Drink the Original Good Stuff (December 12, 2007)

In late August of this year, we were still cleaning up the last bales of hay from Navarro Ridge. There is no better place in the world to stack hay than up where the wind gusts off the ocean on sunny afternoons while the rest of the continent is mired in the dog days. With a cool breeze, we gleaned the bales from the driest ridgetops last, where the hay was more like golden straw, and the baling wires were already rusting from that salty ocean fog.

Once our trailer was stacked, we drove up along the backbone to the house of a longtime resident, Thelma Ray, who has lived on Navarro Ridge since before World War One. 

She is tall, with white hair and piercing eyes, gets around pretty well, and sharp as a tack. Thelma let us into her living room to talk business. She owns a piece of bottom ground along the Navarro River’s brackish tidewaters, just before it dumps into the Pacific. “We used to grow Bantam sweet corn down there,” she said. “It ripened late. Other years, we planted potatoes or peas. Never had to water the crops; the water table was so high.”

Thelma talked about how they’d lived through the Depression years, when she’d been in her late teens and early twenties.

“It was the same as before, for us. We milked cows, grew barley and oats, fed pigs, kept sheep. We did everything for ourselves back then. I got spoiled by it, I guess, because I can’t even eat the ham they sell at the supermarket. I don’t like the chickens or the eggs. Our eggs were always orange of the yolk, and we sent our pullets out to pasture in the spring, raised them up on grass, and finished them on barley, and oats, the last month. I’m spoiled. I’m too picky. And when I buy milk, I have to get a bottle of half and half and mix it with it, so the cream floats to the top, like the milk we had when I was a girl. I milked the cows for years. I bet I can milk better than you.”

“I know you can,” I said. “I’d hate to even try.”

“You can’t buy milk like that, these days. I’m 93 years old, still as mean as when I was 20.” 

When we had that conversation in August though neither Thelma nor I knew it, we could have purchased milk like she drank on her family’s ranch as a child. We could have gone to the Natural Foods Co-op in Ukiah and spent $8 on a half gallon of milk that had been bottled straight from the cow, neither pasteurized (ultra-pasteurized), nor homogenized.

Organic Pastures dairy has been providing fresh, unadulterated milk since the turn of the century, or for about seven years now, to health food stores throughout California. They keep their cows on pasture year-round down in Fresno and milk them with a mobile trailer that follows the herd from one sea of green grass to another.

There are several different categories of milk you can buy. There is, on one end of the spectrum, the homogenized, pasteurized, economy milk that most likely comes from dairies of 10,000 cows or more with hundreds of Mexican men working round the clock where the cows spend their lives on concrete eating concentrates of grain, silage, and alfalfa hay, injected with hormones that keep them producing longer without freshening and calving. Their tanks are filling tractor-trailers with watered down milk that is like Coors Lite from cows, with somewhere around 2% fat. Nobody dares drink that stuff raw — not even the calves — due to the chances that the excessive puss and manure levels from sick, incarcerated cows would have infected their emissions with salmonella or E coli 01757 — the really bad version. 

Next on the spectrum is the milk from organic mega-dairies cashing in big time, these days, like Horizon, based in Colorado. These guys feed thousands of cows in mostly confinement settings, allowing them only nominal access to pasture, and they like to push measures through the USDA to allow for “emergency” feeding of non-organic grain to cows, if organic is not “commercially” available — in other words, if non-organic grain is cheaper, or closer. They have to cook the milk from these cows too.

Nearly forgotten, as well as derailed and run out of business, are the millions of family farmers who have kept sound dairy practices, loved their herd and kept the cows mostly on pasture whenever the weather permitted, and otherwise fed mostly alfalfa and silage, only offering corn or other grains in the milking stalls. But they were too old-fashioned, weary, and behind the times to convert their operations to organic. Those people raised their children on raw milk, and never worried. 

Next are the organic dairies that are pasture based, like those up in southern Humboldt’s Ferndale region, along the Eel river, or the Straus Creamery down in Marin. The Straus Creamery is one step apart because they bottle their own milk, as well as some exceptional yogurt and butter, and, while they pasteurize their milk, they do not homogenize it, so the cream still floats to the top of each glass bottle.

Finally, you have two dairies in California where they keep their cows solely on pasture so they don’t have to pasteurize their milk. That would be the Organic Pastures dairy in Fresno, and Claravale dairy in San Benito County. The Claravale dairy has been in operation since before the dawn of the Great Depression — more than eighty years — and has never encountered one case of illness as a result of ingestion of their milk. Both these dairies undergo rigid testing for pathogens such as E coli 01757, Salmonella, and Listeria. 

