Life, liberty and the pursuit of raw milk

By Mike Hixenbaugh
January 7, 2013, Via Hamptonroads.com
Jeremiah Crane, 21, does the evening milking, a chore that has been a rite of passage for the Crane children. (Preston Gannaway | The Virginian-Pilot

Jeremiah Crane, 21, does the evening milking, a chore that has been a rite of passage for the Crane children. (Preston Gannaway | The Virginian-Pilot

It’s a scorching summer morning, and David Crane is standing with arms stretched wide in the middle of a pasture.

He steps cautiously toward a stubborn cow, cajoling her to move out of the heat and into a shady patch a few hundred feet away.

“Come on, girl,” he says quietly, almost whispering. “It’s OK.”

The cow bucks suddenly, knocking the husky middle-aged farmer off-balance and onto the ground in a cloud of dust. Crane hops back up, pats the dirt from his blue jeans and moves in again, arms wide, toward the cow.

“She’s bigger,” Crane says, smiling. “But I’m right.”

The offhand comment might as well be tattooed across his chest.

This soft-spoken husband and father of nine has made a life out of standing up to authority in defense of his beliefs.

Two decades ago in Norfolk, Crane earned a reputation as one of the most ardent abortion protesters in Virginia. So wedded to principle, he once spent 45 days in jail after refusing to honor a judge’s order to stop picketing outside a clinic.

His name had long since faded from the headlines by the time he moved his family out to the Tidewater countryside in 1999 in search of a quieter lifestyle.

Quieter, yes. But, as it turns out, no less controversial.

When David Crane bought a milk cow a decade ago, he didn’t expect to start a business. And he wasn’t looking to pick a fight.

But that could be exactly what he gets.

Some 60 miles of rolling farmland and pine forest separate Elizabeth Minor’s suburban Richmond home from David Crane’s small family farm. A hundred Google queries and a common desire for fresh, natural milk helped close the divide.

Minor was a few months pregnant when she started her foray into the world of natural parenting. She became a regular on several progressive-minded mommy blogs and borrowed library books that extolled the merits of organic foods.

She started shopping at farmers markets and experimenting with meatless dinner recipes. She dumped all her household cleaning chemicals and replaced them with homemade solutions. She planted a garden and started a compost pile.

Without knowing it, she became part of a nationwide movement of “radical homemakers” – a growing number of hip, young parents who save money by canning foods from the garden, making yogurt from scratch and other old-timey skills.

“I was reading a lot about the value of living naturally and eating seasonally, and it just kind of snowballed from there,” said Minor, a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom. “I was trying to create a simpler lifestyle, and by the time my daughter was born two years ago, eating quality, natural food was really a priority.”

Soon Minor’s holistic awakening led her to seek an illicit white substance – unpasteurized, unhomogenized, untampered-with, creamy, natural, raw milk.

That led her, indirectly, to David Crane.

A bit of background: People have been drinking raw milk for a long time, at least since goats were domesticated 10,000 years ago. Raw cow’s milk – rich in protein and fat – became a staple of the early American diet.

But milk straight from the udder also can contain any number of pathogens, which is why most doctors consider pasteurization – the process of super-heating, then quickly cooling milk – one of the great public-health success stories of the past century.

Today, raw milk is a darling among the growing hordes of foodies who cram aisles at Whole Foods and line up at farmers markets and who have turned organic food into a $30 billion industry.

Advocates trumpet raw milk’s rich taste and its potential health benefits. Pasteurization, they argue, kills the good bacteria along with the bad, and it’s necessary only when milk is produced on industrial feed lots – not small family farms where cows are free to graze. Raw milk also jibes with the increasing demand for local foods and appeals to the growing numbers of socially conscious consumers who want to know that farm animals are treated well.

There’s one big problem: Across much of the country, it’s illegal to sell the stuff. A handful of states allow raw-milk sales at grocery stores, while others restrict sales to farm stands.

Public health officials sternly warn against drinking raw milk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website includes links to stories about people who have died following E. coli and listeria outbreaks tied to unpasteurized milk.

“I can’t imagine people who feed raw milk to their children,” said Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates food sales in the state. “To me, it’s akin to the parents taking a 6-year-old girl to a crowded theater to see ‘Batman’ at midnight. She got killed.”

Lidholm was referring to the July mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that left 58 wounded and 12 dead, including a young girl.

She apologized for the grisly analogy, made before the December shootings at a Connecticut school, then pointed out that Virginia is one of 20 states with an outright ban on the sale of raw milk.

“It’s illegal here,” she said. “That’s the law.”

But this is still America, and no law restricts people from drinking milk from their own cow. So finding a way to legally bring raw milk to tables in Hampton Roads and elsewhere in the commonwealth would require some creativity – and a bit of backbone.

Enter David Crane and Holly Grove Farm.

It’s a long and winding drive from Norfolk to Ivor, but it’s one that David Crane was ready to make by 1998.

The Old Dominion University graduate was eager for some peace and quiet after half a lifetime in the city. He found it in a 21-acre plot of land about an hour west of his hometown.

Crane was so excited to begin his new rural life that he moved his pregnant wife, Pam, and eight children into a single-wide trailer on the property while he built the home of their dreams.

“We were ready to spread out a bit,” Crane said, sitting in the kitchen of that home some 14 years later. “This was always the dream.”

Not long after moving into the trailer, Crane took the next logical step toward becoming a man of western Tidewater: He bought a cow.

