Customers come to Wholesome Dairy Farms in Earl Township to buy raw milk, which is rather rare in Pennsylvania and illegal in most states.
They pay more for it than they would for pasteurized milk in a grocery or supermarket.
They say raw milk is healthier. They say they know people who seem to digest raw milk more easily than pasteurized milk.
And they say they want to support a local farmer, get to know the man who provides some of their food.
“I believe our society needs to take a large step toward knowing our farmers on a more personal level,” said regular customer Dane Miller, who lives in Reading.
“These people provide life, and their product quality is tremendous. ... If consumers are educated and understand food production, they can make a sound decision on their food consumption,” he said.
Mark Lopez, who opened Wholesome Dairy Farms in early 2008 and runs it with five employees, has a degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Pennsylvania.
Other dairies in Berks County sell raw milk, including M&B Farview near Hamburg.
Realmilk.com lists four others:
- Dove Song Dairy near Bernville, goat milk
- Misty Meadows Farm, near Bernville
- B-AND-D Farm, Kempton
- Spring Creek Farms, near Wernersville
In most states, selling raw milk is illegal. Pennsylvania allows some farmers to get permits.
The national Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says raw milk can be dangerous.
“Raw milk can cause serious infections. Raw milk and raw milk products (such as cheeses and yogurts made with raw milk) can be contaminated with bacteria that can cause serious illness, hospitalization, or death,” it states on its Web site.
“From 1993 to 2006, 69 outbreaks of human infections resulting from consumption of raw milk were reported to CDC. These outbreaks included a total of 1,505 reported illnesses, 185 hospitalizations and 2 deaths. Because not all cases of food-borne illness are recognized and reported, the actual number of illnesses associated with raw milk likely is greater.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Web site states: Raw milk is inherently dangerous and it should not be consumed by anyone at any time for any purpose. Raw milk may contain many pathogens.
But supporters of raw milk, such as the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes the consumption of “clean raw milk from healthy grass-fed cows,” point out that pathogens in pasteurized milk sometimes kill people.
In 2008, Berks had about 21,500 milk cows, which produced 49.7 million gallons of milk worth $84 million, according to the state agriculture department.
In 2007, Berks had about 8,300 dairies. Berks ranked fourth in production out of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania and 73rd out of about 2,500 counties in America, the department said.
Most Berks and Pennsylvania dairy farmers opt to ship their product to processors who pasteurize their milk before it is used by consumers, said Sheila Miller, Berks agricultural coordinator.
But a growing number of licensed dairy farmers sell raw milk under state law and regulations, Sheila Miller said.
Pasteurization destroys most disease producing organisms and limits fermentation by partial or complete sterilization, according to the Michigan State University Extension.
The milk is heated to 161 degrees for 15 seconds, or for a longer time at a lower temperature, inactivating or killing organisms that grow rapidly in milk, the extension said.
While pasteurization destroys many microorganisms in milk, improper handling after pasteurization can recontaminate milk, it said.
The number of licensed dairy farms selling raw milk in Pennsylvania has roughly tripled in recent years, with about 128 having state licenses, Sheila Miller said.
The agriculture department has strict regulations for raw-milk dairies, mandating that such farms have their milk tested twice a month for bacteria.
Raw milk dairy farmers must pay for this testing themselves, Lopez said. Each cow’s health must be checked annually.
Lopez ran a veterinary practice for dairy cows in Texas before moving back to Pennsylvania.
His 67 Ayrshire cows graze on 80 acres. Ten more acres will be added for grazing next year, Lopez said.
The Ayrshires, a breed from Scotland distinguished for their higher cheese yield, are grass-fed.
The animals come from stock from farms in Berks and Montgomery counties and central Pennsylvania.
His cows produce about 185 gallons a day.
Lopez said one thing that ensures his product is safe is the close dealings he has with the people who drink it.
“I do have a safety net – the relationship that I have with my customers,” Lopez said. “They come in with their families. There’s a trust; there’s a relationship that’s established there, and that’s a safety net – what we have together.”
