During my usual breakfast fix of Lucky Charms a few weeks ago, an unusual question popped into my mind as I absentmindedly gazed at my carton of Stonyfield organic milk. I was wondering what the hell ultra-pasteurization was when I thought: do people still consume raw milk? Like most Americans, I purchase and drink grocery-store milk, a substance probably not produced by those happy Guernsey cows freely grazing on the packaging. U.S. milk usually undergoes heavy processing during pasteurization and homogenization, processes designed to create a safe and palatable breakfast beverage. However, real-food proponents often opt for more “natural” versions, including grass-fed or “gently-pasteurized” brands. But what about raw milk, freshly squeezed from the precious udders of a hay-chewing cow? Can I purchase it legally in the U.S., and more importantly, would I die from salmonella if I drank it?
Raw milk proponents argue that in addition to killing off “good” bacteria, pasteurization destroys milk’s full nutritional value, claims which have been fervently refuted by the FDA. And since the US tends to illegalize anything remotely detrimental to the human body, only 28 states can sell raw milk, including Illinois. Even then, farmers must abide by stringent regulations, including no advertisement or marketing of their products. Another controversial aspect of raw milk (and whole milk in general) is its high fat content. For nearly 50 years now, the health profession has recommended skim or low-fat versions, although no substantial evidence exists suggesting that whole milk (or fat in general) causeshealth issues like diabetes.
Eager to learn more about raw milk, I decided to visit one of the few farms in Chicago that sells it: Barrington Natural Farms (BNF). Owned by Cliff McConville and Konda Dees, BNF is a small local farm that prides itself on organically-raised grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chicken and pork, raw milk, and free-range eggs. They don’t spray pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, nor do they use hormones, fungicides, or synthetic medicines (unless the animal’s life in danger).
I arrive at this green, organic oasis just in time to help Cliff with his evening chores. Part-time businessman and part-time farmer, Cliff is an unpretentious sort of guy with a warm laugh and affable disposition. An early sunset keeps introductions brief, and we head off to collect the chicken eggs before it gets too dark. We drive five minutes to a nearby plot of leased land, labeled by a crooked “Barrington Farms” sign. Cliff and I hop the fence and make way towards the chicken enclosure, a large coop enclosed by an electric barrier meant to deter coyotes and other predators. Smashed patties of cow manure, topped with freshly molted feathers, dot the land like fecal landmines, but the pasture smells remarkably fresh (a pleasant surprise as I’d prepared for an invisible wall of vomit-inducing stench).
Cliff practices rotational grazing by relocating his chickens to partitioned pasture areas, which reduces overgrazing and allows for easier nutrient control. However, the process is labor and time-intensive: he uses his truck to drag the coop across the pasture and must rearrange the electric barrier every time. The chickens, busy picking grubs and parasites from the manure, greet us with loud squawks, while the geese (meant to guard the chickens from aerial predators) glare at us from a distance.
We climb onto the coop, where Cliff proceeds to fill his basket with little brown ovals of organic goodness. When he accidentally cracks one fragile egg and tosses it onto the ground, the chickens flock violently to consume the remains. I’m surprised by such carnivorous behavior, but Cliff informs me that egg-eating is actually fairly common.
After collecting the eggs, feeding the chickens, and pouring a bit of apple vinegar into their water (to help with digestion), we pay a quick visit to the cows. These majestic beasts wander slowly through the field, pausing only briefly to ensure I wasn’t a predator. One curious cow tentatively approaches me to sniff my hand before ambling off in search of fresh turf. Although some cattle are bred for meat, Cliff keeps his dairy cows (the Guernsey girls) for at least ten to twelve years.
Our final stop is the pigs, who snort with excitement upon the prospect of receiving leftover milk. These spotted, stout Berkshire porkies are remarkably clean, unlike the feces-covered swine squealing in anguish on PETA propaganda. No, these pigs are well-fed and well-treated, and I can only imagine how succulent Wilbur tastes on an open spit. Curious about the “farm to table” movement, I ask Cliff whether restaurants actually buy pigs and cows from the farm. He replies that the seasonality and scale of his farm means he can’t readily supply restaurants with a constant supply of animal products. Although some chefs do purchase milk or pigs (including Zimmerman of Sepia), most of his customers are individual consumers, most of whom are very health-conscious. In fact, a sizable majority of his customers are Eastern Europeans who enjoy eating grass-fed meat and homemade kefir.
Not that demand’s a problem. In addition to the growing interest in local organic food, the farm’s proximity to Chicago and high quality of farming means Cliff can command a high price for his products. Eggs are 50 cents apiece, and raw milk is ten bucks a gallon. Although Cliff eventually plans to expand BNF and work as a full-time farmer, he’s content with his operation for now. He tells me that many farms masquerade as “small, family farms” while raising thousands of chickens for retailers and restaurant empires (e.g. Rick Bayless). For Cliff, quantity comes second to quality, and he’s staunch on producing superior, nutrient-dense foods.
After returning to the farm with our eggs, we proceed to milk the five dairy cows, gathered expectantly by the gate’s door. Cliff tries to get the cows pregnant at least once a year to ensure a steady milk supply. Although the Guernsey gals naturally forage on grass and hay, Cliff supplements their diets with organic grain and alfalfa to boost their caloric intake, especially during the winter.
Milking is actually quite an elaborate process, involving pumps, machinery, and sanitation protocols. First, Cliff cleans the udders with a moist towel before dousing them with iodine to kill off remaining pathogens. He then attaches the milking apparatus, a system of tubes, teat cups, and pumps reminiscent of some futuristic prop off the set of Alien. The five cows know their milking order, but weary of a stranger’s presence, pause before entering the stall, eying me with a mix of suspicion and fear. But the allure of molasses-flavored grain quickly overrides any lingering trepidation, and they quickly trot into the barn for their daily treat. After Cliff finishes pumping the cows, he pours the product into a cooling tank, which filters and rapidly cools the milk to a safe temperature of 4°C-6°C.
The frothy, raw milk smells intensely sweet and appears quite yellow, as Guernsey milk contains an unusually high content of beta carotene (and more protein and cream in general). The taste resembles light cream, laced with a kind of sweet earthiness reminiscent of perfectly-ripe fruit. Combined with the buttery froth and silken smooth finish, the milk was nothing short of sublime.
Like many food movements, raw milk proponents may seem like petty extremists, the kind of health-nut hipsters you want to throw Chicken McNuggets at. But after visiting BNF and seeing the level of care that goes into raw milk (and organic farming in general), I think more people should try (and support) raw milk. Because it’s not the idyllic, happy farm fantasy that changed my mind—it’s those few, hard-working Midwesterners whose passion and honest ideals remind me that good food is natural food.