The past few years have turned out to be an awakening for the American public about where our food comes from. Thanks to people like Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver, we’ve all been taking a closer look at what we’re putting into our bodies, and starting food movements across the country.
Raw milk has become one of those food movements. For this month’s Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24, I went along with Slow Food Austin to tour the Stryk Jersey Farm in Schulenberg, Texas, about 90 minutes from Austin.
Stryk Jersey Farm was begun in the 1940s as a standard milking farm, using Jersey cows as they are hardy, efficient, and produce a high-protein milk. In the 1980s Bob Stryk took over the farm from his father, and eventually decided to make the move to raw milk production.
Stryk is one of the only farms in Texas that has a Grade “A” Raw for Retail Milk permit, ensuring strict standards when it comes to making milk and cheese products. Raw milk is not available in stores (except in California and South Carolina) – you have to go directly to the dairy to get it, and oftentimes dairies have their status as a raw milk producer unknown to the general public, making it a sort of secret society to crack into.
The cows at Stryk are still all Jersey, which provide for some of best milk out there. The cows are grass fed, and the types of grasses the cows eat affect the taste of the raw milk. For example, in springtime when the cows are eating clover, the milk is sweeter than later on in the season.
What Does “Raw” Milk Mean?
Raw milk means that the milk isn’t heated, unlike the milk we’re used to from the grocery store. Raw milk is taken from the cow, filtered, and cooled rapidly to just above freezing. Standard milk is heated to high temperatures very quickly, and then brought down to chill. Usually raw milk also means that the cows are grass fed, although some raw-milk cows are fed partially on grains.
People often wonder about the freshness of raw milk, and assume it can’t last as long because it hasn’t been pasteurized. While that’s true when it comes to cumulative time, it turns out that all milk lasts the same amount of time once it has been opened – about 10 days. Pasteurized and UHT milks have longer shelf lives because they are shipped all over the country. Since you’re getting raw milk directly from the farmer, there’s none of the worry about how long the milk has been sitting in a warehouse cooler.
Tasting the Products
In addition to milk products Stryk also makes raw milk cheeses. We tasted a few different cheeses, as well as milk. We had plain cheddar curds, red pepper curds, cheddar, jalapeno cheddar, and caraway cheddar. I grew up in Wisconsin so I’m very familiar with cheese curds, but chances are you have either never come across them at all, or only in deep-fried form. The flavor is very mild, and the freshest curds will “squeak” when you bite it. This is because curds are the pre-pressed version of cheese, and the texture is fairly rubbery (not in a bad way!).
I’ve been eating raw milk cheddar for a while so of course I loved it. Raw milk cheddar is fairly pale in color, and the taste is creamy but still with a slight tang. Raw milk cheddar makers do not color their cheddar, as many factory-produced cheddars are. (Thankfully, it appears most companies use naturally-derived colorings for the cheeses, such as annatto and an oil made from paprika.) The jalapeno cheddar was full of dried jalapeno pieces, making it a great cheese for Tex-Mex or just snacking with crackers. The caraway cheddar was most interesting to me, as I don’t remember having such a combination before. Upon tasting it instantly reminded me of my grandfather’s Swedish rye bread.
Along with our tour ticket was a sampler pack of Stryk products. The pack included a full pound of raw milk cheddar, a tub of cottage cheese, a pack of cheese curds, and a tub of sour cream. The sour cream is beautiful. Instead of the pure white stuff we buy at the grocery store, this has a lovely yellow tone similar to homemade mayonnaise, and is quite thick. When we got home I immediately put it to work in some biscuits, adding some of that raw milk cheddar, chives from my garden, and whole wheat flour from Richardson Farms. Yum!
Health benefits of any product over another are often debated, and raw milk is no exception. That being said, here’s some interesting information about raw milk versus pasteurized.
- 1% and 2% milks often contain powdered skim milk as a thickener. It’s also a source of oxidized cholesterol and neurotoxic amino acids.
- Raw milk contains a lot of butterfat, which is needed by the body to be able to absorb the calcium and protein in the milk.
- Raw milk is said to do everything from help with allergies (due to the varied grasses the cows eat, much like bees) to ear infections.
- Raw milk helps with bone growth and can recalcify teeth.
- Raw milk has beneficial bacteria to help the digestive system and boost nutrient absorption.
- Pasteurized milk contains antibiotics. Standard corn feed is packed with antibiotics and that all makes its way to you in the form of milk (or beef).
- Raw milk naturally contains about 21 minerals and 13 vitamins.
Raw milk on the left, 1% milk on the right
The price of raw milk is astonishing to me. Here in central Texas, a gallon of big-brand organic milk is $6. A gallon of raw milk at Stryk is only $5. It might not sound like a big price break, but that adds up in the long term.
If you’re interested in finding raw milk for yourself, you might have some difficulties. As I said earlier, only two states allow it to be sold in stores. Keeping the milk cold is also a concern, so farmer’s don’t want to have to move it too far from the dairy to get it to their customers. Not to mention the pressure that comes from the big brand milk producers. They can easily threaten to pull their whole dairy product line from a store if just one raw milk farmer wants to sell milk there. Farmer Bob told us about this very thing happening to a farmer he knew. Raw milk producers can’t compete on this level, but they can have better ways to provide their product to their customers.
In Texas, legislation is being proposed for the 2011 session that will attempt to change how the sales of raw milk can be done. Raw milk producers would love to get into the farmer’s markets where their customer base shops already, but they currently can’t, as the Texas law as interpreted by the Department of Health says that raw milk can only be sold directly from the farmer to the customer at the farm. In theory this is to protect the consumer, but in practice ends up harming both the farmer and any potential customer who never gets the chance to hear about raw milk.
Unfortunately there has to be a fine line walked when working on this legislation. The farmers need to be careful about what changes they ask for in order to make sure they can continue doing business at all. Most of all they need the support from people who know the benefits of raw milk and want to keep the tradition of small farms, which are reducing in number every year, alive in the United States.
To find a producer of raw milk, check here for your area. Note that you might need to look at the smaller towns near your city, as of course most dairy farms aren’t located in metropolitan areas.
For more information on raw milk and other Real Food, and how you can support farmers, check out the following sites.