Extension has been a powerful force in much of agriculture education, but not for producers of raw dairy. It’s been ignored by universities and state agriculture agencies intent on limiting raw dairy. But as raw dairy enjoys a resurgence in recent years, extension education for raw dairies could take off as well. The first example has emerged in Pennsylvania, where a formal all-day program was held this past weekend at Penn State University. Joseph Heckman is an extension specialist in soil fertility at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has monitored the raw milk movement in recent years. He attended the Penn State program on Friday, and wrote the report that follows.
By Joseph Heckman, Extension Specialist Soil Fertility
Penn State University Extension held a first of its kind workshop on raw milk in cooperation with The Raw Milk Institute last Friday, in State College, PA. The program for registration stated that, The Raw Milk Institute uses and promotes science-based food safety principles to help create a secure foundation for the growing raw-milk movement, and speakers will present RAWMI’s in-depth approach to on-farm milk safety and quality
The workshop attracted about 80 raw milk producers, educators, regulators, and other individuals interested in the safe production and sale of raw milk. Attendees came from as far away as Indiana, Ohio, and Massachusetts. As an Extension Specialist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, I drove in from New Jersey to attend.
After hosting a seminar series at Rutgers University in 2008, I have followed all matters concerning raw milk ever since. Sometimes I am asked why a soil scientist conducts research and educational programs relating to raw milk (including a recently published article on the economics of raw milk (link 4)); my short reply is The flow of soil fertility is through the cow. And I might add that organic farming pioneer Albert Howard considered Soil fertility is the basis of the public health system of the future.
Currently there are 157 dairy farms permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to sell raw milk. Recently the Penn State Veterinary Extension Team worked with about 40 of the permitted raw milk producers in a research project. Findings from this USDA-funded research were presented at the workshop by Dr. Ernest Hovingh, a dairy extension veterinarian and field scientist at Penn State University.
Dr. Hovingh reported that about 23% of the herds were certified organic, while among all dairy farms in Pennsylvania, only about 3% of them are certified organic. This is similar to the experiences of many dairy farms that convert from conventional to organic operations– that people soon after transition start showing up at the farm gate asking to buy raw milk. The USDA National Organic Program Standards require that cows obtain a minimum of 30% of their feed intake from pasture during the grazing season to be certified organic. Seeing cows on green pastures seems to be a force driving consumer demand for raw milk. Accumulating evidence shows that pasture feeding, in contrast to confinement, improves the nutritional quality of milk (link 5).
Three of the workshop speakers were associated with The Raw Milk Institute. The lead off speaker was Dr. Catharina (Cat) Berge PhD, DVM. She is a Swedish veterinarian and epidemiologist with expertise in food animal production. Dr. Berge says her mission is to improve animal welfare and health, while protecting public health. Some may recall that back in 2011 Dr. Berge, or Cat, was member of the team of women who set a new record riding bicycles from the California coast to Annapolis, Maryland, all powered by drinking raw milk.
Clearly Dr. Berge has a wealth of knowledge to share. A few snippets taken from my notes will not do justice to the value of seeing her full presentation. She pointed out that consumers have become more and more remote from the farm and thus need more protection from disease than in an earlier time. She also pointed out that while the glass of raw milk is not the only means of disease transmission, it is essential that we use good management, hygienic principles, farm biosecurity, and healthy cows to minimize the risks of pathogens from getting into the raw milk. Her second presentation was focused on biosecurity and the importance of the flow of things on the farm. To give one example, dairy farms that also have poultry operations need to prevent direct and indirect contact between these species. A case of indirect contact might be boot kissing under the lunch room table where poultry workers meet with dairy farm workers.
In the afternoon Mark MacAfee from Organic Pastures Dairy in California spoke about the founding of the Raw Milk Institute. Mark is one of the most passionate spokespersons for raw milk and he is just as passionate about food safety. In his talk he reviewed the four pathogens of most concern in raw milk production: Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and Ecoli 0157H7 and other STEC. With that background, he next pointed out the four conditions that allow illness to occur– the pathogen must be present, it must be a virulent strain of the pathogen, there must be sufficient pathogen load, and finally the host must be susceptible. Mark also pointed out that Raw Milk Institute standards are adaptable to different regions and climates. When raw milk producers become listed with the Raw Milk Institute, it may help reduce their farm insurance costs, he added.
The next speaker was organic raw milk producer Edwin Shank, owner of The Family Cow near Chambersburg, PA. Edwin’s dairy is the largest raw milk producer in the East and Mark McAfee is the largest in the West. Both are now listed dairies with the Raw Milk Institute. Edwin began with a bit of humor about how The Family Cow also produces organic eggs. The farm markets its food products across the state of Pennsylvania from 44 drop points. With emotion, Edwin recalled the news of an outbreak of illness that occurred in January 2012, and was eventually linked to the raw milk from his farm. For further details on this outbreak read The Heart of Your Farmer and It Was Us. Edwin explained the corrective actions he took in response to the outbreak, including getting help from the Raw Milk Institute and Dr. Ernest Hovingh from Penn State University.
The likely cause of the outbreak was identified as a faulty water heater which was not providing enough hot water to sufficiently sanitize the milking system. Edwin also explained how he now operates a lab on his farm where he tests his bottled milk for coliforms. He emphasized that with his on-farm laboratory, every single lot of milk from his farm is now tested before it is offered for sale.
It was apparent from the presentations by both Mark McAfee and Edwin Shank that the support from the community of raw milk consumers is a vital connection to sustaining this special kind of dairy farming. Both keep photos of children drinking their milk on display at critical control points in their operations as a reminder to everyone about the importance of the task at hand. A supportive community is a motivating force for the dairy farmers facing the challenges of producing a safe high quality food.
I’ve worked 25 years as an extension specialist, but I am moved to reflect on how this was perhaps the most valuable educational program I have ever witnessed. In my estimation, the Raw Milk Institute is providing valuable educational services to all raw milk producers with a willingness to learn. I applaud Penn State Extension for bringing together key players in the raw milk world and organizing an excellent venue. Altogether in one room we had Penn State Extension, raw milk producers, the Raw Milk Institute, and regulators from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Also in attendance were several Food Science professors from Penn State University and Brian Snyder from Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (link 7).
At the conclusion of the program I proposed that we hold a similar program next year at an eastern location. I offered to bring in Rutgers Cooperative Extension to work with Penn State Extension in organizing such a program. The one topic area I would like to see expanded is consumer education. While raw milk sales are not currently legal in New Jersey, large numbers cross over to buy it from Pennsylvania farmers. New Jersey does have a few cow share operations and in some cases families keep cows and goats for a supply of raw milk. People choosing raw drinking milk need answers to their many questions. Extension can play a valuable role in providing such education, as was demonstrated at Penn State.