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Area dairies find raw milk boosts profits

Sales increase even in face of safety concerns

By Jessica Arriens
Sentinel Staff

Article from The Keene Sentinel

The milk arrives weekly, delivered fresh from the cow in glass jugs, with a velvety layer of cream floating on top.

It’s what Americans drank for centuries, the milk at the center of a sometimes heated food safety debate: unpasteurized, or raw, milk.

Despite the health concerns of some, raw milk sales have increasingly become a way for dairy farmers to remain viable — a money-making outlet that can help farmers survive in a gloomy economy.

“The more money that you can put in the farmer’s hands, the better off you are,” said Cindy A. Westover, who runs the Milkhouse, the farm store for Great Brook Farm in Walpole.

Selling raw milk is “just another way of making a little bit more money for the dairy farmer,” she said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned interstate sales of unpasteurized milk more than 20 years ago.

But states can still regulate how raw milk is handled within their borders.

In New Hampshire — one of 26 states where raw milk can be bought legally — farmers can sell it directly from their farm and through home delivery.

By definition, raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized, a process invented by Louis Pasteur in 1864 that heats milk to a specific temperature for a specific length of time.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, raw milk — or any unpasteurized dairy product — poses a serious health risk, especially for pregnant women, children and the elderly.

But raw milk advocates claim that pasteurization actually destroys beneficial bacteria, enzymes and vitamins.

Pasteurization may destroy some good bacteria, but it also eliminates “the bad bacteria we don’t want,” such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, said Peter S. Erickson, associate professor of dairy management at the University of New Hampshire.

“If milk is harvested correctly from the cow, raw milk can be good,” he said.

“If there’s a mistake, not so good.”

Because of all the potential problems, and because he likes to err on the side of caution, Erickson said he is “not a big supporter” of raw milk.

Much of the support for raw milk — and its purported bevy of health benefits — comes from the Campaign for Real Milk, an outlet of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a Washington D.C. nutrition advocacy group.

Erickson said that to his knowledge, there is no scientific data proving that raw milk is better for you.

Potential risks, however, have not hampered demand for raw milk in the Monadnock Region.

“Every year, I seem to acquire more customers,” said Aaron F. Knight, owner of Knight Farm in Acworth. He milks two cows, selling raw milk by the gallon to around 30 customers who pick it up from him each week.

Knight started selling raw milk four years ago, “because it was the only way that I could farm and make any money out of it,” he said.

Knight used to run another dairy operation and sell his milk wholesale, but said when the milk prices dropped he had to sell his cows.

He moved to Acworth, and begin wracking his brain for a way to “farm on a small scale and do a good job and take care of my animals.”

Selling raw milk, he said, accomplishes all of those things.

Raw milk sales were so profitable for Julie A. Thibodeau, owner of Country Critters Farm in Winchester, that she was able to expand her business.

“We actually were able to buy more cows at one point, to support the customers that we had or the customers that wanted to come,” she said.

Thibodeau started selling raw milk around five years ago, after farm customers noticed that she and her family had raw milk for themselves. Customers wanted to buy some, too.

“After a while, we didn’t have enough milk for ourselves,” Thibodeau said.

This ever-growing demand — and the fact that raw milk sells for double the price of regular milk, anywhere from $4 to $8 a gallon — can be life-saving for farmers.

Kathleen A. Harrington, executive director of Stonewall Farm in Keene, said that the combination of transitioning to an organic dairy and selling raw milk has helped the farm to survive financially.

Now, 125 customers receive raw milk from Stonewall, and Harrington said that number is growing.

Most pay for a three-month supply up front, a system Harrington said reduces administrative paperwork.

It also keeps more money on the farm.

By selling directly to customers, farmers don’t have to pay shipping or handling costs on their milk.

Large-scale conventional dairy farmers usually sell their milk wholesale or to cooperatives, where the milk has “got to be trucked and put in bottles,” Westover said.

“Once it gets down to the farmer, the farmer gets a very small percentage of what the milk costs at the store,” she said.

But in the end, Westover said choosing to drink raw milk is a personal decision, one that families have to make for themselves.

“We don’t see the harm in it,” she said, since her family grew up drinking raw milk, and knows how their animals are handled.

And with the recent multitude of news stories about tainted food, knowing where your milk is coming from, Westover said, “makes it a little more easy to stomach.”

Jessica Arriens can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1433, or [email protected]

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