Herd sharing’s natural benefits raise risk worries
DECATUR, Ind. (AP) — In a barn at his farm outside Decatur, Mark Grieshop opens a refrigerator door, pulls out a plastic half-gallon jug of milk and pours himself a tall glass.
He believes it’s some of the best milk money can’t buy.
That’s because in Indiana, it’s illegal to sell for human consumption the kind of milk Grieshop’s farm produces – unpasteurized milk, also known as raw milk.
But Grieshop is one of a growing number of Indiana farmers who, if they can’t sell the milk, are willing to sell the cow instead.
Grieshop’s Pasture’s Delights farm sells shares of its pasture-fed 20-head Ayrshire dairy herd to people who want access to the cows’ unpasteurized product. The 35-year-old farmer says the practice is the equivalent of buying a cow, or part of a cow – and paying him to house, feed, care for and milk it.
Because the animal belongs not to him but to its shareholders, Grieshop says, “they’re free to use their milk however they want.” It’s only illegal if they sell or distribute it to someone else, he says.
Farmers say such herd-share operations allow them to satisfy consumer demand for more natural foodstuffs while implementing what they see as more livestock- and Earth-friendly farming practices. But health officials find the trend risky, citing long-standing laws requiring the heat process known as pasteurization to prevent disease.
In several states, regulators have taken legal action against raw milk farmers. But so far in Indiana, officials haven’t kicked up much fuss about herd shares, nearly three dozen of which are listed at the pro-raw milk website, www.realmilk.com.
Ken Severson, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Health, declined to comment, saying the department has no jurisdiction over herd shares. He referred questions to the state Board of Animal Health, which oversees dairies.
Animal health board spokeswoman Denise Derrer calls herd-share operations “a gray area” of the law.
“Basically, there’s no legal definition of a cow share or a herd share stating whether it’s legal or not legal,” Derrer says. “The challenge for us is that you are allowed to drink (raw) milk from your own cow – that’s not illegal. That’s what gets sticky on these herd shares.”
Derrer says a bill passed in the state Senate in January that would have legalized on-farm sales of raw milk by licensed producers with no more than 20 cows. But those provisions were dropped in favor of a House version which directed the animal health board to study the issue and report to the state legislature by December.
In the interim, she said, the response to herd shares “is complaint-driven, if something is brought to our attention.”
But other officials aren’t happy that raw milk is available, saying people who drink it leave themselves open to potentially major health problems from dangerous or deadly micro-organisms.
The Wells County Department of Health’s website, for example, has been prominently featuring a safety warning.
“I wanted to put it out there because there are dangers to drinking raw milk due to the potential for fecal coliform exposure or E. coli, which may be dangerous, especially for children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems,” says Jennifer Coleman, Wells’ environmental health and food specialist.
Coleman says the department became concerned about raw milk last year when it was being sold as pet food at a farmers market in Bluffton. Health officials were worried people instead of animals might be consuming the milk.
“It’s a hot topic right now,” she says of raw milk. “Some people are convinced of the benefits, and they want to support local farmers. They think because it’s local it’s going to be safe, and I’m not saying it isn’t, but I think it’s (just) an assumption.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also takes a dim view. The CDC in February published a study that found 60 percent of 73 dairy-related outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease between 1993 and 2006 occurred among those who had consumed raw milk. Three people died and 239 were hospitalized among more than 4,400 who became ill.
Indiana has been connected to at least two outbreaks since 2010, including one in which 12 Michigan residents were sickened by campylobacter-tainted raw milk traced to Forest Grove Dairy in Middlebury.
Besides E. coli, unpasteurized milk also can harbor salmonella, listeria and brucella bacteria, health officials say.
But Joshua Crooks says he hasn’t had that kind of experience drinking raw milk.
Crooks, 31, operates a two-cow herd-share program with 28 shareholders at Crooks Valley Farms in Fort Wayne. He says he’s been consuming raw milk for many years without adverse effects.
The second-generation dairy farmer believes it eased his pollen allergies, and he says shareholders who suffer digestive upsets from the sugar found in milk, lactose, have told him they’ve been able to consume the product without symptoms. The Food and Drug Administration, however, labels such claims “myths” on its website about unpasteurized milk.
“We have many testimonies from people who are just excited they can have it,” Crooks says.
“Farmers who are into this are really going above and beyond as far as cleaning the cows and making sure the equipment is clean,” he says. “Everyone who’s come here is amazed to see the cleanliness.”
Emily Shifferly, 32, of Decatur and her three children have been drinking raw milk from Grieshop’s farm for about a year after her family purchased three herd shares that allow them three gallons of milk a week.
“I love it,” she says of the milk, which she says has a fresh taste not present in pasteurized milk.
“My kids can tell the difference if we run out of milk. It’s richer tasting and a little thicker. It just tastes clean.”
She adds: “I think the main reason we like it is we know Mark’s process and we like it. We know he starts at the ground up.”
Grieshop says his way of dairying includes rotational grass grazing, no feeding of E. coli-promoting grain, monthly testing of milk, a hardy breed that produces extra-digestible milk and extra attention to cleanliness.
He began providing raw milk in 2009 after purchasing a non-operating conventional dairy farm and studying biodynamic farming practices that aim to work with nature. He now has about 120 shareholders who pay $100 a share plus a $22 monthly fee for access to a weekly gallon of milk they must pick up at the farm.
Grieshop says the issue boils down to producers reducing and consumers weighing risks.
“I recognize there is risk associated with raw milk,” he says. “As a raw milk producer, we manage risks by . incorporating procedures to lessen those risks.
“I believe in doing things right,” he adds. “And if I am going to farm, I am going to do it right to the best of my ability.”