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With a piece of the cow, shareholders embrace unpasteurized milk

By Dan Shaw (Contact)
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Article from the Evansville Courier Press

Indiana law forbids the sale of raw, unpasteurized milk directly to consumers.

Yet Gina Robinson Ungar manages to distribute it from her Rose Hill Dairy in Warrick County to nearly 40 families. To circumvent the prohibition against sales, she relies on what is known as herd sharing. The arrangement allows her to offer a part ownership in the four cows she tends. Shareholders pay her a fee each month for taking care of the animals.

In return, they get a portion of any milk produced. Nothing that could technically be deemed a sale takes place.

But why would Ungar want to do away with pasteurization, which many consider one of the greatest health innovations in history?

Like many in the raw-milk movement, Ungar believes the heating process has outlived its usefulness. While perhaps needed in a day of lax standards at dairies, pasteurization now does more harm than good, she said.

Heating milk to kill pathogens has the unfortunate side effect of altering certain fat cells and enzymes so they are no longer so useful in helping the body to absorb vitamins and minerals, she contended. It also eliminates bacteria that make digestion easier, she said.

Stories abound of miracle cures brought about by drinking raw milk — the disappearance of allergies, the alleviation of asthma and even the curing of behavioral disorders such as autism. Ungar herself believes she has avoided many illnesses and dental troubles in part by drinking raw milk at a young age.

It was memories of a happy childhood spent on a farm in central Massachusetts that partly drove her to start the dairy. Another contributor was a class in sustainable agriculture she took in Oberlin College near Cleveland, Ohio.

The professors and students there were idealists and were determined to improve the world. The class put into her mind new ways of running a farm.

"I figured out I could do what my father was doing with it being better for the environment and have a more loving relationship with animals," she said.

In 2004, she met the man she would marry. He lived in Evansville, and they immediately began talking about running a dairy in Indiana. A year later, they bought the land in Warrick County and moved there.

"It took us two long and rather difficult years to plant grass, build fences, drill a well and build a barn in order to finally start the business," she said.

The herd-sharing arrangement adopted by Ungar is fairly common yet is officially tolerated by few state governments. In Indiana, for instance, no one is supposed to distribute raw milk, although it can be used to make some cheeses, said Terry Philibeck, the dairy director of the Indiana State Board of Animal Health.

Still, the Weston A. Price Foundation — a charity that supports the raw-milk movement — lists 20 dairies in the state where raw milk can be obtained.

According to Philibeck, the concern about raw milk has to do with the irregular inspection of the sites where it is made.

"The consumer is taking a risk in buying from an unregulated facility," he said. "You don't know what conditions that milk was manufactured under."

From 1998 to 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention correlated 45 outbreaks of illnesses to the consumption of raw milk or cheese. About 1,000 people got sick, 104 went to the hospital and two died.

Ungar is quick to point out that milk can be tainted in many ways and that pasteurization is not a fail-safe means of preventing illnesses.

Others are more impressed by the cures they say drinking raw milk brings.

Brenda Vincent of Haubstadt insists her husband has suffered fewer colds since he began drinking it. Also seeming to enjoy better health are her five children, who range in age from 11 to 27.

For many years, Vincent has tried to eat foods grown in a natural way, free of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones. Only recently did she learn she could get raw milk in this part of the state.

She approached the discovery with caution. Not until she had toured the Rose Hill Dairy did she try the milk produced there.

"I wanted to make sure the animals are healthy and in good shape before I would ever buy milk from just anybody," she said.

Another reason consumers turn to raw milk is that they are dismayed by the way cows are treated at large dairy farms. To avoid industrial methods, Ungar allows her small herd to spend its days in a pasture, eating grasses.

"It happens to be more humane," Ungar said. "A cow is not designed to live on a concrete floor and eat a scientifically designed low-fiber grain-based diet."

Still, Ungar warned that consumers interested in raw milk should ask to inspect the dairies where it comes from and review the results of any tests conducted on the products.

The advice is especially important if the milk will be drunk by someone whose immune system is weak, such as a baby or the elderly.

"All raw milk is not safe," she concedes.

Buying a share in one of the cows tended at the Rose Hill Dairy costs $22.

After that, the cost of boarding the cow is $15 a share every month for those who own fewer than six shares and $13 for those who own more.

A share corresponds to about half a gallon of milk, which is usually picked up by customers once a week.


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