Why I’ll Pay $10 for a Gallon of Milk   31 comments

When I lived in Portland, I paid $10 for a gallon of milk.

This wasn’t store bought milk, of course, but raw milk. It came from a farm south of the city—a piece of land leased by two wonderful women, Karyn and Carissa, who kept a couple milking cows and a small flock of chickens. These two women deeply cared for their animals and treated them—as well as their customers—as part of their family. Initially, their milk came from a Jersey named Opal; later on, Kaycee, a Fleckvieh, joined the family. They both produced amazing milk, but I started with Opal and she always remained my favorite. Often I would find myself faced with a shelf full of half gallon Mason jars, each one labeled with a name—Opal or Kaycee—and the date of milking. Given the choice, I always snagged Opal jars. The richness of the milk was one of the reasons, as the milk’s fat content had been measured at close to six percent in one test. But affection played a role, too.

The first time I met Opal, I fell a bit in love. She was small—for a cow, anyway—and brown, had those long Jersey eyelashes, was calm and clean and on grass, looking the picture-perfect cow. I came near her and put my hand against her hide, spoke to her. Karyn and Carissa raved about how easy she was to milk, about her gentle demeanor. I could sense that gentle spirit when I met her and something about that moment—about putting my hand on her, seeing her eyes, knowing that this was the creature who provided me good food and nourishment—struck a deep chord.

Looking back, I think part of that was a small awakening of the agrarian in me. At that time, I had never farmed and had only started to learn more about food, to better understand what it could and could not be, to better understand the care that could be taken in growing and raising it or the destruction that could be wrought in the same process. It also was a moment of connection unfamiliar to me. Much of my life, I didn’t know where my food came from, though throughout much of my childhood we did have a large garden that I worked in. Still, I ate so much from the store and so much fast food and processed food. I grew up mostly in the suburbs and had never known farming, or ever been much interested in it. For a good portion of my life, food had been little more than a requirement and I had literally said numerous times that if I didn’t have to eat, I happily wouldn’t.

Now, I farm. I’ve worked on three vegetable farms and currently work for two farms that raise pastured animals for meat, one of which has a dairy component, as well. The presence of cows is routine for me these days. I’m much more familiar with the sight of them, their smell and feel, their sound and behavior. But I still love to see a Jersey and almost every time I do, I think of Opal and I think of her milk.

— ∞ —

As I already noted, Opal’s milk had a high fat content, at nearly twice the fat of whole milk bought at the store. Her milk was sometimes so rich and creamy and sweet from the good grass she ate, it felt and tasted almost like drinking ice cream. It may seem silly to wax poetic over milk—it’s just milk, after all, such a standard food. Except that’s the point. There was nothing standard about Opal’s milk in comparison to what you would buy at the store. The store milk couldn’t compare. It couldn’t begin to. The sweetness of Opal’s milk, the freshness, the lack of that subtle burnt flavor often imparted by pasteurization (which one generally needs to drink raw milk to begin to detect in pasteurized milk) the creaminess of it, the health and vitality—it was all there.

It had flavor, and that flavor changed over the course of the year. The changing grass—Opal’s fluctuating diet—effected the taste of the milk. It evolved, as well, as it sat in the fridge. Each day it grew a bit different in its taste as it would slowly work its way to the point of souring, which is a natural process in raw milk rather than the putrification that happens with pasteurized milk. Sour raw milk isn’t rotten; it’s changed. It’s going through the same sort of process that creates yogurt, though the result isn’t the same. But it still can be used once it sours and remains a healthy and living food.

As I became more familiar with raw milk, I began to understand how it offered a different experience than store bought milk. Raw milk was a real, non-standardized food that functioned within the same sort of systems and patterns that other living food does. It changed depending on its circumstances—the flavor and fat content altered by Opal’s diet and it’s taste and composition changing as the milk aged and the bacterial ecosystem within it grew and evolved (with that bacteria generally being of the beneficial kind, along the same lines as the critical microfauna found in the human digestive system.) Leave the milk alone for a few hours and the cream begins to rise to the top. Shake it and you’re back to having it dispersed within the milk.

