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Raw milk's genteel cousin finds a fan base
The next best thing

Credit:Carolyn Fath

Dairy purists trumpet raw milk's health benefits and superior flavor. But aside from being able to occasionally obtain raw milk from a dairy farm, they have to turn to the black market for the white fluid.

Wisconsin state law, echoing the scientific and national dairy establishments' public-health mantra that raw milk is dangerous, prohibits its sale except for occasional on-the-farm sales, without advertising, to visitors.

This dispute stands squarely in a familiar battlefield, pitting industrial agriculture with reams of public-health science behind it against small-scale producers lacking a similar volume of scientific support.

Pasteurizing milk by holding it at a high temperature kills harmful pathogens such as E. coli 157, listeria and salmonella. Milk is pasteurized by piping the raw fluid through lines that hold it at 161 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 20 seconds. An alternative to this high-temperature/short-time method is ultra-high-temperature pasteurization, which holds milk at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for one second. Such pasteurization suits large dairy producers well by eliminating pathogens from a process that, on a large scale, is otherwise difficult to keep sanitary.

Raw-milk enthusiasts claim this destroys beneficial bacteria and alters the fat structure within milk, thinning its texture, dulling its taste, and eliminating its complex nutritional virtue. Raw milk supporters favor small dairies that, they say, can more easily control the safe handling of milk.

Waving a white flag in the middle of this conflict stand those favoring vat pasteurization. Favored by some foodies and producers, this legal pasteurization process holds milk at 145 degrees for 30 minutes, providing some of the benefits of raw milk.

"The vat is becoming much more preferred," says Troy DeRosier, a dairy farmer in Osceola. "It causes the least damage to the milk."

DeRosier's Crystal Ball Farms produces raw colby and gouda cheese, and pasteurized cheddars, colby, mozzarella and cheese curds. Crystal Ball also supports a handful of bottled milk delivery routes, with 120 customers in western Wisconsin, and two independently run routes in Minneapolis and St. Paul for another couple hundred customers.

Castle Rock Farms in Osseo produces vat-pasteurized milk and cheeses for various retailers and distributors. Castle Rock milks, cheeses and ice creams can be found in Dane County at the Willy Street Co-op stores and Whole Foods. Carla and Wayne Kostka's operation does not homogenize its milk; buyers of milk and half-and-half see cream separate from the fluid in the bottle.

Vat pasteurization "is as close to raw as possible," says Carla Kostka. "It does not kill off all of the beneficial bacteria and enzymes."

Castle Rock and Crystal Ball farm organically, growing their own feed, pasturing their cows seasonally, and processing milk and dairy products on the farm.

Sales have been growing steadily for both farms, say their owners, with organic market growth. "It has built slowly," says Kostka. "If you watch market trends, [you'll see] the organics are growing."

For DeRosier, cheese keeps the business strong by insulating the dairy from milk price fluctuations.

Cow health figures heavily in the quality of these cheeses and milks. Well-ventilated and clean shelters with long-day lighting keep melatonin and hormone levels high, and free access to pasture ensures a pleasant environment.

The Kostkas and DeRosiers meet a market need that is unlikely to change even as the future of raw milk in Wisconsin may shift. Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed legislation that would have legalized raw milk sales in May 2010. The new Senate Bill 108 would allow certified, small-scale dairies to sell raw milk directly to consumers who provide their own containers. But public relations setbacks may have undermined the bill, sent to committee in May.

A June bacterial outbreak sickened 16 people who drank raw milk at an elementary school potluck in Raymond, Wis. In September, a Dane County judge ruled against a Calumet County dairy that was providing raw milk to customers who had ownership shares in the dairy's herd, a popular work-around by raw milk providers in a number of states that prohibit raw milk sales.

DeRosier, who freely discusses somatic cell counts and udder balance, closely monitors the health of his cows. He has vaccines custom-prepared based on continuous testing of his 100-head herd and its milk, and he maintains a careful diet of various grains year-round, even when cows feed in pastures after winter.

Such care ensures good flavor in the milk, DeRosier insists. "What we feed the cows affects the taste considerably," he says.

Taste isn't the only consideration, of course. "The happier [cows] are, and the healthier they are, the longer they stay alive," says DeRosier.

"A dead cow isn't a profitable one."

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