February 28, 2010 in Business

Raw satisfaction

Texas dairy reaps benefits of raw milk movement
Sam Hodges Dallas Morning News
File Associated Press photo

John Clark pours raw milk into a glass at Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, Vt.
(Full-size photo)

DALLAS – Like most any mom with young children, Iliana Cantavella is used to making a run for a gallon of milk. But she goes to the tiny store at Lavon Farms, the last dairy left in Collin County. There, for $8 a gallon, she buys milk that comes straight from the registered Guernsey and Jersey cows grazing in the fields around.

No pasteurization. No homogenization. And no approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Raw milk, it’s called, and Cantavella is a walking infomercial.

“Since we switched to raw milk, they don’t get sick anymore,” the mother of three said, standing outside the farm store with her latest three gallons. “They used to get ear infections all the time.”

Though the FDA and other health agencies couldn’t be plainer that they consider milk unsafe until it’s gone through bacteria-zapping pasteurization, more and more people have reached their own conclusions and want their milk raw.

Influenced by their experience, and by documentaries and books against processed food, they see raw milk as natural, healthful, better tasting, eco-friendly and supportive of small farms.

The trend has given hope to dairies like Lavon Farms, which began selling raw milk in September and sold 122 gallons one recent Saturday – its best day yet.

“We’re finally getting retail for our product,” said Todd Moore, third-generation owner of Lavon Farms, which earns about $1.60 a gallon for milk sold to a cooperative that in turn sells to big processors for pasteurized, store-bought milk.

States vary in regulating raw milk, with some allowing it in groceries and others forbidding its sale altogether. Texas permits sales only at the dairy.

Just two years ago, Texas had 11 dairies with a Grade A raw milk retail license, and nearly all sold only goat milk. Now, there are 21 selling cow milk, including Lavon Farms.

Though no state agency tracks raw milk production, Gene Wright, milk group program manager for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said it’s clear that the spike in outlets reflects a growing market.

The strength of the raw milk movement in Texas can also be seen in more than 400 letters sent to the department last year, supporting the expansion of sales to farmers markets.

Then there’s the popping up of cooperatives such as Raw Milk Dallas, whose members take turns driving to the dairy to buy for the group.

“Our biggest order was for 86 gallons, and we average about 40,” said Tiffany Rider, who as co-op leader often makes the 1 1/2 -hour run to Nors Dairy in Hill County.

Lavon Farms is a rolling, 200-acre spread with fields, creeks, barns, silos and farm houses, as well as stone gates inscribed with the year the Moore family took possession – 1936. But these days the place is nearly surrounded by development along a six-lane stretch of road that sees an average of 12,600 cars a day.

Few stopped at Lavon Farms until it began selling raw milk. Now, drawn by a plain “Grade A Raw Milk For Sale” sign, or by word of mouth or Internet intelligence, the dairy’s store is often hopping.

Spend a couple of hours inside and you’ll hear everything from nostalgic stories about drinking raw milk on Grandma’s farm to testimonials about such milk’s advantages in homemade yogurt and cheese. Some swear it relieves eczema and arrests kids’ tooth decay, and can be drunk with ease by those who thought they were lactose-intolerant.

Mallon Noland, a Plano chiropractor, has become a Lavon Farms regular and said he is delighted to have an outlet 10 minutes from his house.

“I’ve been looking for raw milk for a long time,” he said, adding that his reading had convinced him that it’s nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk.

Ruta Chodavadia grew up drinking raw milk in India and prefers the taste.

“The best part is I see the cows grazing,” she said, standing with a fresh gallon on the other side of a fenced pasture roamed by fawn-and-white Guernseys.

But there’s no fight like a food fight, and the debate about raw milk is conducted across the Internet and beyond. The FDA states on its Web site: “Raw milk is inherently dangerous, and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time,” then lists pathogens that raw milk can contain, including E. coli and listeria.

Echoing the FDA’s concern is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which links raw milk consumption to 1,505 illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and two deaths between 1993 and 2006.

Wright said state inspectors visit raw milk dairies about every six weeks and take samples for lab testing. He contends that pasteurization is one of the great public health success stories and strongly agrees with the FDA that drinking unpasteurized milk is too risky.

Roberta Anding is a registered dietitian and professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. She’s a fan of local produce and small farms, but she is unconvinced by claims of special nutritional benefits for raw milk and shares safety concerns.

“You almost have to come down with the FDA,” she said.

Meanwhile, the pro-raw milk Weston A. Price Foundation – named for a dentist whose research led him to challenge conventional notions about food and nutrition – offers a point-by-point rebuttal to the FDA.

Texas advocates such as Judith McGeary, of the Austin-based Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, want to make raw milk more widely available.

“It’s possible to get sick from any food. If you want to stop food-borne illness, stop eating,” she said. “People should be allowed to make their own choices about what they eat and drink.”

In the middle, interestingly enough, is Moore, of Lavon Farms.

He’s a small-dairy, local-foods champion who has won national titles showing his Guernseys. Some years back, he established a creamery in Garland, and his “Lucky Layla Farms” drinkable yogurts and specialty cheeses, made from pasteurized batches of his cows’ milk, are sold at Whole Foods and local farmers markets.

He and wife Deanna give their two young boys raw milk, and he’s eloquent on why he prefers to let his cows roam free to eat mostly grass and some grain, never giving them growth hormones or keeping them in close-quarter containment, as is typical with big dairies.

Moore is elated at his raw milk sales and thinks the income could help keep the Plano farm as a working dairy.

But he agrees raw milk can be risky. He invites customers to check out his milking parlor and says he does his own safety tests on every raw milk batch.

“We welcome regulation. … If somebody gets sick and dies from raw milk, it’s over for everybody,” he said.

For now, raw milk is riding high, and Lavon Farms’ unpaved driveway is getting a workout.

Dan Goplin of The Colony pulled in recently and bought two gallons. He paused by his pickup to tell about drinking raw milk as a boy, using it to help develop a 56-inch chest as a young man, and more recently scrambling to find a supply for his seven children.

“As soon as they were weaned off Mama, they went directly to raw milk,” he said. “And that’s all any of our kids have ever had.”

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