His 15-year-old daughter milked it for a 4-H project, and Crane grew to love the taste.

“There’s no better cream for your coffee,” Crane said.

Two years later, an elderly couple sold Crane another cow, and soon he was sharing jars of milk with friends from church and family members. Still, the cows were making more milk than Crane could give away.

“A friend mentioned this idea of starting a cow share, and I did some reading,” Crane said.

Under a cow share, customers buy “shares” of a cow and enter into a contract with the farmer, paying monthly fees to board and care for the animal. Because it’s technically their cow, the shareholders are free to drink the milk without pasteurizing it. The concept – some call it a loophole – had caught on in a handful of other states with bans on raw-milk sales. But as far as Crane could tell, nobody was doing it in southeastern Virginia.

“I thought it sounded like a great idea,” Crane said. “I didn’t realize at the time it was controversial.”

One thing led to another, and a family business was born. His wife keeps the books, and his home-schooled children earn money milking.

Today, more than 80 people own shares of cows in Crane’s herd at Holly Grove Farm. His 21-year-old son delivers more than 100 gallons of milk every week to drop-off sites in Norfolk, Hampton, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

So far, state food regulators have left him alone.

Crane hopes it stays that way.

Many years ago, back before Vijaya Stallings had his spiritual awakening in the Chihuahuan Desert, friends and family in Newport News knew him by his birth name.

John Stallings spent 18 years working in corporate finance before he discovered Ayurveda and changed his name. The ancient Hindu system of natural medicine and healing “spoke” to him. At the age of 48, he quit his high-paying job in Monterrey, Calif., and moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to learn the art of holistic therapy.

Today, at 68, Stallings counsels more than 300 clients at the Space Above Yoga Studio in Norfolk’s Ghent, where he offers Ayurvedic massages, naturally cleansing facials, and advice on diet and lifestyle.

On his website, Stallings writes about the nature of his therapy: “This process of knowing one’s own wholeness will empower one to draw guidance from within, and allow a process of self-healing to cultivate.”

Part of that journey, for many of his clients, leads straight to Holly Grove Farm.

“The highly processed diet in this country is terrible, and it’s having dire health consequences,” Stallings said. “If I go to a tree and pick fruit from it and eat it in that form, then the human body will most likely be able to receive it and process it…. It’s the same with the milk.”

The distance between Stallings’ new-age philosophy and Crane’s traditionalist Christian faith is as wide as the gap between the tea party and French socialists.

Raw milk unites them.

The list of people who have signed up to buy shares in Crane’s cows since he started advertising online eight years ago is as diverse as it is surprising.

There’s Minor, whose accountant husband eventually signed off on the idea of feeding their daughter raw milk after careful reading and prayer. She visited the farm with her mother and was comforted by the sight of cows grazing freely and a clean milking process.

And there’s Ramakrishna Javvaji, a Virginia Beach man who likes raw milk because it reminds him of what he drank while growing up in India. He especially likes colostrum – the sweet, creamy milk that comes in the weeks after a cow gives birth.

And Lorri Sitterdain, a mom whose home serves as a milk pick-up point for cow-share owners who live in Virginia Beach. She swears that her children’s lactose allergies disappeared when they went to raw milk.

The list also includes a lawyer, an engineer, a Chick-fil-A owner, a dietitian, hipsters, hippies, conservatives, liberals and libertarians.

Crane likes raw milk because it represents values he holds high – “freedom, liberty, individual responsibility.”

On the farm, the stubborn cow finally relents and moves toward shade.

“She just needed some encouragement,” Crane says with a satisfied smirk.

This life – herding cattle in middle-of-nowhere Tidewater – is one the 54-year-old never imagined growing up the son of a construction business owner in Norfolk’s Talbot Park neighborhood. He also never expected he’d be helping fuel a holistic food revolution. But it’s a role he relishes.

Despite a surge in demand, his little farm is one of only two offering cow shares and raw-milk delivery to sites in Hampton Roads.

For a $100 up-front payment and a $35 monthly boarding fee, customers can buy a share of a cow, which equates to about a gallon of milk per week. For another $10, Crane’s son will deliver the milk to one of five drop sites.

Crane talks publicly about the operation with some reservation. He wants to promote a service he believes in, but he fears drawing unnecessary attention to a business model that state regulators haven’t formally taken a stance on.

Lidholm, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman, said the state doesn’t have a specific statute addressing the dissemination of raw milk through cow shares.

And although she believes “cow shares are an attempt to circumvent the illegality of raw-milk sales,” she said there has been no effort to crack down on them in Virginia.

North Carolina took a similar stance until 2004, when state lawmakers passed a law outlawing herd-share operations. Those seeking raw milk there either have to smuggle it across state lines from South Carolina, where it’s legal, or buy it locally under the guise of pet food. A handful of other states have moved to ban cow shares.

Crane, who has taken a quieter approach to his anti-abortion activism since moving to the country, says he didn’t set out to stir controversy. He said he respects food regulators and believes their heart is in the right place. But he believes people should be free to make their own health decisions.

“Risk is inherent in everything we do,” Crane says, sitting again in his kitchen. “It’s safer to drink our milk than to drive on I-64.”

He lifts a small Mason jar of creamy, white milk to his lips, gulps twice, then holds the empty jar out in front of him.

“At least the milk tastes good.”

Mike Hixenbaugh, 757-446-2949, mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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