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Will Raw Milk Save Dairy Farmers?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

will raw milk save dairy farmers

Story at-a-glance -

  • A growing number of dairy farmers have been able to not only climb their way out of a failing industry, but also thrive by switching over to a profitable niche market: raw milk
  • Raw milk farmers can make higher profits while milking fewer cows and selling direct to consumers
  • Sales at Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk dairy in California, grew 18 percent from January 2018 to January 2019
  • As conventional milk farmers are shutting down, licenses for raw milk dairies climbed from six in 2006 in Washington state to 32 in 2019
  • Not only are you supporting your food freedom by sourcing your raw milk from a local farmer, but you’re also helping to support a family farm and the surrounding community

As corporations continue to take control of the food supply, small family farms are giving way to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) mass producing a surplus of poor-quality food. Conventional milk is a prime example. Milk surpluses have led the price of milk to plummet.

In Wisconsin, farmers are getting nearly 40 percent less for their milk than they were in 2014. Nearly 700 dairy farms closed in the state in 2018, most of them small operations.1

As CAFOs became the norm for dairy farms (even in idyllic-seeming dairy states like Vermont), farmers trying to survive were forced to grow their herds and increase milk production using artificial (drug- and hormone-based) methods, among others (like feeding cows an unnatural amount of grain-based food, 24-hour confinement and increased numbers of milkings per day).

Such was the case for Pennsylvania dairy farmer Edwin Shank, who increased his herd size to 350 cows, used growth hormones and milked cows three times a day — only to face financial ruin as milk prices dropped in the 2000s.

Shank's story has a happy ending, though, as he is one of a growing number of farmers who've been able to not only climb their way out of a failing industry, but also thrive by switching over to a profitable niche market: raw milk.2

Raw Milk Farmers Thrive as Others Shut Down

Many consumers seeking out raw milk do so for health purposes or simply because they love the taste, but raw milk has another advantage in that it's helping small farmers to thrive. As Civil Eats reported, Shank was in the process of transitioning his dairy to organic when he realized he could sell organic raw milk for nearly 10 times the price he'd been getting before.

Judith McGeary, an attorney and board member with the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, told Civil Eats, "Dairy is an incredibly consolidated system. The farmer has no bargaining power … Raw milk provides this polar opposite; you have this product in high demand by consumers who value it, and all that profit goes to the farmer."3

Shank's farm, The Family Cow, is now the largest raw-milk producer in Pennsylvania, taking advantage of increasing interest in this fresh, wholesome food. Likewise, Charlotte Smith, a farmer in Oregon, is able to stay in business by milking just three cows, the number the state law allows for raw milk farmers.

"I milk three cows and my neighbor who milks 300 cows could probably make as much money as me if he sold all his cows and milked three," she told Civil Eats.4 Meanwhile, the price of conventional milk has gone so low that an average-sized dairy farm in Vermont (about 125 cows) may operate at a loss of $100,000 a year.5

But for Organic Pastures, the largest raw milk dairy in California, sales grew 18 percent from January 2018 to January 2019. Likewise, as conventional milk farmers are shutting down, licenses for raw milk dairies climbed from six in 2006 in Washington state to 32 in 2019. And in New York, permits for on-the-farm sales of raw milk increased from 12 to 37 over the last several years.6

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CAFOs Destroy Rural Communities

Across the U.S. Midwest, small farms that once raised a mix of crops and livestock over the course of generations have been disappearing, replaced by agribusiness giants growing monocrops of corn and soy and raising thousands of chickens and pigs in inhumane CAFOs.

In Missouri, for instance, the 23,000 pig farmer operations that existed in 1985 have dwindled to about 2,000, while the number of independent cattle farms has also dropped by 40 percent.7 The trickle-down effect put not only the small farmers out of business but also the communities that once thrived around them. The Guardian reported:8

"In 1990, small and medium-sized farms accounted for nearly half of all agricultural production in the U.S.. Now it is less than a quarter. As the medium-sized family farms retreated, the businesses they helped support disappeared. Local seed and equipment suppliers shut up shop because corporations went straight to wholesalers or manufacturers.

Demand for local vets collapsed. As those businesses packed up and left, communities shrank. Shops, restaurants and doctors' surgeries closed. People found they had to drive for an hour or more for medical treatment. Towns and counties began to share ambulances."

At one time, there were 1.6 million independent farms in the U.S. Today, there are about 25,000 contract farms that raise most U.S. poultry, with many of them raising upward of half a million birds annually.9

In many rural areas, there's only one (or maybe two) big chicken companies in town, and farmers have no choice but to enter into exclusive contracts that, for many, saddle them with debt and little recourse if the relationship sours. The story is similar among big pig producers.

As noted by The Guardian, "Iowa Select Farms has one of the fastest-growing CAFO operations in the country, with 800 farms spread through half of the counties in Iowa. Yet few of the economic benefits spill down to the communities around them. Workers are often poorly paid; many are bussed in."10

Raw Milk Can Boost Rural Economies

In sharp contrast, farmers who are able to take control of their own products and offer high-quality foods directly to consumers can often reap great rewards. Only about 3 percent of Americans (more than 9 million people) regularly consume raw milk, but the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) states this could offer a major push to rural economies.

