March 12, 2006
James L. Smith
In a world with grocery stores in nearly every community, it’s hard to imagine that some people drive nearly three hours a week to obtain dairy products.
But farmer Chuck Oliver’s customers do just that.
Oliver, who battled the Michigan Department of Agriculture over the right to sell raw milk on his farm, has tripled his customer base in the last six months to about 300, with just word-of-mouth advertising.
And at least for now, he has made peace with state agriculture regulators.
Oliver’s milk is straight from the cow, without pasteurization. Pasteurized milk, the type purchased in stores, is heated to kill bacteria, then bottled and cooled.
State health officials say it poses a health risk because of bacteria. But the state allows farmers, their families and employees to drink it, just not to sell it to the public.
But through a loophole called “cow-sharing,” Oliver is allowed to provide the public raw milk. Customers purchase a share in a cow, which includes its care and feeding, then receive milk from the animal on a weekly basis.
Under the plan, the milk costs shareholders about $4.50 a gallon. But they say it is worth the cost, since the high-nutrient product retains healthy enzymes killed in the commercial pasteurization process, Oliver said.
Cooperative groups of shareholders, especially those from long distances, band together to pick up the milk and then distribute it to others, saving gas and time.
And proponents swear by it.
Dr. Ted Beals, a retired Veteran’s Administration pathologist and a retired member of the medical school at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and a shareholder with Oliver, said he believes raw milk is better for people than commercial milk and tastes better too.
“Drinking raw, fresh, unprocessed milk tastes wonderful,” Beals said. “It has a creamier taste, finer flavor and is just more satisfying. It’s a more nutrient-dense food and it diminishes the desire to keep eating and eating.”
In addition to the health aspects of raw milk, Beals said he likes that the close relationship between consumer and farmer – and the elimination of the middleman – benefits both.
“A lot of us are concerned abut the economic plight of farmers,” Beals said. “By purchasing locally from farmers, they get all the dollars we pay for it. It’s a huge social and economic plus.”
Beals said there are misconceptions about bacteria in raw milk.
“The world is full of bacteria, only a very small amount that cause illness,”
Beals said. “Different kinds of bacteria that are natively in raw milk are nutritionally helpful because they help the digestion.”
Another Oliver shareholder and proponent is Diane Franklin of Davisburg, who said the switch from processed milk to the raw product has improved her family’s health.
“I have introduced at least 30 families to raw milk,” Franklin said. “My husband and I are healthier and don’t go to the doctor as much.”
At first Franklin said her two daughters wouldn’t touch the raw milk, but now enjoy the product.
Oliver said his organic farming methods are easier on the cows, too.
Commercial dairy farms drain 80 pounds a day out of a cow, while Oliver’s process takes about 40 to 45 pounds. Commercial cows are used up in about four years; Oliver said some of his dairy cows are 15 years old.
“My cows are not overstressed,” Oliver said.
Others have a split opinion about raw milk. John A. Partridge, Michigan State University associate professor of food science and human nutrition, has been skeptical of raw milk consumption, but has moderated his position.
“Personally, I don’t see any big tangible advantages, but it’s my neutral ground that it’s OK if someone has been properly informed about potential risks. They can make a decision that they want to consume that product. I’m not sure we should necessarily prevent that.
“If you tried to feed the whole of the population on raw milk, the incidence of transmission (of diseases) would go up dramatically, I have absolutely no doubt,” he added.
Partridge said he would recommend against drinking raw milk for anyone with a compromised immune system, or anyone undergoing chemotherapy. He said he would also urge caution against it for the elderly and the very young.