It is not often that I get a chance to walk through a ranch or farm. I relish every opportunity. Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures invited me and my family to tour their land and operations in Fresno last week. It was a privilege and a pleasure.
I grew up with with a garden– a different kind of privilege that I didn’t appreciate at the time. After the wonder of picking my first cucumber and tomato wore off, I spent my time grousing about all the weeds to be pulled and watering to be done. Dad planted at least half of the available land on our 3/4 of an acre lot which meant there was enough zucchini for the entire neighborhood come August. I didn’t inherent dad’s green thumb which probably contributed to a disenchantment with growing anything until I read Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma many years ago. During the last five years I have developed a deeper and more insightful appreciation for our precious food supply, from farm to table. I have become a far more conscientious consumer.
When we arrived at Organic Pastures, I was immediately taken by the efficiency of the operation. Mark is positively brilliant, blending the art, science and business of producing and distributing raw milk products despite a challenging regulatory environment. We visited the trailers where milk is bottled, kefir and cheese are fermented, and butter is churned. The site was immaculate and foot washes protected each individual space, a critical factor when your product viability is all about managing bacteria.
MANAGING THE MICROBES
Raw milk products are legal in California, but receive great scrutiny. Louie Pasteur developed pasteurization in 1864 to improve the keeping qualities of wine. Commercial pasteurization of milk began in the late 1800s in Europe and in the early 1900s in the United States. Pasteurization has been the primary means of managing bacteria in commercial dairies for almost 90 years–not really all that long ago considering that man has consumed milk products from mammals for thousands of years. I suppose the early European farmers were observant enough to see that milk provides a calorie- and protein-rich food source, comes in a relatively constant supply compared to the boom-and-bust of seasonal crops, and would have been less contaminated than water supplies.
Today the raw milk controversy has become intensely polarized and has involved the FDA, FBI, USDA, CDC, and the NIH, just to name a few scientific bodies, regulatory bodies, and law enforcement agencies. In the press and in the scientific literature raw milk is mostly demonized as a severe potential health threat. Interestingly these same agencies have never considered potential benefits. The advent of mapping the human microbiome may change all that.
When it comes to the benefits of drinking raw milk and eating foods made from raw milk other scientists, clinicians, and consumers are already connecting the dots. The Weston Price Foundation is an ardent supporter of raw milk consumption. The pros and cons of consuming raw milk products are readily discussed. I starting buying raw milk over four years ago and continue to value all the benefits for everyone in my family.
The challenge has always been managing the microbes. For thousands of years, raw milk was mostly fermented into yogurt, cheese and churned into butter on a small scale for family farms and local neighbors. Drinking liquid milk came later. Not until the dawn of industrialization did communities intensely struggle with the challenge of keeping milk fresh. As more people moved to the city and the population exploded, disease from contaminated and spoiled milk was rampant. At that time up to 25% of food born illness was linked to contaminated milk. By 1924 the U.S. Public Health Service developed the Standard Milk Ordinance to assist states with voluntary pasteurization programs. In 1987 the USDA banned raw milk from being sold across state lines. Basically we are using 17th century science to minimize risk today. Raw milk proponents say science can and should do better. I agree.
This week I walked through the creamery, through the fields of organic alfalfa, past other fields ready for planting, and gazed upon the happy cows feeding on organic dried grasses in the dead of winter. I appreciate the care and attention given to the animals, the land, even the manure–a liquid gold that is used to fertilize the organic almond trees. In thirteen years Mark has created an incredibly efficient, sustainable and dynamic system where all resources are valued and utilized. There is no waste. And I saw all of this on December 31. I can’t wait to go back and pitch my tent in the vibrant growth of spring to see all those animals reveling in splendor of their grass.