Officially, it’s illegal to sell raw milk to consumers in Michigan.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get.
Farmers can’t sell it to you, but they can drink it themselves.
Raw milk fans become farmers, so-to-speak, by buying into a “herdshare” program. A chunk of change up front and monthly fees entitle them to some of the milk the herd produces.
Very few dairy farms in the Cadillac area offer these programs.
Two with whom the Cadillac News spoke are not interested in doing it. Both echoed the state of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in deeming raw milk too dangerous for consumption.
Of the three raw milk-friendly farmers with whom the Cadillac News spoke, one herdshare program shut down in part because of fear of regulations; the other closed because of logistical problems when life got in the way.
Nationally, there’s a lot of interest in raw milk, as advocates claim that unpasteurized milk has health benefits ranging from allergen tolerance to imbibing good bacteria.
But that claim isn’t without powerful critics. Most health and dairy experts the Cadillac News interviewed said there’s no scientific evidence that unpasteurized, or “raw” milk, has health benefits.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the health benefits of raw milk “unproven” on a webpage dedicated to the issue.
But raw-milk advocates called the demand for raw milk “a movement.”
“There’s a lot of people that want it,” said Anne Gothard, a co-owner of Third Day Farm in Lake City, which used to have a herdshare program but had to stop.
Gothard’s husband, Bob, did the milking by hand but experienced health problems related to his prior service in the military. Third Day Farm also grows vegetables and other farm products.
Jan Cooper, whose Natural Homestead farm has a herdshare program of goats, said demand for raw milk in the area was slowly growing.
Baker’s Green Acres in Marion said demand for raw milk outstripped their ability to provide it through a herdshare program. They worked with another farm for awhile, but that farm faced legal problems. Baker’s Green Acres has stopped working with dairy altogether and raises pork and chicken instead, said Jill Baker, a co-owner of the farm.
Farmers with small herds feel persecuted by regulators, Jan Cooper said.
The Gothards argued that the government shouldn’t block raw milk transactions, framing it as a consumer choice issue.
But in Michigan, pasteurization, or the heating of milk to kill bacteria, is an entrenched practice.
It was the first state to require that milk sold to consumers be pasteurized, according to a Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development webpage about raw milk. The state began requiring pasteurization in 1948.
The whole dairy industry can be hurt if somebody gets sick from raw milk, said Duane Molhoek, a dairy farmer in Falmouth who is on the Michigan Farm Bureau Dairy Advisory Committee. Even dairy producers without herdshare programs can suffer if milk is perceived as less safe, he said.
But the Gothards point to their own experience with raw milk, saying nobody in four-to-five years of running a 20-gallon-a-week herdshare program ever told them they got sick.
A recent episode of the Netflix docuseries “Rotten,” stated that raw milk can bring farmers as much as $9 a gallon, making dairy farms profitable in a time when many are closing and conventional milk prices are low.
But the farmers with current or former herdshare programs in Northern Michigan said they didn’t do it for the money and their per-gallon cost breakdown was not that high.
They do it because they genuinely believe raw milk is better for people.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of struggle. But it’s worth it to us because everybody deserves it,” Gothard said.
“You’re not gonna make any money at it,” Bob Gothard said.
“Part of the reason it’s not profitable is that’s the model we’re following,” said Jan Cooper, whose farm has a herdshare program for goats. They don’t get milk subsidies from the government, the way conventional dairies do.
Insurance can be a problem, too, according to Jill Baker. Most insurers don’t want to touch raw milk, she said.
And the kinds of raw milk people go crazy for — raised without antibiotics or hormones and fed non-GMO feed or grass — can be expensive to produce, though the Gothards say their vet bill dropped by almost $2,000 a year when they started giving their cows rock minerals, sea kelp and the non-GMO feed.
They haven’t had to give their cows any antibiotics since the switch because the animals haven’t gotten sick, the Gothards said.
Others take a different view of antibiotic use in cows.
“It’s just advertising,” said Doug Bontekoe, of Bontekoe Farms in Marion, which doesn’t have a herdshare program.
If he gives a cow penicillin, he has to wait 14 days to ship its milk, Bontekoe said. He already has to prove there’s no drug residue in milk.
Bontekoe wouldn’t sell raw milk directly to consumers even if it were legal, he said. Even the milk he feeds his calves has been pasteurized.
A HAPPY MEDIUM?
There’s almost no chance science will find an alternative to pasteurization that kills E.coli, salmonella, listeria and other pathogens without also killing good bacteria (lactobacillus, which helps to break down lactose, is generally included on raw-milk advocates’ lists of “good” bacteria).
“It can’t be done,” said Elliot Ryser, a microbiology professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, when asked if he knew whether there was any research being done into reconciling the two sides.
It’s not economically feasible to target just the bad stuff, Ryser said. The good stuff and the bad stuff are equally susceptible to treatments.
A happy medium might not be coming from microbiology, but that doesn’t mean consumers don’t have several milk options.
Pasteurized organic milk is one option. There’s also pasteurized whole milk.
“I think the benefits they are perceiving (from raw milk) come from the whole milk flavor,” said Duane Molheok, who runs End Road Farm in Falmouth. Whole milk tastes better, so people drink more of it and get more nutrition from it, Molhoek said.
Some farmers that bottle their own milk are making “cream line milks,” Molhoek said. The milk has been pasteurized but has not been homogenized, so the cream rises to the top and can be scooped off to make butter.
Non-homogenized milk gives people the sense that their food hasn’t been processed, Molhoek said.
It’s also less digestible, according to Doug Bontekoe, the other dairy farmer with whom the Cadillac News spoke who said drinking raw milk is too risky.
Non-homogenized milk hasn’t been whipped and broken down, so you’ll feel full but your body won’t digest all of it, Bontekoe said.
Your body tends to more thoroughly digest processed foods, Bontekoe said, comparing corn chips to corn-on-the-cob. When the food is already broken down when you eat it, your body absorbs more of it, he said.
Both sides of the raw milk debate said they were looking out for children.
The Gothards said they were motivated in part by their grandkids, one of whom they believed suffered fungal outbreaks because of a diet with too much processed food.
But kids and people with weakened immune systems shouldn’t drink raw milk, said Kathy Lee, a dairy educator with MSU Extension based out of Lake City.
Fifty years ago, a lot of dairy farmers drank raw milk out of their own coolers, Molhoek said. But the Molhoeks don’t even do that anymore. They buy all their milk from the grocery store.
It’s about the health risk, Molhoek said. “I’m not going to take that risk for my children or my grandchildren.”