In fact, if 100 farms in Wisconsin could provide raw milk to 50 local families, it would lead to more than $10 million in "increased wealth and well-being" for Wisconsin residents.11

OCA further noted, "A boost like that is exactly what rural economies need as U.S. dairy farmers continue going out of business at an unsustainable rate. In 1950, there were about 3.5 million farms with milking cows. By 2016, there were only 41,809. Between 2015 and 2016, 1725 dairy farms went under."12

How Risky Is Raw Milk, Really?

Public health agencies claim that raw milk is simply too risky for your health to consume, but how dangerous is it, really? Research published in PLOS Currents revealed that while the legal distribution of raw milk has been on the rise, the rate of illnesses associated with raw milk have been on the decline since 2010.

"Controlling for growth in population and consumption, the outbreak rate has effectively decreased by 74 percent since 2005," the researchers wrote.13

Further, citing evidence of the "immunological effects" of raw milk consumption to offer benefits against childhood asthma and respiratory illness, the researchers suggested, "given the potential for significant public health benefits which could be gained from a reduction in immunological disorders, a re-evaluation of the risk/benefit profile of unpasteurized milk is in order."

It's also essential to point out that leafy greens are actually the No. 1 source of food poisoning in the U.S, accounting for nearly half of all illnesses.14 But, as Civil Eats noted, "no one is calling on Americans to stop eating salads."15 CAFO meats are also notoriously dirty.

One study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts, as you would purchase in the grocery store, had an astonishing positive rate of 26.2 percent contamination with salmonella.16

Meanwhile, it's not without irony that raw milk continues to be targeted as an unsafe food while the government-subsidized CAFO model's illness outbreaks are minimized or glossed over. For example, a CDC report on 121 milk outbreaks between 1993 and 2006 focuses on the 73 raw milk outbreaks and barely mentions the 48 involving pasteurized milk.

That same report mentions that there were 4,413 illnesses reported as a result of drinking milk, of which 1,571 were from raw milk. But, rather than pointing out that more illnesses — 2,842 — were from pasteurized milk, they leave it for you to figure out.17 That said, many raw milk producers hold their products to even higher standards than are observed for pasteurized milk.

Take The Family Cow, for example. They run 10 milk sanitation and herd health tests, only three of which are required to sell milk to a pasteurizer. The other seven are extra tests required in Pennsylvania for those selling raw milk directly for human consumption.18

This means the milk produced by CAFOs that ends up pasteurized and shipped to grocery stores across the U.S. may very well be contaminated from the start — it's only the pasteurization process that makes it "safe." Raw milk, on the other hand, is required to be safe from the start.

Anti-Inflammatory Health Benefits of Raw Milk

While raw milk is noninflammatory and inhibits MAST cell release of histamines, pasteurized milk is the most allergenic food in the U.S., Mark McAfee, founder and chairman of the Raw Milk Institute (RAWMI), notes. He also points out that pasteurized milk is often associated with lactose intolerance and is often not digestible by children, whereas raw milk is highly digestible and gut-friendly.

Taken together, raw milk isn't high risk at all but is actually very low risk, with proven health benefits. Among them is alkaline phosphatase, an enzyme found in raw milk, that's known to be anti-inflammatory.

"[I]ntestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), a potent endogenous anti-inflammatory enzyme, is directly stimulated by various components of milk (e.g., casein, calcium, lactose and even fat)," researchers wrote in Medical Hypotheses,19 "… and detoxifies proinflammatory microbial components … making them unable to trigger inflammatory responses and generate chronic low-grade inflammation leading to insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, Type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity, known risk factors for CVD [cardiovascular disease]."

Raw milk also contains protective components that aren't found in pasteurized milk, including antibodies and beneficial bacteria that help to kill pathogens in the milk, as well as compounds that prevent pathogen absorption across the intestinal wall. There are a variety of immune-strengthening components in raw milk as well, including lymphocytes, immunoglobulins and growth factors.20

Support Your Food Freedom and Your Local Farmers

In the U.S., efforts continue to expand access to raw milk — the only food banned from interstate commerce — and, in so doing, protect people's right to eat and drink what they please.

If you're interested in raw milk, in states where the sale of raw milk is legal, RAWMI lists farmers on their website who have gone through their training program and demonstrated, through testing, that their milk is consistently clean and safe.21

In other states, those who want to purchase raw milk often purchase a share of the cow or herd directly from a raw milk farmer. As with all foods, source matters, and this is just as true with raw milk as any other food, so be sure to review these tips for finding high-quality raw milk sources.

Not only are you supporting your food freedom by sourcing your raw milk from a local farmer, but you're also helping to support a family farm and the surrounding community. The further we get from a locally based food economy, the more communities and food quality crumble.

Ultimately, even the basic knowledge of how to grow and raise food will be lost, handed over to corporate giants instead. In this way, seeking out real food from real farmers may not only save dairy farmers, but could be instrumental in saving the food supply as a whole.