Debate heats up over sale of raw milk in Bridgewater
By Wicked Local Bridgewater
Wicked local staff photo by Jacob Belcher
David Hanson checks on the newest addition to the Hanson Farm family, Peachy Keen, a 2 month-old calf, which may be the future of Hanson's raw milking business.
Bridgewater - When Dave Hanson was a young boy growing up on his family’s farm in Bridgewater, he’d draw milk straight from the tank fresh from the cow and bring it inside for breakfast.
“I grew up on it, probably as soon as I stopped nursing from my mom,” Hanson said.
Now, decades later, he is seeking the go-ahead from the Board of Health to sell raw milk at Hanson Farm on Pleasant Street.
He said he has gotten many requests over the years from people who remember the sweet, creamy taste of raw, unpasteurized milk.
“There’s a nostalgic aspect to it. People, including myself, want to take a step back because of the rat race we’re in,” Hanson said.
Winton Pitcoff of the Northeast Organic Farming Association said there’s no contest between the taste of raw and pasteurized milk.
“It’s the difference between a sponge cake your grandmother baked and Twinkies,” said Pitcoff, the coordinator of NOFA’s Raw Milk Network.
But selling raw milk is not without controversy.
Opponents say pasteurization became widespread for good reason. The heating process kills off potentially dangerous bacteria that can otherwise be passed to humans and make them sick, such pathogens as e coli, salmonella and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.
But proponents of raw milk say pasteurization also kills off the good bacteria, the so-called probiotics. And they say raw milk is safe as long as the cows are healthy and the dairy is sanitary.
A lot on the table
Michael Cahill, director of the Division of Animal Health for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said any dairy must have a certificate of registration from the department – whether the milk will be sold raw or pasteurized.
To get the certificate, the facility must be inspected and meet certain requirements, as well as undergo monthly testing of the milk by the department.
The main difference in the requirements for raw and pasteurized milk is the bacterial standard is stricter for raw milk than milk headed for pasteurization, Cahill said. That means raw milk must have a lower bacterial content than milk that will be pasteurized.
Nationwide, about half the states permit the sale of raw milk, including Massachusetts. But many individual cities and towns within the commonwealth ban the sale of raw milk.
According to the NOFA Web site, 195 of the 351 communities in Massachusetts have a ban in place, including Bridgewater.
But Board of Health Chairman Sandra Wright said, “I’m not aware of any ban in Bridgewater.”
She said the first step for Hanson is to obtain a dairy certificate from the state. At that point, the Bridgewater Board of Health would determine whether to grant him a local license to sell raw milk, she said.
Wright said she and her fellow Board of Health members toured the old dairy barn at Hanson Farm where Dave Hanson hopes to set up the raw milk operation.
“He’s got a lot of work to do. He’s got a big expense and a lot of work before we can even go in and make a determination,” Wright said.
Wright, who is a nurse, said she has concerns about the safety of raw milk. She grew up drinking raw milk and developed antibodies to protect her, she said. But she is concerned a younger generation exposed to nothing but pasteurized milk may not be equipped to drink it safely.
“There’s a lot on the table that needs to be looked into before we can come to a decision,” Wright said.
Freedom to choose
According to the NOFA Web site, 24 dairies in Massachusetts are presently selling raw milk, including Oake Knoll Ayrshires at Lawton’s Family Farm in Foxboro, the closest raw milk farm to Bridgewater.
Terri Lawton, who runs the family farm, studied dairy science at Purdue University in Indiana and was a dairy inspector for the state of Massachusetts for a couple of years.
“I think the real issue has more to do with freedom to choose,” Lawton said.
“People can choose to buy cigarettes which are inherently harmful and have no supposed benefits, whereas raw milk is not inherently harmful and has benefits,” Lawton said.
Lawton said pasteurization destroys vitamins and denatures proteins in milk. In particular, the process affects the naturally occurring lactase in milk, she said. Lactase is the enzyme that helps break down lactose, the milk sugar many people are allergic to. As a result, people who are lactose-intolerant often have less trouble digesting raw milk, Lawton said.
Selling raw milk is partly an economic calculation.
Lawton said a dairy farmer in this part of the country can’t survive today without some type of “value added” operation, whether it be selling cheese or butter or bottling raw milk.
But that’s not the whole story for Lawton, just as it isn’t for Hanson.
Lawton, like Hanson, grew up on a farm and loves raw milk. As a tiny girl milking a cow, she’d squirt it right into her mouth.
“I’ve always preferred raw milk. It’s something I’ve known my whole life. It’s natural and normal,” Lawton said.
She said there are some dairy farms whose raw milk she would drink without hesitation, while there are other farms whose pasteurized milk she wouldn’t touch.
Her experience as an inspector taught her, “The farms able to meet the bacterial and cleanliness standards most consistently were run by the people who were most conscientious.”
A family tradition
The Hanson family has been farming the same land on Route 104 since 1938.
It was a working dairy farm until 1970, when Hanson’s father sold the cows and took a job off the farm and rented the barn out.
Dave Hanson, 53, and his younger brother, Bob Hanson, 51, who run the farm together, both went off to college as young men. Dave Hanson studied cattle breeding technology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and then worked as a milk tester.
But the old dairy farming business was calling to them. In 1981, Dave and Bob purchased a herd from Taunton they milked until 1996, when they sold the herd.
The price of milk was low, so they moved away from dairy and toward produce and hay, Dave Hanson said.
The farm’s specialties include sweet corn, its own eggs, its own honey, firewood, feed hay, conservation hay, fencing, and stakes and a variety of farm fresh produce. This summer, Hanson Farm also opened a roadside ice cream business.
But Dave Hanson kept a few special cows.
On July 9, a calf was born at Hanson Farm named Peachy Keen.
“She’s a beautiful calf. There aren’t many like her,” Dave Hanson said of the amber-colored calf.
Her mom, Peach Pie or “Peaches” for short, is 5 or 6 years old and this is her third calf.
Hanson bought Peaches’ great-grandmother back in 1979.
“She’s got a lot of genetics behind her. She’s got very flavorful milk,” Hanson said.
Hanson said he intends to keep a very small herd, just five to 10 cows, for a yield of 25 to 50 gallons of raw milk a day. At least at first, he will be the only one to work with them, he said.
“I’d have a hard time even letting my family handle the cows,” Dave Hanson said.
“I feel as though I can produce milk anyone can drink.”