This milk hadn’t been homogenized or standardized. It hadn’t had the flavor burnt out of it or its unique bacteria profile killed via pasteurization. It didn’t have an exact expiration date. In many ways, it didn’t have any expiration date, as its evolving stages lent itself to changing uses. It wasn’t a conglomeration of hundreds or thousands of different cows’ milk and it wasn’t untraceable or virtually untraceable by dint of it being the end result of a vast, complicated and confusing industrial dairy system. It was Opal’s milk. It came from a cow I had met and spoken to and touched, it had been milked by the hands of two women whom I knew and am friends with, it was the result of eaten grass from a pasture I had stood in. I knew exactly where it came from and how it had come to me.

— ∞ —

Getting Opal’s milk took a community. In fact, learning about Opal’s milk took a community.

I first learned of the availability of Opal’s milk via a homesteading group I participated in. Started by my friend Eric and his girlfriend, the group met once a month and covered a predetermined topic, taught by a few members from the group who already had knowledge of that activity or had been tasked with researching it and then presenting information to the group. I loved the group and learned quite a bit from it. As it happened, some of the members were interested in getting raw milk and Eric, via his work on an urban farm, had learned of Karyn and Carissa and the milk they had available.

Getting Opal’s milk was far different from going to the store. According to Oregon state law, you can only sell raw cow milk on the farm. There also is a restriction of only having two producing cows on the premises and advertising raw milk is illegal, so the only way for people to find out about it is via customer word of mouth. Due to these restrictions and because the farm was about a 35 mile drive from us, we needed to get together a group of people who could take turns driving to the farm each week to make the arrangement viable. We eventually cobbled together enough people so that, with each of us taking a turn, nobody would have to make the drive down to the farm more often than every eight or ten weeks.

All of this required communication and organization. We had an email list and a schedule worked out a couple months in advance. Everyone would sign up for a week and knew that on their day they would have to load up their car with coolers and ice packs, drive down to the farm, pick up the milk, bring it back, and store it in a central location in Portland where everyone would come to get their milk for the week. For the most part, everyone performed well. Every once in awhile some snafu would take place and there would be some frantic rearranging or a notice would go out that the milk was running late. In other words, our little community functioned as you would expect a community to function: mostly well, but with the occasional hiccup. Everyone took these hiccups in stride.

We had a shared goal, after all. In our small way, we were a community working for our own common good.

— ∞ —

Picking up the milk was not a chore. It was a visit and, in its own way, a small celebration.

On the appointed day, I would make the drive down to the farm and visit with Carissa. Sometimes I visited with Karyn, too, but she was often at her job as a dairy tester, so more often than not it was Carissa’s company I kept. The beautiful thing about Karyn and Carissa is that they seemed to love the visits and always treated them as one of the high points of their week. On arrival, I was almost always offered tea, with fresh raw cream of course available for it. It was not uncommon for there to be a snack, as well—cookies or brownies or something else delicious. Most important, though, was the conversation. I would arrive, come in, sit down and we would start to chat about the farm, the cows, whatever was happening in our lives. I spoke of my interest in farming, we talked about food issues, we sometimes talked a bit of politics or other news. We shared our observations on society. We chatted about gardening, about chickens, about the weather. The conversations were easy and a joy and they usually ended upon the realization that I had to get the coolers loaded up and the milk back before the official start of pickup time. They always seemed to end out of necessity rather than desire.

Sometimes we would go and visit the animals, saying a hello to Opal and Kaycee, walking in the pasture. I regularly saw the source of my food and always Opal looked happy and content, usually munching away on grass, often paired with Kaycee.

On one of my visits my friend Peter came along, as he was looking for a source of raw milk. He grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania and spoke with Carissa at great length and with much enthusiasm about dairy farming, chatting about different breeds and the differences between the larger farm he grew up on and the very small operation Karyn and Carissa ran. We went out and visited Opal and Kaycee and Jazmine, a young calf. Jazmine came up to Peter and he put out a few fingers for her to suck and attempt to nurse on. She bucked against him so hard that he soon found his hand bleeding. Yet, as far as I could tell, he loved every moment of it,  his enthusiasm boundless, the visit bringing back a multitude of memories from his childhood.

