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Buying Raw Milk: A Beginner’s Guide

Thinking about buying raw milk? After a decade of drinking, producing, and at times buying raw milk, here is my guide for beginners to safely purchase and use raw milk.

Before we dive into this let me state that the FDA says raw milk is dangerous to consume and should not be done. If you choose to consume raw milk you do so at your own risk.

What is raw milk?

Raw milk comes from an animal, usually a goat, cow, sheep, or heck even a camel, and it is not pasteurized. Pasteurization is the process of heating milk and keeping it at a high heat for at least a half hour to the point that it kills all the bacteria in it.

Raw milk comes straight from the animal and is cooled quickly, then consumed. It retains all the good bacteria, which in most cases (see below under the safety topic) is way stronger than any harmful bacteria that may be in it.

Why is raw milk a good thing?

I’m going to be lazy on this one an direct you to realmilk.com which covers a lot of the benefits of raw milk.

A short and sweet version is that it is full of beneficial bacteria for your health. Folks who can’t handle pasteurized milk often find they can handle raw milk with out issue.

Raw milk also allows easier digestion and provides more vitamins and minerals than pasteurized options.

To me is also tastes better and it keeps longer. Raw milk doesn’t really “spoil” the way pasteurized milk will. It will “sour” and have a tangy, gamier taste, but it doesn’t get moldy or horrendous the way a pasteurized milk does. It essentially ferments and will almost separate into its own style of cheese. This again is because of the beneficial bacteria in it.

Is raw milk safe?

Yes and no. Just like with pretty much any other food item, if handled correctly and from healthy animals raw milk is perfectly safe.

It’s not unusual to hear of an e coli or salmonella outbreak because spinach was mishandled or sprouts were contaminated somehow. Raw milk is no different.

Has raw milk gotten contaminated and made people sick? Of course!

I have consumed raw milk on the daily for a decade and I have never gotten ill from it. Pregnant, breastfeeding, and otherwise, I drink raw milk. I give it to my toddler.

I know many, many people who drink raw milk and they also have never gotten sick. As we’ll talk about in a moment it is completely legal to buy/sell in several states!

We’ll also cover how you can be as safe as possible when sourcing your raw milk.

pouring milk rough and tumble farmhouse

Know Your State Laws

The legality of raw milk is going to change depending on what state you are in. There are a handful of states where raw milk can be purchased right a the grocery store. Ugh, I wish!

In Minnesota, raw milk sales are legal but only if you go directly to the farm and buy from them. You also have to bring your own jars to collect the milk. If you are the farmer selling raw milk you are not allowed to advertise it anywhere.

Neighboring North Dakota only allows the sale of raw milk as a pet food. However, raw milk dairies have gotten around this by selling cow shares. This means you buy a share of cow that lives on a farm. Since you own part of the cow, it’s totally legal for you to drink that milk. The farmer is basically raising the cow and milking it for you.

It’s all wonky and it seems like states with more restrictions always have some sort of work around or loop hole that people use to get their raw milk.

Where can I buy raw milk?

If you live in those lucky states that raw milk is legal, you can buy it from your local grocery store.

If you live in a state where it is more regulated, you’ll likely have to go directly to a farm to buy it.

Worst case scenario you might live in a state where raw milk is totally illegal. In that situation I assume you would have to be part of a “raw milk black market” and buy it under the table from some farmers.

Again, RealMilk has a milk finder database. I will say that most homesteads or small farms that sell milk probably won’t be on there and are best found by word of mouth.

Don’t be alarmed if folks are a little hesitant to talk raw milk with a stranger. Since the legality of raw milk can vary, most people are cautious about who they talk with about their raw milk sales.

Things to Do Before Buying Raw Milk from a Farm

Raw milk can be and is perfectly safe if handled correctly. I would never buy raw milk from a farm without visiting them first and looking for a few important things.

Visit the Farm

Go out and visit the farm and the animals. I’ll say first that most working farms aren’t idyllic with well manicured lawns and perfect white fence. Working farms or homesteads usually have weeds sprouting up all over the place. Almost always there is one vehicle sitting with a flat tire or an engine that won’t start. Probably an overgrown garden. Kids’ toys all over. These things are normal and not to be judged too harshly.

Take a look more closely at the animals (more on that in a minute) and get a good look at their milking parlor. Does the area where milking take place look pretty tidy and kept up? Are the farmers knowledgeable about their animals and their craft? Do they avoid questions or brush off your concerns? All things to gauge when visiting a raw milk source.

nubian buck rough and tumble farmhouse

How are the animals treated?

Do they look healthy and happy? Are they in piles of their own manure or out on grass? Are they being fed a diet of nothing but corn silage or are they eating good pasture and quality hay? Healthy well cared for animals will produce better quality milk.

How is the milk handled?

Ask the farmers about how they handle their milk. Everything that milk touches should be sanitized prior to use and sanitized after. The milk should be contained in nothing but stainless steel, glass, and possibly high quality rubber hoses used in machine milking.

Are the cow or goat’s teats being sanitized properly before milking?

After the milk comes out of the animal, is it being filtered and cooled quickly? Milk should be filtered and cooled in a fridge or freezer as soon as possible.

Ask about Somatic Cell Counts

If you are buying milk from a larger dairy that keeps milk in a bulk tank, feel free to ask about their somatic cell counts. Put simply, this is a measurement of cells in milk that increase to high levels when they need to combat bad infection or illness in an animal. Anything over 100,000 (for a cow) would give me pause.

If you buy milk from a very small dairy or homestead like ours, they very likely do not complete somatic cell counts.

Ask the Milk Pick Up Procedure

So, you’ve visited the farm and everything looks good. Then you’ve talked with the farmer and they are knowledgeable and responsible with handling the milk. Now it’s time to plan for buying the milk.

Each farm will be different, typically based on the laws in your state.

Here are some details to iron out with the farmer.

  • How much does it cost?
  • Paid by cash, check, PayPal, etc?
  • Pay each time or monthly/ahead of time?
  • When is pickup? Unless you absolutely can’t make it work, always fit to the farmer’s schedule.
  • Do you need to provide jars? What size? What style lids? Do things need labels?
  • Where do you physically get the milk from?
  • What is the jar swapping system? If you bring your own jars.
raw milk yogurt rough and tumble farmhouse
Fresh raw milk yogurt.

How much does raw milk cost?

Cost is an important factor to consider when buying raw milk. This is going to vary widely on the type of milk you are buying and how readily available it is.

When we buy goat’s milk from our friends, it costs $13 per gallon. When we sell our cow’s milk we sell it for $10 per gallon.

This may seem somewhat expensive, but if I drive to the local natural food store, a half gallon of Organic Valley whole milk will cost me $5.98. My milk is actually cheaper even though it is also organic (not certified) and raw!

On the flip side I met another local gal who buys milk from her neighbor and they only charge them $2.50 per gallon. I honestly cannot imagine selling such a great product for less than what you’d pay at the store.

Are you thinking about buying raw milk and have questions or comments? Let me nkow below! I’m happy to answer questions as best I can.

If you are planning to raise your own dairy animals, check out my dairy resources.

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buying raw milk for beginners

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