Local Dairy

This photograph was found in the estate of Leonard Falce, former Bay City Times photographer, in Bay City, Michigan.
This photograph was found in the estate of Leonard Falce, former Bay City Times photographer, in Bay City, Michigan.

Long gone are the days where every rural family kept a dairy cow and every municipality had a dairy on the outskirts of town. No longer is there a milk man making deliveries of milk so fresh that it’s temperature is somewhere between warm cow and room temperature, thick cream exerting it’s natural buoyancy and rising to the top of a glass bottle. Milk has an enduring reputation for being wholesome. It is the only food for infants and, in many cultures, given to children with every meal. Nevertheless, there are those of us that must avoid dairy like the plague. The list of possible reactions for someone with a dairy intolerance makes the fine print on pharmaceutical advertisements seem paltry.

Obtaining dairy fresh from the farm in our modern times is tricky. The sheer volume of federal and state laws imposed on dairies may rival the ATF’s control over A, T, & F. So what is with the lunacy over controlling milk? Milk has been known to be contaminated with E. coli, campylobacter, listeria, and salmonella. These are opportunistic bacteria that, when overgrown, can cause stomachaches, vomiting, and diarrhea (on the mild end) or acute kidney failure, miscarriages, and death (on the severe end). Louis Pasteur seemingly cured these problems in the milk (and food in general) when he proved in the mid-19th century that harmful microbes could be killed by heating the medium they lived on. At this time, most Western doctors denied the existence of microbes, though they had been observed using microscopes for nearly two centuries. While Louis Pasteur doubtless saved many lives with his discoveries and experiments, and helped to unlock the crazy microcosm of simple organisms for humanity, it is not without undesirable consequences.

When the fields of science and medicine adopted germ theory and embraced the world of bacteria, viruses, archaea, paramecia and the like, it was assumed that microbes were all pathogenic. With much humility, we must admit this was in error. It seems all living things on this rock we call Earth benefit from the existence of certain microbes. Without bacteria and fungi plants are unable to procure nutrients from the soil. Without bacteria ruminants would be unable to extract energy from vegetation. Overuse of antibiotics and demolition of gut bacteria in humans is currently associated, and may be causative, for many modern ailments. In a circuitous fashion, we have arrived back to dairy intolerance.

Most people do not understand that lactose intolerance and sensitivity or allergy to dairy are not the same thing. Lactose intolerance is easy. There is an enzyme that most of us produce in our digestive system called lactase. It breaks lactose down into galactose and glucose for further use by the body. Sometimes bodies no longer produce this enzyme for a variety of reasons, and sometimes people have used antacids for indigestion to the point that the proper pH necessary for the lactase enzyme to work is no longer maintained. Improperly digested lactose then can cause a variety of gastrointestinal upsets. The good news is that lactose is easily broken down outside of the body before consumption of dairy products by…BACTERIA! This is called yogurt or kefir, and lactose quantities in dairy that was unpasteurized at the time of inoculation with probiotic cultures comes very close to zero.

The other dairy intolerance doesn’t have an easy fix or explanation. I would guess that most people that are reacting to dairy proteins in their diet have no idea that dairy is to blame. A partial list of possible symptoms includes:

  • Asthma
  • Acne
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Arthralgia
  • Runny nose and sneezing
  • Eczema
  • Muscle cramps
  • Gastrointestinal complaints
  • Sinusitis
  • Behavioral and attention problems commonly attributed to ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and many other psychiatric disorders

Where did this list come from? This list is of the things I have absolutely and undoubtedly been able to attribute to commercial, store-bought, pasteurized, homogenized, grade A, Vitamin A & D fortified, GMO corn and soy chomping cow’s milk, in myself and my sons. I’m not saying if you have these problems that it is your milk, but it sure could be. Must we dodge dairy forever?

I have never given my sons raw milk. I had plenty of raw goat’s milk as a kid because the allergist said I had a cow dairy allergy (I add the “allergist said” part because many doctors have told me that there is no such thing as a milk allergy). I was a sick kid before the allergist asked my parents to change my environment and food. I suffered frequent ear infections, was perpetually sneezing to the point of muscle fatigue, and I had quite the reputation as the girl with face and sleeves covered with snot. Add to this stomach pain every day, sinusitis, “alligator skin,” and inattentiveness and isolation, this is my picture before the age of 7. Had I been born 3 decades later, I am sure that I would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now included in the Autism Spectrum). Had my parents resided in a more metropolitan area I most likely would have been medicated for ADD. All of these things were triggered by consumption of wholesome dairy, and have dissipated with abstention.

Now I meander back into the territory of pasteurization. Is it possible that when pasteurized the usually beneficial and wholesome milk is forever changed into an immune system and inflammation trigger for some people? Maybe it is the process of homogenization? Maybe it is the cow’s diet, when heavy with feed made from soy and corn (two of the most common food allergens). I don’t know these answers; there are too many variables, and conducting milk drinking experiments on my children borders unethical.