— ∞ —

The land Karyn and Carissa farmed was not their own, instead being leased. As time went on, they became less certain about their ability to stay on the land long term. That led to a period of transition in which they started to look for good homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine. They didn’t take them to the auction or sell them off to a high bidder. They researched and looked around and put out the word, visited farms and farmers, and patiently looked for the perfect fit. Giving up these members of their families wasn’t going to be easy and they certainly weren’t going to make it worse by sending them to less-than-perfect new homes.

Throughout this process, all of us who were getting milk or had gotten milk in the past from this family were sent email updates and given all the latest news. We were told what was happening and why it was happening, and given a window into the process of finding new homes from the cows who had so steadfastly fed us over the months and years.

As Karyn and Carissa found new homes for Kaycee, Opal and Jazmine, they told us where they would be going and gave us updates on the transition. The new owners sent out emails as well, offering updates and providing those of us who wanted to stay with the cows we knew the opportunity to sign up to buy their milk from them. I didn’t sign up—not, of course, because I didn’t still want Opal’s milk, but because I was moving to the Oregon coast to begin work on my third farm. And yet, despite the fact that I didn’t sign up to receive milk, I still receive the occasional email update about Opal. When Opal calved a year ago, I received an announcement and a picture of her beautiful daughter. It brightened my day.

— ∞ —

I’ve seen someone, a skeptic of raw milk, wonder why on earth someone would pay $10 for a gallon of milk. Well, all of the above memories exist because of $10 a gallon milk.

Every time I received Opal’s milk, I knew where it came from. I knew who it came from. I knew Opal lived a good life. I knew what I was paying for: care and affection, love, good work, good food, community, friendship, authenticity and an overriding ethic that touched everyone involved. I paid to know that the milk I drank was the healthiest and tastiest milk I would ever drink. I paid $10 a gallon to know that I was supporting a farm that made the world better, that I was supporting farmers who bettered their community, that I was supporting an entirely different model rooted in a love and respect that the industrial model of farming can’t even comprehend, much less engage. I paid $10 a gallon to live and eat well. I paid $10 a gallon for connection and for a weekly joy that arrived steadfast and unerringly. I have drunk store bought milk uncountable times in my life and never did I know the cow it came from, the people who produced it, or how it came to me. Correspondingly, I never felt a real joy drinking that milk. But almost every single time I drank some of Opal’s milk, I felt an honest-to-god joy, a satisfaction I cherished.

Of course I would pay $10 a gallon for that. It’s not even a question. And I’ve never made much money. But I always found the money to pay extra for milk that was worth it—for a community that was worth it.

I wrote in my post on making butter about patterns and systems and it’s those exact patterns and systems that have led me numerous times in my life to happily pay more for Opal’s milk, for milk that’s rooted in my local community and provided to me via love and affection and the sort of good work that’s become rare in our industrial economy. Of course that’s worth the money. If anything’s worth buying—if anything’s worth supporting—it’s that.

Now I have a source of raw milk that’s less expensive. I have over a gallon of milk in my refrigerator right this moment. And I have very limited income. But if someone were to walk up to me right now with a gallon of Opal’s milk, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay $10 for it. I wouldn’t hesitate to part with $10 for the chance to taste her milk again, to relive some of those memories she’s given to me, to remember the community that we all built around her milk and the amazing women who provided us with it.

If I can’t use what little money I have to help support and build these sorts of communities, what the hell good is it? This is why we’re here, folks. Someone asks why I would pay $10 for a gallon of milk? Community and affection is my answer. If we can’t be bothered to support those—even when it costs more, or it’s less convenient, a greater challenge—than we’re in dire straights, indeed. We have to think about and see the patterns. A gallon of milk is not a gallon of milk. A carrot is not a carrot. A human being is not a human being and a community not a community. They’re all dependent on context. They can be happy or miserable, healthy or diseased, abundant or denuded.

