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Last updated: Thu. Mar. 07, 2013 - 10:00 am EDT

COLUMN

Milking the system: Battle rages over 'raw' dairy products

Thanks to natural-foods trend, farm is growing despite bureaucratic obstacles

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State law won't allow them to sell their product to retail customers in Indiana. Federal law prohibits distribution across state lines, even though Ohio is just six miles away.

Got milk? Mark Grieshop and Troy Fisher do, and thanks to the growing interest in natural and organic foods their “raw milk” business is booming despite government regulations and warnings to the contrary.

“It took us three years to get to 200 'herd shares,' but we've added 50 already this year,” said Grieshop, who with Fisher is co-owner of Pasture's Delights, a 50-acre farm just outside Decatur that produces “raw” milk that is neither pasteurized nor homogenized and one day may market a whole range of products that are increasingly popular with people who prefer to eat foods free of hormones, chemicals and other additives only scientists can pronounce. Or, as Fisher puts it, “People are waking up to what they eat.”

Some government officials, however, insist it's the people who see health benefits in raw milk who are dreaming.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1,500 Americans became sick between 1993 and 2006 from drinking raw milk or eating cheese made with raw milk – a result of bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli and listeria that are not normally present in milk that has been pasteurized, or heated to a certain temperature for a set period of time.

“I wouldn't drink raw milk from an ordinary dairy farm, either,” said Grieshop, who stressed that Pasture's Delights and other farms that produce raw milk for human consumption are careful to prevent harmful bacteria while preserving the bacteria, enzymes and nutrients that promote good health and can make the product safe even for some people with lactose intolerance.

In that regard, the farm's name is more than a slogan. Unlike many dairy farms, where cows are fed grains that may have been genetically modified or treated with antibiotics and pesticides, Grieshop's and Fisher's herd of 22 Ayrshire cows – a breed chosen for its grazing ability and the taste and quality of its milk –feed only on natural pastures.

Although the farm is not officially certified as “organic,” most of its practices do qualify as such, Grieshop and Fisher said. Even so, the milk is tested regularly to ensure its safety and quality before it's distributed twice a week.

How can they ship what they can't legally “sell”? That's where those “herd shares” come in. The Indiana Board of Animal Health (BOAH) has traditionally ruled that the state's pasteurization law does not apply to owners of farms whose use of whole milk is confined to families or non-paying guests. And so Pasture's Delights sells shares that allow its “owners” to pick up the milk at distribution points throughout northern Indiana, including Fort Wayne.

Raw-milk producers differ from traditional dairy farms in another significant way: They receive no federal subsidies, which is one reason a gallon of Pasture's Delights milk costs nearly $7. But the farm's growing customer base – many of them in their 20s and 30s and willing to pay more for a product they perceive as more “green” and healthy – don't seem to mind.

Neither does Grieshop, who as a student at Purdue University saw how traditional farmers could be subject to influence from large companies with a product to sell.

“There is such a thing as integrity. Do the right thing instead of following the money trail,” he said.

Their road not taken seems to be paying off at last. After three years, Pasture's Delights has recently begun to turn a profit, and the farm – located on what had been a traditional dairy farm with a herd of 400 – may soon expand. It already offers pasture-raised chickens and raw goats' milk in cooperation with a farm near Berne. Eggs and other natural products may be added later.

But for now, both Grieshop and Fisher must work other jobs to make ends meet until their labor of love pays off consistently. Grieshop is a pilot for Republic Airways; Fisher – who became sold on the benefits of natural foods while working to lose 70 pounds several years ago – works for Mullinix Packages Inc. in Fort Wayne.

People owe it to themselves and their children to be informed consumers, especially where food is concerned, and government oversight was a response to real abuses. But it's just as true that everybody was drinking raw milk not all that long ago, and that no amount of bureaucracy can protect all foods from all dangers all the time.

So instead of trying to regulate people like Grieshop and Fisher out of business, perhaps the government should concentrate on inspections and education, and trust common sense and liberty to prevail.

In the meantime, in the true American entrepreneurial spirit, Pasture's Delights is growing despite the bureaucracy – or maybe even because of it.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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