September after three families came down with food poisoning. The department issued a public warning about consuming raw milk.
At the same time the Department of Agriculture was dealing with nationwide concerns over tainted tomatoes.
Testing showed, too late for farm owner Trent Hendricks, that the farm's milk was safe.
Hendricks lost 20 percent of his customers in one day, according to Jonas Stoltzfus, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Consumers and Farmers Association. The farm, located between Allentown and Philadelphia, had annual sales of $1 million and award-winning cheeses.
Hendricks cut his herd and staff by half.
"We thought we had developed a brand that was respected," Hendricks said. "We worked hard to stay out of the controversial aspects and focused on the quality of our cheese. None of these things really mattered."
He said he was saddened to think his farm may have been involved in someone's health misfortunes, but feels the state jumped the gun in fingering raw milk as the culprit. As soon as the department heard that the families consumed raw milk, the investigation for other potential causes stopped.
"They went public before they verified with a test," Hendricks said. "It concerns me, given our effort and track record. They need to follow their own rules before demonizing our industry."
Stoltzfus goes a step further.
"There was no due process or following of protocol," he said. "It was just a rampage against raw milk. It was totally unjustified. Get the government out of the direct farm-to-consumer relationship. A farmer selling directly to consumers has to stay good, or he won't stay in business."
Stoltzfus is also the spokesman for Mark Nolt, a conservative Mennonite, whose Newville-area farm has been raided repeatedly by the state. Nolt was selling raw milk and raw milk products without a permit.
The state issues permits to farmers to sell raw milk and raw milk cheeses aged more than 60 days. The state does not allow sale of soft cheeses made from raw milk.
Nolt did not renew his 2006 permit to sell aged cheese made from raw milk because he was making soft cheeses, Stoltzfus said.
Nolt has been appealing the guilty verdicts in magistrate's court all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania is one of 12 states that permit farmers to sell raw milk in stores and on the farm. Another 17 allow raw milk to be sold on the farm, but 21 outlaw the sale altogether.
People drive hours from Maryland and New Jersey to purchase local raw milk.
Edwin Shank, who switched from a traditional dairy farm to a farm selling directly to the consumer, likes knowing his customers. Near Scotland, Shankstead EcoFarm, trading as The Family Cow, has a permit from the state agriculture department to sell raw milk.
"We actually do pathogen (tests) six times more often than the state requires," Shank said. "It's our bid for consumer confidence. We've never found any (pathogens.)"
Pasteurization became necessary in the early 1900s to combat illness caused by filthy milk produced by confined dairies in Northeast cities, Shank said. Bacteria counts in the raw milk were in the millions per milliliter, and successful pasteurization meant dropping the counts to 100,000 or less.
Today in Pennsylvania, milk can't be shipped from a farm to a processor unless counts are less than 100,000, Shank said. Permitted raw milk producers are held to counts of less than 20,000.
"Cows eating and sleeping on clean green grass, refrigeration, and stainless steel milking equipment, all make it possible to keep milk cleaner than it was in that era," Shank said.
"There's inherent risk with consuming any food or non-food," Hendricks said. "Raw milk is not for everyone."
Hendricks said his aim is not to market raw milk, but to assure he provides as safe a product as possible.
"It doesn't mean it's 100 percent foolproof," he said.
Jim Hook can be reached at 262-4759, or [email protected]