The cows grazing at Mark Lopez's farm perk up as they see his small frame walking through the pasture.
Lopez knows each animal in his 40-head herd by name and temperament.
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And he knows his cows live as nature intended - outside and grazing on his Earl Township pasture.
The cows, properly tended, produce safe, wholesome milk that doesn't need pasteurization, Lopez said.
Lopez is among the few Pennsylvania farmers permitted to sell unpasteurized milk, or raw milk, which some advocates believe is healthier than milk sold in stores, even though it carries the risk of illness.
Raw milk runs contrary to the state requirement to pasteurize milk to prevent illnesses like E.coli and salmonella.
Farmers licensed to sell raw milk do so on a small scale, raising their cows outside on a natural grass diet.
"This is the way we should be farming," said Lena Schaeffer, who sells raw goat milk and cheese from her Tulpehocken Township farm.
Only a small fraction of the milk produced in the state is sold raw. There are 115 farms statewide allowed to sell raw milk, compared to the more than 9,000 that sell their milk for pasteurization, said Chris Ryder, a state Department of Agriculture spokesman.
Milk sold raw goes almost directly from farm to table because farmers can't sell unbottled milk in stores. Their customers are people who come to the farm.
Like many Berks County farmers, fourth-generation dairy farmer Forrest Stricker grew up drinking raw milk his family's Lower Heidelberg Township farm.
"I never got sick on it," Stricker said.
Stricker started selling raw milk three years ago after he was asked to by several local families. At first, he was surprised there was a market for raw milk.
But after hearing people claim health benefits - calmer children, no lactose intolerance - Stricker decided to get a state permit.
"Pasteurization kills the good bacteria your gut needs," he said. "That good bacteria allows you to digest milk."
The key, Stricker said, is how the cows are raised.
Massive dairy operations keep cows in barns and feed them an unnatural diet of grain, which causes problems, he said.
Pasteurization became necessary after large farms started to confine animals in close, dirty quarters, Schaeffer said. It was the government's alternative to cleaning up the way people farmed, she said.
"Historically, everyone drank raw milk, and the cows were always out on pasture," she said. "Pasteurization is not normal."
Raw milk contains a number of beneficial bacteria, vitamins and enzymes that are destroyed with the pathogens during pasteurization, said Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition advocacy group.
Raw milk helps people develop strong bones and teeth, and the slower digestion required sometimes helps calm hyperactive children, Fallon said.
Grass makes the difference in raw milk, Lopez said.
But the difference is not just raising cows on grass, Lopez said. Any dirt or manure on the cow during milking can ruin the milk, he said.
"Selling raw milk is serious business," Lopez said. "I go to great pains to make sure my milk is clean."
"This is the ultimate in buying local," said Maria Nawa of Wyomissing, who buys raw milk for her family from Stricker's farm.
Nawa likes knowing exactly where her milk comes from.
More importantly, raw milk is natural, she said.
"It is not just a product that is manufactured," Nawa said. "How can something so natural be bad for you?"
Her children, Felicia, 5, Giovanna, 8, and Isaac, 10, have never had a problem drinking the milk, Nawa said.
Once a month, Julie and Phil Conti make a four-hour round trip from their New Jersey home to visit Norman Sauder's Maxatawny Township farm.
They leave with a car full of eggs, fresh produce and gallons of raw milk. Raw milk sales are illegal in New Jersey, so the Contis make the trip to Pennsylvania.
By word of mouth, Sauder has become a source for New Jersey raw milk drinkers.
About half of his customers are from the Garden State, Sauder said.
•Contact reporter Darrin Youker at 610-371-5032 or [email protected].
Raw milk or pasteurized? It's up for debate
In April, the state stopped Norman Sauder from selling raw milk for a week.
Inspectors with the Department of Agriculture said tests showed high levels of salmonella in his milk. He was allowed to resume sales after his milk tested safe.
Sauder of Maxatawny Township disputes that his milk was ever contaminated.
When it comes to regulating raw milk, oversight falls to inspectors at the Department of Agriculture.
But when it comes to the larger question of the safety of drinking raw milk, there are two sides to the debate.
The state Health Department strongly advises people against drinking raw milk, said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, director of epidemiology at the department.
Pasteurization reduces the risk of contamination from a number of pathogens, including salmonella and E. coli, Ostroff said. Those pathogens occur naturally in the digestive tracts of cows, he said.
"We don't want to see a backslide to those days," he said of the prepasteurization era when many illnesses were attributed to raw milk.
While the Department of Agriculture performs periodic tests on raw milk, it is not a guarantee of safety, Ostroff said. Drinking raw milk is largely a "buyer beware" scenario, according to him.
"Pasteurization is just safer," Ostroff said.
But Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nutrition advocacy group, said there has been a historic government bias against unpasteurized milk.
The threat of contaminated milk is substantially reduced when cows are kept outside on pastures, rather than in barns, Fallon said.
Raw milk has its own defense system that kills pathogens, Fallon said, and pasteurizing milk eliminates that natural system.
And according to her, people who are lactose intolerant can drink raw milk because it has an enzyme that humans need to digest milk. Pasteurization destroys that enzyme as well as other beneficial enzymes and vitamins.
"It is nature's perfect food," Fallon said, "and for some people it has been a miraculous food."
Pennsylvania's milk sanitation laws date back to the 1930s, when the state required the pasteurization of most milk sold in the commonwealth, said Chris Ryder, an Agriculture Department spokesman.
However, the state made provision for the sale of raw milk as long as farmers submitted to periodic testing, he said.
While Pennsylvania is one of the more progressive states when it comes to allowing raw milk sales, state Sen. Michael Folmer thinks the government walks a fine line between protection and infringing on the rights of farmers and consumers.
Farmers should be able to sell raw milk without a permit, said Folmer, a Lebanon County Republican who represents parts of Berks and who drinks two gallons of unpasteurized milk a week.
Instead, farmers and consumers should enter into their own contract, he said, reasoning that people won't buy milk from farmers who do not properly care for the animals, or run a sloppy operation.
"I believe the government regulations are well intended, but I have found that raw milk producers are very serious, and put out the cleanest product they can," he said.