How far will fans of raw milk go to get it? When the Jackson family first discovered it, they would drive nearly three hours round-trip from Williamsburg for their fix. That was when they had nine kids and no cows.
Ultimately, Kendra and Timothy Jackson went even further, moving the family to a 66-acre homestead in Warsaw, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, about a year ago. Now, they have 11 kids and three cows, and obtaining unpasteurized milk is as easy as going to the barn (and then, of course, milking the cows).
“Once we started to have the milk, that was it,” said Kendra, 38. “I really love the cows, and all of the kids love milk, so we found a place that was the best deal financially.”
Because of health risks, laws in Maryland, Virginia and the District prohibit the retail sale of unpasteurized milk for human consumption. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required since 1987 that all milk sold across state lines be pasteurized, because it can otherwise contain dangerous bacteria that could cause illness.
But that doesn’t mean the only option for those who want to drink it — who say the purported health benefits outweigh the risks — is to buy a farm and a herd. Virginia allows “cow share” programs in which members pay to own a portion of the herd and receive its milk. And FDA officials say they don’t pursue individuals who transport raw milk across state lines solely for personal consumption. Some delivery programs interpret the laws in their favor — or operate somewhat underground.
Maryland is one of four states that don’t allow cow share programs. In the District, there are no cows to be shared.
“D.C. has no farms, so it’s kind of an anomaly. It’s so close to areas where you can get it that a lot of people in D.C. drink raw milk,” said Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes a diet of whole foods and fats, including raw milk. Best known for her 1999 cookbook “Nourishing Traditions,” Fallon Morell is one of raw milk’s most passionate advocates (and milks her own cows in Maryland).
Because so much of the distribution takes place under the radar, the number of raw-milk drinkers in the region is impossible to pin down. The Price Foundation, which has more than 1,000 members in the District, Maryland and Virginia, estimates that 3 percent of people nationwide drink raw milk. The FDA, meanwhile, puts the number at less than 1 percent.
Joy Alexander, co-owner of Avery’s Branch Farms in Amelia, Va., west of Richmond, said the farm’s herd share program has delivered “hundreds” of shares of milk to members in Northern Virginia each week since its launch six years ago.
She was hesitant to disclose an exact number of members, worried it might draw unwanted attention to the operation. Her family worked with a legal fund at the outset to perfect the wording for its raw-milk program, which is openly advertised on the farm’s Web site. “We had no idea how great the demand would be,” said Alexander, whose farm delivers only to Virginia locations.
Many District drinkers get their fix through buying clubs or “citizens associations.” Instead of driving to Pennsylvania, where retail sale of raw milk is legal, they hire a “driver” (who is often the farmer) to deliver the milk to their neighborhoods.
A woman in Arlington who participates in such a club was eager to share her raw-milk story and invited a reporter to see a delivery firsthand. But when the farmer found out the reporter knew her address, he said he could no longer use her house as the drop-off point for the neighborhood.
“On one hand, I want to make a stink about what the government isn’t allowing,” the woman said, asking that her name not be used. “But, at the same time, my bigger goal is to be able to nourish my family.”
Her fears are not without precedent. Such clubs have been prosecuted, both regionally and nationwide.
In February 2012, a federal judge granted the FDA’s petition for a permanent injunction against a Pennsylvania farmer who said he was “leasing” his cows through a private organization to consumers in the District.
Frustration over the crackdown had spilled onto the Capitol lawn the previous spring, after the FDA filed for the injunction, as members of the farmer’s Grassfed on the Hill buying club milked and drank from a cow in protest. Not much has happened with the group since, and its Facebook page is dedicated more to supporting national raw-milk cases than answering followers’ queries about where to buy the product locally.
Finding folks who consume raw milk in and around the District — and who are willing to be interviewed — is kind of like finding raw milk itself. You have to know the right people. But once a reporter’s query started circulating through the Price Foundation’s membership, e-mail responses flowed in. Many said they had first tasted raw milk, which some describe as rich and creamy, in Europe or in states where sales of the unpasteurized product are legal. Others came to it as part of their quest to consume the least-processed foods.
Some claimed raw milk had cured acid reflux, eczema or osteoporosis, and more than a few said they could drink it despite lactose intolerance with the pasteurized version. The FDA disputes each of those health claims on its Web site.
One woman said she was having trouble finding raw milk in Maryland and didn’t have the time to drive to Pennsylvania. She said she was contemplating buying frozen raw goat’s milk from a pet food store to get her raw-milk fix. “But, I have to admit, I’m a little afraid to try it,” she said.
Several e-mails digressed into rants about the role of government and access to food, including one that ended with the assertion, “but I am really a liberal.”
“In terms of the political spectrum, you’ll find people across the board. It’s not all right or left,” said Chris Downey, 44, of Annandale, who turned his wife and three kids on to raw milk in 2009. “Once you apply some standards to the food you’re eating for you and your kids, it’s just a natural progression to look for something that’s even better.”
Downey said he’s not concerned about health risks, such as the fact that by drinking unpasteurized milk he could be exposed to such bacteria as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. He had to sign a legal agreement as “a free citizen of the United States” to join the citizens association through which he gets the milk. The cost of membership comes to about $7 a gallon.
Hilda Gore, 51, said her first step away from processed foods for her family didn’t take her much farther than the Whole Foods Market near her Adams Morgan home.
Then, she said, after committing to one food tenet, then more — local meat, local eggs, no genetically modified foods — raw milk became “the next step.”
But most of her friends haven’t joined her.
“I don’t run around in hipster, crunchy-granola crowds,” Gore said. “Now and then, I’ll mention it to a neighbor or friend, and some will express dismay, and some will express interest.”
Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.