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A taste for raw milk? Framingham farmer hoping so

By Dan McDonald | MetroWest Daily News

Ken McGagh/Daily News staff

Doug Stephan, owner of Eastleigh Farm in Framingham, with a glass of his raw milk.

FRAMINGHAM — Tired of dealing with wholesale dairy giants slashing their prices and undermining the viability of his Eastleigh Farm, Doug Stephan wants to sell raw milk at the historic Northside operation.

Stephan bought the farm four-and-a-half years ago to preserve the bucolic north Framingham of his youth -- cows and all -- and to prevent the property from being developed.

But selling to the dairy conglomerates is a losing proposition nowadays, says Stephan.

The wholesale selling price of milk was slashed in half in the last 18 months, Stephan said.

A year and a half ago the going rate for the Eastleigh milk he sold to big dairy corporations hovered around $28 to $29 for a hundredweight -- about 8.5 gallons. Now they're paying between $12 and $13 for a hundredweight.

It costs him $24 per hundredweight to produce the milk, he says.

Selling raw milk on the farm makes more sense, Stephan says, and on Tuesday he'll make his case to the Board of Health.

He may have to do some convincing.

More than 20 states outlaw the sale of raw milk. While Massachusetts allows raw milk to be sold at farms under regulations that are tougher than pasteurized milk standards, some communities, like Acton, choose to ban the product outright.

While raw milk advocates say it can help everything from asthma to arthritis to tuberculosis, "the other school says raw milk has the potential to spread some very nasty diseases, and that it would be very difficult to screen those diseases," said Framingham Board of Health Chairman Mike Hugo.

Hugo says he is going into Tuesday's meeting, "with a completely open mind."

The Board of Health could do nothing and let the state regulations apply, implement town specific regulations or ban the sale of raw milk outright.

Worsening matters for Stephan, the recession harmed his other job as a radio impresario.

Stephan owns two radio stations: one in Ohio and one in upstate New York, and also hosts a syndicated radio program that runs on 400 stations nationwide.

While Stephan's radio-related jobs have created enough cash flow to allow him to buy and preserve farms in the area, the recession has hit that industry to the point where Eastleigh has to be self-sustainable, said Stephan.

"The farm has to support itself," said Stephan as he trudged through one of his muddy fields among a mixed herd of Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys.

Walking around the Edmands Road farm, Stephan's bombastic radio personality shines through. He talks incessantly, offering rapidfire opinions on everything from federal agricultural legislation to local media coverage of his farm to past Framingham town managers.

He is building a farm store and renovating a milk processing room - Eastleigh produced, pasteurized and sold milk in the 1960s.

Stephan had more than 140 cows last year. He's since sold or moved all but 30 of his best cows in preparation for the launch of Eastleigh's raw milk operation.

Ideally, Stephan would like to sell 1,000 gallons of milk weekly.

About 500,000 people drink raw milk nationwide, and Stephan is convinced there is a market in MetroWest.

He would be the only mass producer of raw milk in town and the MetroWest region.

Stephan says there are at least 50 "community-supported agriculture" groups in the region consisting of people who may have interest in buying the product. Hopkinton resident John Mosher, for instance, says his family of four goes through about a half-gallon of raw milk a week.

He gets his milk from a Foxborough farm and touts its nutrients and its taste -- he says he can taste if the cows have been fed mostly grains or grass in the milk.

Pasteurization, says Stephan and Mosher, strips the milk of nutrients and flavor. "It's milk in name only," said Mosher.

Said Stephan of the pasteurization process, "It's like sticking it in a microwave. You might as well be drinking paste."

Not everyone agrees with such thinking.

David Plunkett, a senior staff attorney for the Washington D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said he isn't sold that the pasteurization process kills taste or curbs nutrients.

"I haven't seen any science that supports that. Whatever slight degradation there is ... it's not enough to have an impact on the value of milk," he said.

Some health officials warn the mass sale of raw milk brings with it the risk of pathogens like E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

Suzanne Condon, the state's Bureau of Environmental Health director, said yesterday there is no great evidence to show the benefits of raw milk outweigh the serious risk of food-borne illness.

But David Gumpert, a Needham journalist who recently wrote a book titled "Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America's Emerging Battle Over Food Rights," thinks the public should have the option to buy raw milk.

He says raw milk started to become synonymous with the spread of disease at the end of the 19th century.

That's when pasteurization started to gain momentum in part because cows were being fed waste from distilleries. People who were sick handled the milk and the cows. Sometimes manure got in the milk. There was a lack of refrigeration. In many instances the milk was of poor quality.

While pasteurization got rid of a lot of the milk-related pathogen outbreaks, much has changed, said Gumpert. Sanitation is better and sewers have been improved.

"Things aren't the same. The proof is in the pudding. Very few people get sick from raw milk," said Gumpert. "It's not a public health problem."

(Dan McDonald can be reached at 508-626-4416 or [email protected].)


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