As Wendell Berry recently said, and E.M. Forster said before him, it all turns on affection. We can’t have a good world if we don’t love.

We can’t do this if we don’t care.

Opal's Calf

Opal’s baby girl, born about a year ago.


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31 responses to “Why I’ll Pay $10 for a Gallon of Milk

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  1. A beautiful use of words. I have not had milk in a long time for I do not care for the processed kind.

  2. Hi Joel. A lovely post. I envy your raw milk. Without travelling 60km north to Castlemaine to buy raw milk (err sorry, bath milk that is), I pay AU$10.26 / US gallon (AU$2.70 x 3.8 litres) for organic milk from the supermarket. Still it’s good stuff, not as good as 6% fat content though. YUM. The photo was great too.

    It’s funny that you mention when you buy from the farm gate, that it is never just a simple transaction like you’d get in a supermarket – buy and move along. Living in rural areas, people get their conversation and social interaction where they can and at farm gates I’ve met some of the nicest people. It usually takes a while for both parties to get to know each other, but after a while, I’ve found that I enjoy the conversations as much as the products that they sell. The interesting thing too, is that I always learn stuff from them and if you are a regular, they are happy to take you around the farm, talk about issues they are having etc. As an example, an organic commercial orchard north of me, gets in bulk fruit trees for me at wholesale prices under their own bulk order from the nurseries every year. Great people.

    Your spot on about forest skills too and birds. Apparently here, and I’ve been told this by a reliable source, the birds will call differently if there is a snake about, so you’re spot on.

    I’ve only seen one eastern brown snake (apprently the second most toxic snake in the world too) here in 7 years though and I wouldn’t have had a clue about bird calls, I was too scared silly and it just happily slithered off about its business and hasn’t been seen since. I’m told they were after the field mice near the chook pen and live in fire wood piles. So I’ve taken to trapping the field mice to feed to the chickens. Free feed too.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pseudonaja

    Regards. Chris

    • I love it! A patterned solution—trap the mice, discourage the presence of poisonous snakes and feed your chickens. I suspect those sorts of solutions aren’t that uncommon for you.

      I love chatting with farmers. If you have an honest interest, pay attention and ask the occasional, good question, you can just get a neverending stream of fascinating and invaluable information. Farmers spend so much of their time observing and they can only pass so many of those observations onto their animals. Always nice to have a human interested in them, too. It’s also just so different from a general population that has no connection to the landscape. Farmers are far more likely to talk about their place; the general population more often seems to talk about abstract ideas and mass culture. Not that I don’t do a lot of that myself, and I can enjoy it at times, but a farmer’s views can be so very refreshing.

      I also love working the farmers market for the conversation that can be had. It’s so different from working general retail. There’s a leisure and relaxation to it that’s far more rare in the store retail environment. Most of our customers at the farmers market at this point are regulars and a number of them get in a minute or five of casual conversation while they buy their meat. I love being a part of that.

  3. Wonderful post! Thank you! I am blessed to have my own Jersey cow, Buttercup. It is illegal to sell milk where I live, so we raise a calf, make cheese and butter, and make clabber for the chickens and pigs(when we have them). I hope one day you might get to have your own Opal. You would be a wonderful owner!

    • Thank you! I would love to have my own Jersey some day. We’ll see how that shakes out. Right now, I’m lucky to have fairly easy access to a good source of raw milk, though it’s not as rich as Opal’s. Still, I’m mighty blessed.

      I’ve got the butter-making habit down at this point. Cheese is an eventual goal, too, as is yogurt. Of course, at some point I’ll start running out of milk!

  4. Ah… Brings back fond memories of my childhood and the real milk we traded fryer rabbits, chickens and/or eggs for – and I think we always got the bargain in the trade.

    Also speaks to my comment re: kneaded vs unkneaded bread over at Causabon’s…

  5. Beautiful post, Joel! Thanks for brightening my day.

  6. Thank you for your LOVELY post! I lived in Iowa for about five years and there is NOTHING to compare with Raw Milk and ice cream made from raw milk!!!.. except our raw Goat’s Milk ice cream!! Our children, then 6 and 8 raised their own goats for 4H and cared for them and milked them twice a day! We learned a lot! Loved talking to the farmers around Gladbrook as they always had enough “time” to chat! An entire different lifestyle! Thanks for the memories!