Rigid testing is an understatement, in the case of the Organic Pastures dairy, which was banned from selling milk for weeks on end last year following the outbreak of E Coli 01757 eventually traced to bagged spinach. The state sent a team of inspectors to the mobile milking facility near Fresno at 5 o’clock in the morning, armed with rubber gloves that reached up to their shoulders. The state’s milk police proceeded to reach those gloved fists into the anus of each cow as she left the milking room, probing all the way into the stools to pull out samples of dung. They stopped and goosed every last cow. It must have been quite a sight for Mark McAfee, co-operator of the dairy, there in the pre-dawn haze.

“These cows are healthy,” he said. “They eat fresh grass every day, like cows are meant to. You won’t find any pathogens. Go to a feedlot, if you want to find pathogens.”

Indeed, the E coli 01757 outbreak of 2006 that was originally blamed in the media on organic spinach farmers’ use of manures was traced to spinach that had not even been organically grown, but had been irrigated with water from a ditch contaminated with manure from a nearby cattle feedlot. 

The state tested samples of manure and dirt from all over McAfee’s farm, and found no pathogens. 

Meanwhile, wading through the bullshit in the media regarding the mysterious outbreak of E coli that they’d first tried to blame on organic practices, then tried to pass the buck to Organic Pastures because two of the victims had consumed their raw milk in addition to spinach from the fatal batch of Natural Selection’s deceptively-named non-organic product, I read and heard statements by spokespersons for industry and government inspection agencies who still pretended to wonder how the spinach had been infected — even after finding E Coli 01757 in the water of the irrigation ditch due to run-off from the cattle feedlot. “It could have been wild pigs,” said one pundit. “Or a flock of wild birds flying over. We don’t know.” 

So after two weeks of preventing Organic Pastures dairy from selling their milk, the state had no choice but to lift the ban, go back to their little boardrooms, and think up a better way to run the raw dairies out of business. These renegade dairymen had to be stopped! Their milk was fetching $16 a gallon in the grocery stores, double the price of the pasteurized stuff, and it was disappearing from the shelves as quickly as it was stocked. People were standing in line. They loved it. This was not good for Big Dairy. 

The Big Dairy lobby came up with a plan. Secretly, without public notification, AB1735 was passed in the California legislature, signed on October 8 by the governor, a bill that included fine print quietly setting a new “standard” for commercial raw milk. As of January 1, 2008, coliform bacteria count in the bottled milk cannot exceed 10 per milliliter.

Coliform bacteria are omnipresent in the environment, in the digestive tracts of humans, ruminants, and also to be found on the skin, not only of animals but plants. Apples are covered with these bacteria. There is hardly a square inch on this planet that is not teeming with these little benign creatures. It is possible, some scientists theorize, that humans would die off without the help of coliform bacteria. These micro-organisms boost the immune system and aid in digestion of food. Many of the people who snatch up the raw milk as soon as it appears in the coolers at the health food stores purchase it because they desire the coliform bacteria.

The limit of 10 coliform per milliliter is impossible to meet in bottled raw milk, according to both Mark McAfee of Organic Pastures and Ron Garthwaite of Claravale dairy. While the bulk tanks are sometimes under the limit, the process of bottling breaks up clusters of the bacteria and increases the count.

“I would agree on a limit of 100 coliform per milliliter, but this would only be for quality control, not for health reasons,” said Garthwaite. He said that the coliform count goes up in raw milk over a period of time and that the taste starts turning sour somewhere well above 100 per milliliter, but that this is not a health concern. It is more like the difference between a ripe watermelon and one that is turning overripe.

Garthwaite has been quoted in Big Media, Big Ag’s twin sister, as a counter to McAfee, with articles in newspapers like the SF Chronicle actually suggesting that Garthwaite might be in favor of the new law, stating that “it’s hard to argue against a coliform limit. It’s a contaminant, and if you are doing things cleanly, it shouldn’t be in there.”

Angered by the selective use of his words for the soundbite meant (no doubt) to make Mark McAfee ring out like a crackpot, as well as to disarm consumers who stand to lose their only avenue to fresh milk from healthy cows, Garthwaite posted a letter on the internet, stating his actual position. “For many years now we have been telling our customers that there is no conspiracy within the CDFA to eliminate raw milk; that the state was actually very supportive of the product. We were dead wrong… They are simply much more devious, two-faced, and sinister than I could have imagined.”

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