Last Thursday, 28-year-old Sarah Clarke posted an ad on Craigslist looking for like-minded friends willing to travel an hour outside D.C. each week to a small Virginia farm where, together, they could buy a cow.
Clarke is not particularly interested in cows, she says. It’s the milk she’s after.
The IT professional is on a special natural food diet and would like a regular supply of raw, unpasteurized milk. But it’s not legal to sell raw milk in Virginia or Maryland, so farmers sell their cows instead.
The practice — called “cowpooling” — is a growing trend in the region and nationwide. Farmers sell ownership shares of their cows or herds to people who then pay a monthly fee to board the animal. After purchasing a share of the cow, new owners are welcome to a share of the milk the animal produces. They then “cowpool,” or carpool each week to pick up their milk. It’s not legal in Maryland, but there are dozens of these small businesses opening up across Virginia.
“It’s a way of getting around [the law], but it’s also perfectly legal,” says Sally Fallon Morell, president of the Westin A. Price Foundation and founder of the Campaign For Real Milk. “There are no laws against the owner of a cow consuming the milk from that cow.”
The practice is part of a greater nationwide debate between natural food advocates and the federal government regarding the safety of raw milk, with both sides claiming to have science on their side.
According to the FDA, raw milk consumption can have serious consequences from renal failure to quadriplegia, especially among at-risk groups. This, they say, is due to unhealthy pathogens in the milk, which, when pasteurized, no longer present a health danger.
But raw milk advocates say the FDA is wrong, and that the unpasteurized product has curative powers for conditions such as osteoporosis, lactose intolerance and tooth decay.
For the cow-share farmers, it’s a slightly risky undertaking. While it is legal, it is also somewhat controversial, and many of the farmers involved don’t want to further publicize their business.
“It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing,” says Jane Thompson, a Virginia farmer who sells cow shares. She asked WTOP to change her name so that her farm would not be identified. “But the demand is there. I have to turn away people.”
Thompson has been running her 32-acre farm in Purcellville, Va. for the last six years, but only started selling cow shares last February, she said. She bought one cow, for about $1,000, and was sold out of shares in one week.
Since then, she’s purchased two more cows and still says she cannot keep up with the demand.
“It kinda exploded,” she says. “This isn’t what we planned.”
Thompson says one cow produces 3 to 4 gallons of milk per day, and one cow share generally provides 1 gallon of milk for the owner per week. The cost is a $50 buy-in, a $35 monthly fee and a $20 deposit for milk jars.
“I think it tastes better. My kids think it does. We’ve had instances where I had to go out and buy milk and my kids can’t stand it,” she says. “They tell me it tastes like plastic.”
Thompson says she caters to a variety of customers. Some are new moms who can’t breastfeed and use the raw milk as part of a formula for their new babies. Others are athletes who believe the product offers superior nutritional value, and others are just curious. Most, however, say they’re interested in the health benefits.
“A lot of people are looking for fresh milk. A lot of people are looking for stuff without the hormones, knowing that their cows don’t get antibiotics,” she says. Pasteurization, she says, is essentially, “heating it up so much that it’s killing everything that’s in it.”
Thompson’s cows are hand-milked directly into stainless steel buckets. The milk is then poured into glass jars and cooled in refrigerators. She says she takes excellent care of her animals, and she can assure customers that they are healthy.
“If they’re not feeling well, we know it. If they have an issue, we know it,” she says. “If you have 150 cows you’re milking at once, which is what a lot of the commercial dairies do, you can’t know. So it’s just a different setup.”
Still, while no one has ever complained of falling ill as a result of the milk her cows provide, she acknowledges it’s a risk. Her customers know that too, she says.