    And there was a long test done with cats in which two groups were fed…one pasteurized milk and the other raw milk. In tow generations I think, the first group could no longer reproduce young and some were deformed. In the raw group they thrived!! Are we surprised! Milk is pasteurized ONLY because dairies are dirty places and it the milk stays good longer on the shelf. It does NOTHING to improve the nutrition of the milk, in fact it makes it more difficult for most people to digest!

    Thanks again! Morgine

    • Thank you for the kind words, Morgine! Glad you liked the post. That study sounds pretty fascinating—I’ll have to see if I can track down the details of it.

      I keep meaning to make ice cream with my milk. There’s a little hand crank ice cream maker that was here in the house I’m currently staying in, so one of these days soon I’m going to make use of it and whip up some ice cream for myself. I’m pretty sure it’ll be amazing.

  7. hehe! Yeah, didn’t mention it before, but I also stack the wood piles randomly throughout the orchard to dry and season (for at least a year or five) and they also act as high rise apartment blocks for skinks (a local lizard), spiders, scorpions, millipedes and other unidentifiable insects etc. It’s a whole web of life that gets to roam into the orchard and then return to the safety of the wood pile.

    Unfortunately though, I also own a miniature fox terrier which is a great farm dog in Australia, but suffers a little bit from obsessive compulsive disorder and she and her other stupid mates tend to want to hunt the skinks all day long. Oh well nature is pretty raw and the skinks are actually pretty fast so they mostly do OK.

    Farmers can be pretty honest in their assessment of a situation which is always refreshing so taking the time to talk to them is always worthwhile. You are on the money when you say to ask good questions. They respect that.

    You work the farmers markets? Cool. It is great in farmers markets to see such passion and quality of produce and you always learn a thing or two from the sellers and importantly, you can make contacts with other growers in your area. They really are good.

    My article about soil has finally been published on the Internet. It’s pretty accessible for everyone and has plenty of photos and useful suggestions. Hope you enjoy the shots of the unusual wildlife we get down under too on the farm here! Look for the joey in the mums pouch especially. It would be nice if you could leave a comment as it helps my future writing endeavours.

    http://permaculture.org.au/2012/05/04/food-forests-part-3-closing-the-loop/

    Regards. Chris

    • I love the idea of the random wood pile stacks. I just like the thought of wandering through your orchard and running into them all haphazardly. Something about that thought is very endearing.

      I do work the farmers markets and I really enjoy them. It actually is looking like I’m going to be working three a week by the end of June, which should keep me pretty busy. I actually could work a fourth one, theoretically, but I don’t think it’ll pan out with my schedule. I’m getting mighty booked with work for the summer! The three markets I will be doing, though, are going to keep me roaming around the northern Oregon coast and into the outskirts of Portland, so it should help keep me busy and interacting with a wide variety of people. Should be fun!

      Thank you for the link to the article. I’ve taken a peek at it but have been pretty busy the last few days, so I haven’t had a chance to actually read and comment yet. But I will! Looks like you’re getting a nice raft of comments over there, so that’s excellent. For the time being, I love the pictures! Particularly the joey. Kind of neat to see your face, as well. I always enjoy being able to match a face to a “voice,” so to speak

  8. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that somewhere I had read that eggs at different times of the year have different properties. Well, in one of those synchronicity accidents I ran across it again. I’m reading Joel Salatin’s new book “Folks, This Ain’t Normal” and he retold a story he must have mentioned before in another one of his books that I read.

    He was explaining to a chef that egg quality would fluctuate throughout the year due to changing conditions. The chef said “…with his sophisticated French accent, “Oh, no problem. In chef’s school in Switzerland we had recipes for March eggs, recipes for July eggs, and other recipes for September eggs to take advantage of the nuances throughout the seasons.” By this time I was standing there with my mouth hanging wide open. Can you imagine this in America?”

