Raw-milk dairy finds a thirsty market

Yacolt family farm may clean up with product requiring extreme cleanliness

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Within a week of winning a state license to sell raw milk, a small family farm in Yacolt inked deals to distribute the product through at least five stores across Clark County.

Spanish Sonrise Dairy will sell its unpasteurized, nonhomogenized cow’s milk at Chucks Produce in Vancouver, Four C Produce in Battle Ground, the Amboy Market, the Yacolt Trading Post and Taqueria Market in Orchards, said Tina Rodriguez, who runs the business that she and her husband, Jose Rodriguez, own together.

Raw milk, which is what humans consumed for most of the time since the domestication of dairy animals thousands of years ago, has been hard to come by for nearly a century in the United States. Selling it across state lines has been banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since the early 1970s.

But a growing natural foods movement has boosted demand for the product, which licensed and inspected dairies can sell within Washington’s borders, and which can go for $10 a gallon or more. In 2005, Washington hosted six licensed raw-milk dairies; there were 28 by 2010, according to The Seattle Times.

The Rodriguez family bought its Yacolt farm in 2001, and sold pigs, goats and eggs for several years before deciding to try dairy, Tina Rodriguez said.

“We had planned to try goat milk, but a neighbor already sells raw goat milk,” she said. So over the past year she has worked to obtain a license to sell the roughly 12 gallons her two dairy cows produce each day.

For all the enthusiasm that raw milk supporters have for their beverage, there are serious health concerns associated with the product. The Washington Department of Agriculture requires retail raw milk products to be labeled with the warning that “Pregnant women, children, the elderly and persons with lowered resistance to disease have the highest risk of harm from use of this product.”

Letting bacteria live

Unlike most commercially available milk, raw milk has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization, heating milk to kill potentially deadly bacteria, has been credited with saving many lives since its advent in the 1890s, though some critics believe that the process also kills beneficial bacteria.

In 2005, 18 people were sickened after drinking raw milk obtained from Dee Creek Farm near Woodland, among them 15 children. Five children were hospitalized and two placed on life support after exposure to E. coli; all survived. Though a lack of pasteurization may have been a factor, Dee Creek was also operating without a license to sell raw milk at the time, and state agriculture inspectors later said that the farm’s cows had not been vaccinated for common diseases and that the Woodland dairy lacked many basic sanitation practices, allowing for cross-contamination by mud and manure. Dee Creek Farm is now licensed, and has had a clean record for the past five years.

Spanish Sonrise Dairy is also licensed, and Rodriguez said she prides herself on her farm’s cleanliness.

State inspectors test milk samples monthly. The dairy’s processing room will be inspected every three months, the whole farm every six months. And the cows will be tested yearly, she said. In addition, the state tested the water quality from Spanish Sonrise’s well before issuing a license.

More controversial than pasteurization is the homogenization process, by which the chemical structure of milk is changed before it hits grocery store shelves. During homogenization, milk fat is broken down into smaller globules that can be suspended throughout the milk so that it has an even consistency. Without homogenization, fat separates from the rest of the milk, floating to the top.

Homogenization is done to make milk more consistent, not to improve food safety, and raw milk enthusiasts believe that changing the makeup of dairy’s fat molecules may actually have negative health effects — though scientific studies do not back up this belief.

Those familiar with raw milk say homogenized dairy doesn’t taste as good.

Nonhomogenized milk also gives buyers more options. Cream can be skimmed off the top to make butter (or just to lessen the fat content of milk), or it can be stirred or shaken into the rest of the milk just as oil and vinegar are blended to make salad dressing.

At present, Spanish Sonrise Dairy is licensed only to sell milk, but Rodriguez said she’s interested in expanding into other product lines, possibly including cream and cheeses.

The company’s start-up costs of several thousand dollars were funded out of Jose Rodriguez’s salary as a pipe-layer, and Tina Rodriguez said she does not know how long it will take for the family business to become profitable.

“There’s such a want out there, such a need,” she said. “Now we get to see where it goes.”