In February, new legislation in the State of Kentucky legalized what is called ‘herd sharing,’ meaning folks can buy into a herd of dairy cows, which will allow them to share the milk and other products the herd produces without such pesky requirements as requiring the raw milk to be pasteurized.
To celebrate the passage of the new law, a Kentucky legislator brought a jug of raw milk and passed it around to his lawmaking colleagues. Whereupon they all got sick. The politicians insist that it was mere coincidence they happened to become violently ill immediately after drinking raw, unpasteurized milk, and it may well have been. But probably not. At least nobody died that I know of, which may or may not be a good thing for the people of Kentucky.
The episode got me to thinking about my own childhood. I was either extremely lucky or disadvantaged, depending on your outlook on life, to have been born at a time when television had not yet become ubiquitous, indoor plumbing had only just become the norm, and diversified farming was morphing into the modern grain or livestock operations common today. It really was the end of an era, and the dawn of a new one.
When my mother brought me home from Copley Memorial Hospital in 1946, it was to a house with a new indoor bathroom that my preteen sisters greatly enjoyed. Granted the bathroom was in the basement, but that was a small trade-off given no more winter or rainy day trips across to the outhouse and the benefit of an indoor bathtub complete with a water heater. We listened to the radio, not TV, and my sisters’ music collections were filled with 78 rpm records that shattered if dropped—or if their little brother stepped on them.
By that time, subsistence farming was long gone in the United States, although vestiges of it remained. My mother did not work outside the house and my father did not work off the farm, but that aspect of farming life was beginning to change even then. Instead of working off the farm, my mother managed the garden and fruit orchard and raised chickens. It all sounds sort of like some modern suburban areas, but her garden was huge, and the orchard was sizable. Each year, she canned dozens and dozens of quarts of vegetables and fruit. And when my grandparents bought chest-type deepfreezes for their children one Christmas, all those veggies and fruits were frozen for use throughout the rest of the year.
Not only did her chickens produce eggs for family use, but the chickens themselves were a year round source of fresh meat. The eggs over and above those used by our family were carefully washed, candled, and packed in egg crates to be taken to town on Saturday and traded for the groceries we didn’t produced ourselves on the farm.
Which brings me to that raw milk I mentioned above. We had a cow named Daisy, a gentle Guernsey. My dad favored Guernseys for his family’s cow because they produce milk with a very high butterfat content. That meant Daisy produced more cream per gallon of milk than the Holsteins most dairy farmers favored, but less actual milk than those black and white Holsteins.
My dad milked Daisy morning and night out in one of the former horse stalls in the barn. He was an expert hand-milker, sitting on his three-legged stool, quickly filling the polished steel milk pail with quick, sure pulls on Daisy’s teats. The barn cats were always drawn by the sound of the milk hitting the bucket, and as they gathered around, Dad would send a squirt of milk first to one and then to another, which they learned to catch in mid-air. Just writing that last sentence brings back the sounds and the smells of that time and place…the warmth of the barn even on a cold winter’s day, the excitement of the cats and kittens, and the glint of humor in my dad’s eye as he accurately shot those milky treats around the semi-circle of hungry cats.
After Daisy was turned back out into the pasture, Dad took the milk in the house and down the basement, where he put a new filter in the separator, and poured in the milk. Our separator was blue in color and sort of resembled a miniature municipal water tower on four legs. The milk went in the top, and the ingenious tool used gravity and centrifugal force to separate most of the cream from the milk.
My folks used Daisy’s rich cream for their coffee, and mom used it for cooking. After enough of it was saved up in the refrigerator, we took it to my grandmother, who used her electric churn to turn it into rich butter. After being turned out of the churn, she would work it with a flat paddle in a large, shallow wooden bowl to force the buttermilk out, and then to work in the salt she sprinkled on. My dad loved buttermilk. It’s a taste I never acquired.
We drank the milk that came out of the separator and used it on our cereal, and mom used it for cooking. I wasn’t so fond of cream in those days, and even though it had been run through the separator, after a fresh batch of milk sat in the refrigerator over night, a thin skim of cream would form on the top—which my parents happily skimmed off with a teaspoon to color their morning coffee.
Daisy always produced more milk than the five of us could consume, so when enough extra was saved up, Mom and Dad took it over to Aunt Bess McMicken, who then turned it into cottage cheese by some magical process which I never really saw. All I knew was that milk went to Aunt Bess’s and wonderful cottage cheese came back packed in metal containers.
Some farmers during that era had begun pasteurizing their family’s milk, but my dad said that as long as you know where the milk came from, and if you made sure that cow was healthy, there would be no problems with drinking raw milk.
Which brings me back to those Kentucky politicians and their new law. My dad was a wise man, and his insistence that only raw milk from a known healthy cow was safe, it seems to me, is at risk with this ‘herd sharing’ scheme. Who, exactly, will be responsible for assuring every cow in that herd is approved to give healthy enough milk that it doesn’t need to be pasteurized? And what are the shared liability issues? If I were a parent with children, I certainly wouldn’t want to take a chance that milk might be safe when the simple process of pasteurization would assure its safety.
Assuring the safety of milk for human consumption was one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th Century, something that saved countless lives and avoided tragedy on what would be, for us modern Americans, an almost unbelievable scale. But now, well-meaning, but essentially clueless people who are alive today thanks to food safety and health regulations, from vaccinations to milk pasteurization, are eagerly discarding them for their own children in some sort of back to nature scheme. I guess I’m not very worried that parents with crackpot ideas may poison themselves or give themselves preventable diseases, but it does concern me that they may be sentencing their children to disease and death.