There is a quiet but strong movement in Maine, one that mirrors the growing grass-roots demand for local, natural and organic foods.
Raw milk is being sold in record volume, and the nearly two dozen dairy farms licensed to sell raw milk say its popularity is growing by leaps and bounds, pushed by consumers seeking alternatives to chemicals, antibiotics and artificial hormones sometimes found in conventional dairy farming.
“Oh my goodness,” Cecil Linscott of White’ s Orchard Farm in Frankfort said. “It is wildly popular. We haven’ t had to advertise in years. In fact, I’ ve been turning customers away.”
Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized before consumption — in other words, straight from the cow or goat to the consumer without being processed.
“We definitely sell more raw milk than pasteurized,” Doug Obenhaus, grocery manager at Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport said recently. He said there was a customer demand before a bottle ever went on the shelf. The store currently sells about 90 gallons a week.
“Customers generally purchase it, as with many of our products, because raw milk is in it’ s unadulterated form — just like anytime someone wants a fresh version of something over a canned or frozen product.”
At Linscott’ s farm, he deliberately keeps his herd small. “This affords me greater control over the quality of the product,” he said. He gently brushes the hide of each cow before she is milked, often is heard singing to them, and is gentle and careful. His cows have names, not numbers, like Bert, Half Pint, Cider, Charlene, Buttermilk and Maddy.
This type of personal, hands-on farming is what consumers are looking for.
“People are getting disenchanted with the conventional food system,” Ann Wilson, Linscott’ s wife, said this week. When the couple pulls into a Bangor natural foods store on Friday, there is a line waiting for the raw milk.
“There has never been a milk truck pull in this farm,” Linscott said. Since 1993, he has sold all his milk raw to cooperatives and markets, ice cream, yogurt and cheese processors, and even delivers a few gallons to local homes.
Fresh from the cow, the milk is bottled by hand in old-fashioned glass bottles, capped and set in icy water to cool down. Almost immediately, the cream begins to rise to the top.
“This is the real thing,” Linscott said.
Maine is one of only nine states that allow the sale of raw milk at retail stores. In some states it may be sold at the farm, while in 22 states, its sale is banned. Raw milk has an average shelf life of 10 days.
“We are aware that this has always been a segment in Maine that has had great interest,” Julie Marie Bickford of the Maine Diary Industry Association said. “But we are seeing a big push recently, part of the back-to-basics, buy local food choice.”
Bickford said that there has never been a serious effort to eliminate raw milk sales in Maine. “We like to keep all options for value-added products on the table,” she said.
Consumers are willing to pay between $4.50 and $10 per gallon for raw cow’ s milk, compared to the $2 a farmer usually recoups.
“We want to keep farmers’ options open, while making sure the consumers are comfortable that they are buying a safe product.”
Linscott produces about 50 gallons of milk daily and markets it at $4.50 a gallon or $2.75 a half gallon — more than double he would receive from conventional milk processors.
Bickford said milk is the country’ s most highly regulated product, and that includes raw milk. “Those folks have to maintain some fairly rigid quality standards set by the Maine Department of Agriculture. There is strong pressure to make sure it is a very high quality product.”
Kathy Cotton of the MDAG Dairy Inspection Program said that in 2000, as part of a major overhaul of the milk rules, the Legislature affirmed that raw milk could be sold in stores. “Not Pasteurized” is the required label, Cotton said, and in Maine, that covers cow’ s, sheep and goat’ s milk.
“We have seen a large increase in the past five years,” Cotton said. “There are now 20 farms that are licensed in Maine.”
Bo Gallup at Morris Family Farm in Wiscasset said he sold about 450 gallons, or $3,000 worth of raw cow’ s milk last year.
“It is interesting to me when we get calls or drop-ins from out of state, often New Yorkers, who come by and get 10 or more half-gallons at a time,” Gallup said. “Many Mainers will drive 30 or 40 minutes, or more, to pick up milk from us.”
According to a raw milk advocates’ group, RealMilk.com, “raw milk is nature’ s perfect food.” RealMilk.com claims that raw milk aids in developing children’ s brains and nervous systems, may cure autism, behavior problems, deafness, asthma, allergies and other health issues.
John O’ Donnell of Monmouth raises grass-fed beef and after researching their by-products became an avid proponent of raw milk.
“I wouldn’ t drink [pasteurized] milk unless I was starving,” he said.
“I’ m not a scientist, but I did a lot of research while on my own personal quest for a healthy diet,” he said. “I believe that the heating of milk, the pasteurization, disables many benefits of milk. The homogenization breaks down the fat in the milk and plays a role in heart disease.”
O’ Donnell has been drinking only raw milk for seven years. “My immune system has definitely been boosted,” he said. O’ Donnell flies quite a bit and said that he used to get a cold every time. “Not any more,” he said.
This is not a universal opinion.
“We advise not to drink it,” Dr. Dora Mills, Maine’ s Public Health Director, said. “It has been associated with infections such as E.coli and others, particularly in vulnerable populations such as young children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also advises consumers to beware, stating that it is “inherently dangerous” and should not be consumed by anyone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that raw milk is a source of infections from salmonella, E. Coli and other bacteria. Between 1998 and 2005, 1,000 people were sickened and two died from raw milk, the CDC reported.
These sentiments don’ t deter believers, however.
“I believe there is some good science behind the benefits of raw milk that reinforces customer demand,” Obenhaus said. “I don’ t know that raw milk will ever hit the big time market for mainstream customers, partly because of the unwarranted fear that not pasteurizing milk will make them sick — my 5-year-old daughter has drunk raw all her life — and partly because the nature of raw milk — — a short shelf life compared to pasteurized or ultrapasteurized products — requires close relationships with local farms.”
O’ Donnell said he pays $3.99 for a half-gallon. “I would pay more than that if I had to,” he said. “It is that important.”