While I vacillate between whether or not I should include dairy in my family’s diet, I can tell you what I would look for in my dairy farmer. In Michigan there are a small handful of dairy farms that you can buy milk from directly on the farm. Most farmers belong to a co-op, all the milk is pooled and hauled off for processing and bottling off site. There are also a few mega “farms” where the processing and bottling is done in the same general vicinity as the cows are milked. There are also farms where you “buy the cow,” so to speak, purchasing a herd share per year, and then additionally paying per gallon. Buying unpasteurized milk in Michigan is illegal, so herd shares are the compromise arrived at so that consumers can actually get a product that they want (raw milk). This system is similar to the “membership” practices to breweries in dry counties of the south. With all this said, if your milk comes out of a dairy cooperative, your knowledge of the product, where it comes from, and how the animals are treated is seriously diluted. Yes, I used diluted as opposed to deluded, though it may be that as well.

In my agonizing plight to research local dairy in Michigan, I’ve discovered a few disheartening things. Co-ops are supposed to be good for farmers, they pool their product in an attempt to hedge against bad seasons and years, and to control prices. Some of the processing plants claim to get milk from 700+ different farms per day. As a consumer, you just can’t trust that 700 farms are operating with the integrity you have come to expect. A realistic, brave, and honest assessment of this situation can be found in this blog post from Dairy Carrie in Wisconsin.

This typical conglomeration would sicken, injure, or kill a whole lot of people without pasteurization.On their website, The United Dairy Industry of Michigan has an infographic meant to make us feel good about the pooling of milk, but I believe they are being dishonest in their statement about local milk

“Fluid milk is not imported into Michigan, although surplus milk is exported to help meet demand in other states.”

I can think of a few stores that carry milk coming from Texas, California, Ohio, and Indiana. Maybe their definition of “fluid milk” isn’t the same as mine.

Feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but I believe by joining these cooperatives, the farmers are not allowed to sell their milk outside of it. That really leaves us four options as consumers:

  1. Travel to the nearest dairy with on-farm sales, purchase your milk there if the farm is to your satisfaction (I found 3 or 4, and Michigan is a big state),
  2. Travel to a dairy with onsite processing so you can see how they operate, then purchase their product at a retailer near you (hmmm, I think it is the same 3 or 4 dairies processing and distributing in this way as selling on-farm),
  3. Join a food co-op where members take turns doing the farm checks,
  4. Go for the herd share at a farm you trust. I think a lot of people would balk at the price of milk from a herd share, but take this assessment of cost from Oregon. It makes you scratch your head, wondering at the cost saving measures that must be taken by cooperative members to earn a living wage dairy farming.

Another consideration is manure and pollution. Large dairies must use a lagoon system for manure. Yep, a lagoon of wet, sloppy manure. It is exactly what it sounds like. And it smells like that, too. Another reason to bite the bullet with a herd share is that typically the herd size will be small and manageable. The manure will be manageable. The cows will be given ample space out doors on the pasture so that the dirt and plant roots can filter the manure before it hits the water table. Pathogens are zapped by Rays from the sun. Nutrients in the manure fertilize the pasture. Downside? You have to provide your farmer with enough money to care for the cows and his family so they aren’t destitute.

I can’t recommend any brands of processed dairy (cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc). If you find a dairy that you would like to provide your milk and they also make yogurt, cheese, cream, or butter there you should probably buy it! Making your own yogurt and kefir can be done whether you find a local source for your milk or not. If you are going to try it out on grocery store milk, look for premium brands. If you can find non-homogenized, that would be great, but definitely stay away from ultra-pasteurized (regular pasteurized will work OK). Typical vitamin A and D milk has had a lot of the fat skimmed out to be used for other purposes, enough of the fat has been added back in so that the producer can label it as “whole.” for this reason, I use half-and-half. Fat-free yogurt is not really yogurt. Read the ingredients if you don’t believe me, then check the USDA’s definition of yogurt. A high fat content will make a rich, creamy yogurt, very low in lactose. We have all heard about the benefits of probiotics, making your own yogurt is a really easy way to make sure you’re getting some, and controlling which species you get. Typically, the more variety the better when it comes to species of bacteria. I like to mix some live-culture kefir with my yogurt starter to maximize the variety of bacteria. You can use a small amount of plain store bought live-culture yogurt to start your own, or you can buy a refrigerated starter culture. Both options will work fine, just know you will get any additives from the little store bought container (typically thickeners) in your final product. Starting kefir is a little different, but the kefir grains are multi-use and can be used to make non-dairy probiotic drinks as well, even kefir water. I love my yogurt maker but it isn’t necessary. People make it on their counters, in crock-pots, or in an oven. Again, Google search it. yogurt

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2 thoughts on “Local Dairy

  1. Good article. Definitely worth looking into allergies that could be caused by milk. AND, the Co-op’s pooling their products from 700+ places does leave the protective mother in me wondering if that would be safe. The idea of a co-op has good intention. It’s ashame more options aren’t out there for purchasing AND trusting where the product is coming from.

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    • Thanks for your input, Roberta! I do wish someone would explain to me why we can’t purchase milk directly from a farmer if we want to. I understand the raw milk deal, but I’m sure some of the older farms still have pasteurization equipment. I don’t know if it is state laws or the way the co-ops are set up.

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