    I’ll have to check my “Joy of Cooking” (old version) and see if it has anything to say about the seasonableness of eggs. Anyone out there know of any other books that might talk about eggs and other basics that are seasonably impacted?

    • That’s awesome, Lew. I’ve never heard of recipes for eggs in different seasons. I should try to pay attention more to the eggs here and see if their taste evolves over the season.

      Let me know if there was any mention of this in Joy of Cooking. I would love to hear more on it.

  9. Your post is very moving. Thanks for sharing this! I came up with a Tshirt slogan for raw milk today, your post helped me solidify it:

    Raw Milk
    Drink in the Joy!

    Kimberly Hartke, Publicist
    The Campaign for Real Milk
    Visit our website: http://realmilk.com

  10. Thank God I live in PA !! I can get raw milk for $4.99 a gallon and even cheaper if I go to the Mennonites for it.
    If they’d ever try to shut down the raw milk sales here they would have to pry the jug handle from my cold dead hands !

    • Nice, Bert! I have a less expensive source now, which is fantastic. Of course, I’d still happily pay $10 if necessary (though I might cut back a little) and $10, anymore, doesn’t seem to be that high a price compared to a lot of places. I imagine the local Mennonites are a good source to have around, and likely will be even more in the future. Anyone who knows how to get by with less energy and within a much simpler life style is going to tend to be better off going forward than those who don’t.

  11. You did it. You took the thoughts right out of my mind and arranged them into a most eloquent and moving essay. Well done. It does all turn on affection. May our affection for the land, for the creatures and for each other ever increase. I wish you enough.

  12. Pingback: How To Make Raw Butter | Of The Hands

  13. Hi Joel, I realize it’s been almost a year since you wrote this, but I just came across it, and these are some of the nicest words I’ve seen written about why someone would go out of their way to get such seemingly basic food item. We were lucky enough to get to know Karyn and Carissa quite well, and we were even luckier to end up as the owners of Jazmine, who was the little calf in your story. She’s all grown up now, and in fact has had two calves of her own. If you’d like to see some photos of her now, check out our farms facebook page, facebook.com/terrafarmaoregon along with our other cow Dixie, who incidentally Karyn also helped us find as a result of her dairy testing job.
    Thanks again for the great essay.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks so much for the kind words, and particularly for the update! I checked out the photos and it’s fantastic to see Jazmine grown up with calves of her own. Love all the goats, too—your place looks incredible. Maybe I can come visit one of these days.

      I think everyone who got to know Karyn and Carissa were mighty lucky. They left a definite legacy.

  14. Great post. I also live in portland and recently joined a herd share. I really liked this article as I think a lot of people can relate to it (I know I could). You have a great writing style! Very warm and open to your readers.

  15. Wow, I guess you wrote that at least a year an a half ago and have had a years worth of comments. Joel, that was a beautiful write-up. I loved it!

    My daughter ran across “The Oiling of America” by Sally Fallon on YouTube and we watched it. To say I was stunned is an understatement. I have already been thoroughly dissillusioned by our “medical industry” and the FED but to find out that our food is literally being destroyed was an even more stunning revelation!

    I don’t know if you have ever seen anything from the Weston A. Price organization, or read any data on the difference between raw milk and “industrial” milk but if you have, you could add some more reasons for paying for Opal’s milk!

    BTW, a small local farm here in Blackfoot, Idaho (actually Moreland, Idaho), run by a couple, led me to your post!

    • Thank you, Bill!

      I certainly know of Sally Fallon, have a cherished copy of Nourishing Traditions, and know of the Weston A. Price organization. I’m a fan, though not as strict of one as some people are. Still, I think they produce a ton of great information and I agree with quite a bit of it.

      I, however, have not seen or heard of “The Oiling of America.” When I get a chance, I’ll have to check that out. Sounds interesting, in a probably depressing way.

      I love that a local farm sent you my way! That’s really flattering. I wonder how they came upon this post? It has made a few rounds through social media and the like, which is also quite flattering.

      Thanks again for the comment, Bill!

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