By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON — Unsurprisingly, dairy farmer Mike Eastman is a big milk drinker.
“I drink three quarts, three and a half quarts a day,” he said, grinning. “I drink a lot.”
But Eastman’s smile — and that telltale milk moustache — aren’t splashed across the iconic “Got Milk?” posters made famous over the last 15 years by a national advertising campaign. Instead, he’s at the forefront of a fight closer to home.
From his Addison farm — and from his seat as co-chairman of the board of directors for Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group — Eastman is at work putting “raw” milk — milk that has not been pasteurized or processed to kill potential bacteria — into the hands of Vermonters.
Legislation passed last winter doubled the amount of unpasteurized milk that farmers can sell from their farms — but raw milk sales remain a contentious issue among consumers, farmers and health officials.
“I think that a lot of people really feel, including myself, that drinking fresh, raw milk is healthier,” said Eastman.
But with the Vermont Department of Health strongly warning of potential perils, consumers are left to negotiate the murky territory between the opposing camp, choosing between gallons of pasteurized milk in grocery stores and the increasingly popular farm-fresh milk peddled by farmers like Eastman.
AT THE EASTMAN FARM
Eastman’s farm is small by Addison County standards — he has 40 Holsteins under his careful watch. But his organic certification — and the unusual fact that his cows are purely grass-fed — attracts milk enthusiasts from Middlebury, Vergennes and as far away as near Burlington.
When a customer arrives at the 300-acre farm, Eastman directs them to a small, dark, cool room off the main barn. A large silver bulk tank takes up the majority of the small space.
The first time a customer arrives to pick up their milk — state laws mandate that the customer come directly to the farm — Eastman shows them how to mix the tank, integrating cream that may have risen to the top with the rest of the milk. Using the spigot at the base of the tank, customers fill up glass or plastic containers they bring from home. They leave their payment at the barn, operating on an honor system that, Eastman said, is serving him just fine.
Raw milk sales remain illegal in almost half of the country’s states — including Pennsylvania, where a farmer was arrested and fined $25,000 for selling raw dairy products just last summer. In Vermont, restrictions about where and how much raw milk farmers can sell still apply.
Legislation passed this winter loosened these reins to some degree. Farmers, many of whom previously relied solely on word-of-mouth discussion to sell their milk, were allowed for the first time in March to advertise their products. State legislators also approved new limits on the amount of raw milk a farmer can sell in one day, doubling the amount to 50 quarts.
It’s still a tiny percentage of what even small-scale dairy operations produce. Eastman estimates that, were he selling his full allowance every day, the law would let him to sell just 5 percent of his daily production raw to customers on the farm.
He’d like to see that ceiling raised so that he could cut his commercial production altogether.
“My goal is to eventually just sell raw milk,” he said. He hopes to scale back to 10 or 12 cows — the number he estimates necessary to make a living selling raw milk. He’d produce less milk in any given day, but by cutting out the middleman he could more than double what he earns per gallon.
Luckily for farmers like Eastman, interest in raw milk seems to be on the upswing. Marjorie Susman, who co-owns Orb Weaver Farm in New Haven, said interest is “skyrocketing.”
“Everybody wants to try it,” Susman said, “even people who haven’t had it before.”
When Orb Weaver is milking during the winter months, the farm produces just 45 gallons of milk a day. The majority of that is channeled into their cheese-making operations. But some customers have always come for the raw milk — and that number, Susman said, is increasing.
“Now there’s been a real interest,” she said.
Kate Corrigan sought out raw milk after reading about the purported health benefits on a flier a friend gave her. As a long-time supporter of direct farmer-to-consumer sales, she was immediately intrigued — but what ultimately hooked her was the taste.
“As soon as I got some, I’ve never felt the same about pasteurized milk,” Corrigan said. “It just tastes more watered down compared with the full flavor of raw milk.”
From a consumer’s perspective, Corrigan stressed the importance of finding a farm an individual can trust. She buys her milk from Annie Claghorn and Catlin Fox, dairy farmers in Leicester.
“I think it’s important — anyone interested in drinking it should inform themselves and find out about the process and the farm and how the cows are kept,” said Corrigan. “I just have full faith in Annie.”
This trust — and renewed interest in the welfare of small farms — is part of what Susman loves so much about raw milk sales. She enjoys having customers come to the farm, explore the barn and see the place — and the cows — where their milk comes from.
“It is the most fabulous thing,” she said. “I think that’s a real eye opener for people.”
But regardless of rave reviews from farmers and consumers alike, raw milk has strong opponents in state and federal health organizations, as well as among some dairy business interests.
Among the most contentious aspects of the debate are the purported health benefits — and dangers. Eastman, Susman and many raw milk drinkers contend that the milk is ultimately healthier than processed dairy products one buys in a supermarket. Pasteurization, according to Rural Vermont, destroys important vitamins, enzymes and fatty acids, and alters the proteins and immune factors inherent in farm fresh milk.
But according to the Vermont Department of Health, the loss of these nutrients during pasteurization is a commonly-believed myth.
“The major nutrients in milk are not impacted by the pasteurization process,” said Patsy Kelso, an epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health. “Some of the vitamins that naturally occur in milk are degraded by pasteurization, but it’s not a significant change.”
And, more importantly, Kelso said, raw milk can harbor dangerous bacterial pathogens that can make people sick. She said that “at risk” populations — pregnant women, small children, immune-compromised individuals and the elderly — should always be careful to avoid raw milk products, but that raw milk is “risky” for everyone.
The Department of Health’s approach to handling the risk, she said, is to limit the availability of raw milk.
“We recognize that a lot of Vermonters do drink raw milk,” said Kelso. “And so the best way to minimize the public health implications is to minimize the exposure.”
That, she said, was the thinking behind the caps placed on the amount of unpasteurized milk a farmer can sell in any given day.
The Department of Health isn’t the only state agency opposed to raw milk sales.
“The legislature is very receptive,” said Eastman, “but the Agency of Agriculture is not. Theoretically they should be for the farmer, but it seems like they’re pro-agribusiness instead of pro-Vermont farmer.”
Big business agriculture, Eastman claimed, is worried about the loss of profits they’ll see if more farmers sell milk directly from their farms.
When a customer buys raw milk, he explained, “they’re supporting their local farmer, not some big out-of-state corporation.” Eastman, who sells his commercial milk to the Organic Valley cooperative, sees an over $6 mark-up per gallon for the milk he sells.
“There’s no need of it,” he said. “The farmer could be sharing a lot more in that profit.”
He thinks agri-business interests are anxious about losing any measure of control of the market — though, given the scale of raw milk operations, Eastman said, that fear is unfounded.
“In the scheme of things, if everyone in the state of Vermont bought their milk directly from farmers, you know, maybe it’d amount to 10,000 cows out of 150,000,” said Eastman. “It’s just a drop in the bucket.”
Rural Vermont, and farmers like Eastman who oppose corporate agriculture interests, are dedicated to pushing through a better raw milk bill when state legislators reconvene in Montpelier. Last winter’s legislation marked significant improvements for farmers and drinkers of raw milk — but farmers have ground to gain, Eastman said.
He’d like to see the sales threshold increased, and hopes that farmers can one day deliver their milk directly to customers.
“I’ve been drinking it for 43 years out of the bulk tank, and to me it just tastes a lot better than what I buy in the store,” Eastman said.
“The taste, the health, benefiting the farm and the local landscape — those are all reasons why people are doing it,” he said.
And if Eastman has his way, soon he’ll be able to put more raw milk into the hands of those very people.