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Buying Raw Milk in Tennessee

Since we milk seasonally (March/April through December/January), there are 2-3 months where we don't have any of our own milk. No milk for coffee, no milk for cheese, none for our cereal, etc. Of course, all of the milk we drink is raw, unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk, and we'd like to continue drinking raw milk even when our goats are not lactating.

Raw milk mozzarella "bocconcini" made with milk from Brian's Jersey cows

So we buy milk from a local farmer that produces raw cow's milk from Jersey cows. His name is Brian Harville and you can find his contact info through the Tennesseean's For Raw Milk website by contacting Shawn Dady. I believe he delivers to Murfreesboro, Nashville and many surrounding suburbs. Brian was recently featured in The Tennessean in an article titled "Health Claims of Raw Milk Debated. Farmer Sees Increased Demand, Despite a Lack of Government Oversight".

Brian rotationally grazes his 20+ herd of Jersey cows on a farm about 10 minutes away from us. I go once per week and pick-up two gallons of milk for us to drink and a few gallons of milk for Sweetbreads to make cheese with (which we split with Brian and his family).

Sounds all well and good, right? Milk straight from the cows, from a farmer we know, just down the road. Well, in many states it would be totally illegal for us to pay for his milk. Fortunately, it's perfectly legal in Tennessee.

You see, raw milk isn't the milk you get in stores. It hasn't been pasteurized and therefore it's considered dangerous by the FDA, USDA, etc. Pasteurization is the process by which milk is heated to a high temp for a certain period of time and all of the good and bad bacteria and enzymes are killed off. When you pasteurize milk it loses a lot of the good stuff that it once contained, and you're left with a glorified version of water. No wonder milk sales continue to decline every year. There's just not a lot of value (or taste) to that stuff you find in stores.

Yet as conventional milk sales decline, raw milk sales are shooting through the roof. What is it that consumers are finding so valuable in this "new" milk? Maybe it's the fact that it tastes better. Maybe it's that by knowing their farmer consumer's can see where the milk is coming from and the whole "food chain" is transparent. Maybe customers enjoy supporting a local dairy farmer who is taking a huge risk in a dying industry. Maybe it helps their asthma, or cures their "lactose intolerance", or any number of other possible reasons.

BUT, even in Tennessee it's not ALWAYS legal to buy this milk. You can't go to Whole Foods and get raw milk. It won't be readily available at your local farmer's market either. What you have to do is sign up for a Livestock Boarding Agreement (more commonly referred to as a "herd share" agreement). This entitles you to a percentage of the production of the cow's milk at your farmer's farm. Your payment is a fee for his labor and your milk is the milk that comes out of the cows on his property. It's pretty simple, but you have to sign a contract acknowledging the risks of raw milk.

Another option would be to buy raw milk labeled as "pet food" and drink it yourself. I prefer signing the herd share approach. I like to be straight-forward about my intentions and I appreciate farmers who do the same. I like farmers who aren't trying to game the system, the result of which may ultimately compromise the system. By labeling raw milk "pet food" they're not fooling anyone, just making the authorities angry.

Anway, back to the herd share. In a herd share agreement the customer pays upfront for a certain percentage of the herd's milk production over a future period of time and agrees to pick up their milk at a specified times and locations (usually once per week). This isn't a grocery store system. You get milk once per week, direct from the farmer, for a specified fee. The fee is generally quarterly, and there's a flat-rate, upfront commitment fee as well (probably around $50). If you need more or less milk one week, too bad. If you're out of town, too bad. You get a percentage of each week's milk no matter what, and you have to pay for it. You're paying for the farmer's labor, whether you pick-up the milk or not.

This whole rigamarole could be viewed as a hassle, but at least there are LEGAL ways to purchase raw milk in TN. In some states it wouldn't even be an option. And that's pretty sad. You might not even have the freedom to buy the milk you want to drink. You have to buy the milk the government tells you to drink.

Want to learn more about raw milk laws in your state? Visit the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund Site at: http://www.farmtoconsumer.org/raw_milk_map.htm.

I plan to write a few posts on raw milk, since there's so much to discuss. Next up will be: Questions for the Layperson to Ask Their Raw Milk Farmer.

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