He’s never heard that any customers got sick from drinking his raw milk.
“A healthy cow on a good diet is going to make the highest quality milk,” Lopez said.
He makes sure his cows are comfortable, unstressed and in good overall health so they are easy to milk.
If an animal resists milking, it’s easier for the milk to get contaminated, he said.
“The opponents of raw milk say the safest thing is to get pasteurized milk,” Lopez said.
He said that’s a shame because the safest way to protect yourself from a food-borne disease is to get your milk from a place where the cows are kept clean and well cared for and milked in a meticulously clean way.
“Start with a clean cow, and then clean and healthy milk, as opposed to taking manure-filled milk and then cooking the manure in the milk,” Lopez said. “You need to start with the source.”
“With (most) pasteurized milk, you’re getting milk that has cooked manure in it,” Lopez said. “Everything’s been killed, but it’s still cooked manure.”
“Now, if you have an irresponsible raw milk producer who is unscrupulous and isn’t meticulous, I think that can be dangerous – I’ll be the first to admit that,” Lopez said.
Customer Carol Wise of Birdsboro, who learned about Wholesome Dairy Farms from her neighbor, said she knew of a woman whose baby could not and would not drink regular milk.
But the baby loved raw milk and consumed it regularly without ill effects, Wise said.
“The ignorance about real (raw) milk is astounding, both from the fear of disease and the fear of fat,” said customer Jerry Silberman of Douglassville, who started drinking raw milk years ago because he wanted milk from a healthy source.
“If we follow commonsense rules of cleanliness, we don’t need to worry about high-tech chemistry to keep our food safe and our bodies healthy,” Silberman said, adding that he hopes other farmers follow Lopez’s example.
“Raw milk still contains an enzyme to help the body break down lactose,” customer Dane Miller said.
Pasteurization kills many beneficial nutrients in milk, especially milk made from grass-fed cows, he said.
“I found that raw whole milk from grass-fed cows contains more vitamins and minerals and is better absorbed by the human body,” said customer Jody Hulber, who lives near Macungie, Lehigh County, and has been buying raw milk from Lopez for about a year and a half.
“Buying fresh raw milk from Wholesome Dairy Farms also reinforces my belief that it’s better to buy locally, get fresh healthy food, and support small, independent farmers,” she said.
Tracey and Jeff Lightner of Zionsville responded together in an e-mail about why they use raw milk.
“Even though milk is pasteurized, it may come from sick, unhealthy cows that never chew a blade of grass,” they wrote.
The couple said a lactose-intolerant family member loves raw milk because he can drink it without any digestive difficulties.
“There is a dairy down the road from us that will sell us raw milk, but those cows aren’t grass-fed, and we believe they may receive rBGH,” which stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone, wrote the Lightners, who drive 35 minutes one way to get their milk at Wholesome Dairy Farms.
Lopez said there is evidence suggesting that raw milk from grass-fed cows maintains higher concentrations of conjugated linoleic acids, which are thought to be anti-carcinogenic.
The cows are milked twice a day, Lopez said, with the machines connected to them for no more than five minutes each milking.
Lopez takes extra steps to clean the cows before and after, including washing their teats with an iodine-based dip that has skin conditioners to keep the skin supple.
“You want the teat skin to be supple, soft, and smooth,” Lopez said. “If you get overly dried teat skin, you can get flaking, and it’s uncomfortable for the cows.”
The milk travels by gravity through a stainless steel pipe into a tank where it is chilled to about 36 degrees. Later it is put into containers and stored in the milk store’s fridge.
It stores as well as or better than pasteurized milk, Lopez said.
Lopez’s farm and store are at 136 Camp Road off Route 562 near Yellow House. He sells his raw milk for $5 per gallon and $3.50 per half gallon.
Lopez’s raw milk is also for sale at Echo Hill Country Store in Fleetwood and in the Douglassville location of Kimberton Whole Foods.