In the raw

Confessions of an undercover goat farmer

click to enlarge CLANDESTINE DAIRY: "Lucy," who will not give her real name for fear of reprisals from the Florida Department of Agriculture, sells raw goat milk and cheese from her home in Tampa. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
CLANDESTINE DAIRY: "Lucy," who will not give her real name for fear of reprisals from the Florida Department of Agriculture, sells raw goat milk and cheese from her home in Tampa.

Every other Friday morning, "Lucy" drives to a St. Petersburg natural food store carrying a cooler full of contraband. She parks in back, opens up her van and waits for her customers, all invited by word of mouth and eager for their fix.

This is one of many "drops" Lucy maintains in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to peddle her wares, in addition to inviting potential buyers to her home. As word has spread, she has had no problem finding eager customers — housewives, restaurant chefs, doctors, lawyers.

Inside the cramped store full of organic produce and specialty spices, one of Lucy's regulars approaches her, and after some small talk, the money changes hands. Lucy takes the $12, folds it up and sticks it in her pocket; the buyer, a stay-at-home mom from St. Petersburg, takes the gallon jug happily.

Lucy, a 51-year-old mother of two, is no drug dealer or moonshine bootlegger. She glides under the state's radar selling something that is on the top shelf of most fridges: milk. Not just any milk, though — unpasteurized, unhomogenized, straight-from-the-udder raw goat milk.

Unfortunately for Lucy, Florida is one of 22 states that ban the sale of raw milk (from any animal) for human consumption. So small-time dairy farmers like Lucy skirt the law through a provision in the state statutes allowing the sale of raw milk for pet consumption, creating a "don't ask, don't tell" situation for raw milk enthusiasts. And, in order to avoid negative attention from the Florida Department of Agriculture, these farmers lay low, finding customers through referrals and making illegal milk drops.

Nobody knows about Lucy's enterprise — not even her neighbors — and she'd like to keep it that way. On the condition that her name and the location of her farm remain secret, Lucy agreed to speak candidly about the raw-milk black market.

"I'm hanging my neck on the line," she says in a thick West Virginia accent. "There's a lot of risk involved. ... My picture won't be in the post office for selling drugs. It will be for pushing healthy milk on children."

If you pass by Lucy's home, located in a plush Tampa subdivision, you would never know there was a small dairy farm in her backyard. There are no barnyard smells, and the gated pens and barn (full of chickens, goats and a few horses) are hidden by trees.

Lucy spends six hours a day out here — three hours in the morning, three in the evening — cleaning, feeding and milking the animals. The only time she rests is when a customer comes by looking for unbleached eggs, kefir and raw goat milk or cheese.

Lucy likes to call herself a "yuppie farmer;" she's always lived in the city, never even owning a cat or a dog as a child. But in 2001, she acquired two goats for her son to take to various competitions. It was at one of these events that she tasted goat milk for the first time. Immediately liking it but without a reliable supplier, Lucy milked her own goats to support her habit. Months later, Lucy and her husband lost lucrative jobs in construction and real estate.

"I went from six figures to no figures," Lucy says. "So I had to reinvent myself. The goats had to earn their keep."

Through word of mouth and local websites, Lucy hooked up with several other like-minded milk drinkers and learned the intricacies of goat farming. Within a few years, she made a name for herself in the raw-milk community.

"I have not a doubt that I have the best goat milk in the state of Florida," Lucy boasts. "I'm not ashamed or embarrassed to say that."

Lucy attributes this to her husbandry practices. She feeds the goats fresh hay and a special sweet grain mixture of oats, corn, barley, black oil sunflower seeds and alfalfa pellets. She only gives antibiotics as a last resort, and administering growth hormones is out of the question.

But most importantly, her goat milk does not go through pasteurization — the process of blasting milk with heat high enough to kill bacteria and then rapidly cooling it. Raw milk enthusiasts claim pasteurization also kills good bacteria and enzymes, thereby negating any real health benefits of dairy products.

Lucy demonstrates the raw milk process with her goats, Jamie and Goober. After hand-milking the animals, she strains the milk through two metal coffee-filters into sterile plastic jugs and then plunges it into an ice bath to prevent harmful bacteria from growing.

Using this process, Lucy will gather five gallons of milk before the day is done. She averages 35 gallons a week.

"Cindy" (who declined to give her last name, afraid it could somehow lead back to Lucy) is one of the eight or 10 regulars who come by Lucy's home every week for milk and eggs.

"I call myself a food guerrilla," the mother of three says. "I meet people in parking lots. I go behind hedges. All to eat healthy."

Cindy says since switching to "traditional foods" three years ago, she has lost 30 pounds, reduced her blood pressure and slowed the aging process. Other raw milk advocates claim the milk has cured digestive tract disorders, diabetes and ADD.

"The common manufactured foods are poisoned now," Cindy says, paying for her four dozen eggs and a gallon of raw goat milk. "Do you really want eggs that have been bleached?"

The raw milk movement in Tampa Bay is quickly growing, says Sarah Pope, the head of the Weston A. Price Foundation's Tampa chapter. (The Foundation is a nonprofit charity founded to educate people on traditional diets and lobby for raw milk.)

"[Six years ago], if I told anyone we were [drinking raw milk] people would look at you like you were crazy," she says. "Now if I tell people I'm drinking raw milk, I hardly ever get that reaction anymore."

Pope says the Tampa chapter has grown to nearly 500 members and estimates over 1,000 area families regularly drink raw milk.

"We know how these cows are treated, how they are shot full of hormones and fed unnatural feed," she says. "We don't want that for our children."

Most advocates also add drinking raw milk is about consumer choice.

"People need to understand what we put in our mouths is our personal choice," Pope says. "The government doesn't have any right to tell us what we are allowed to eat."

John Miller, director of dairy inspection for the Florida Department of Agriculture, says he understands the advocates' sentiment, but "it bothers me when they feed [raw milk] to their children."

He defers to the Food and Drug Administration that states raw milk is "inherently dangerous" and likens drinking a glassful to "Russian roulette."

"Human consumption of raw milk is illegal [in Florida]," Miller says, adding scientific evidence does not support the claims of raw milk enthusiasts. "We have no intention that we would ever want to change that."

There have been no outbreaks of disease in Florida linked to raw milk, but according to a FDA report, 18 outbreaks between 2000 and 2005 resulted in 451 people sick from pathogens like E. Coli and Salmonella.

Still, while Miller is aware that people are selling raw milk under the false pretense of pet consumption, he says state officials have generally not gotten involved.

"We certainly frown on that, but we know it goes on," he says.

Lucy says Florida needs a state-sanctioned system — similar to those in South Carolina and California — that allows mini-dairies to exist and sell raw milk openly.

"I have no problems with regulations," she says. "There has to be some kind of regulations, because not everyone is like me in the back yard."

As Lucy goes back to milking two more goats, she receives a phone call. The man on the other end says Sarah Pope referred him and he wants a few gallons of goat milk for his daughter.

"It may be what we drink in this household, but I sell for pet consumption only," Lucy tells the man. "Your daughter is a puppy, right?"

Ever suspicious, Lucy says Florida Department of Agriculture officials have called her before, asking too many questions and trying to trap her into saying something illegal.

"I lived in the '70s, you know," she says. "I can tell. ... It's a mom's intuition."

Back at the natural food store, dozens of people have filled the small store, awaiting a huge shipment of raw cow milk from Central Florida.

The phone rings and the storeowner, Marcy (who is also hesitant to give her last name), answers it quickly. After confirming the truck will arrive in a few minutes, she hangs up.

"Our cow is mooing," she announces.

Marcy whispers: "We do a good job of being invisible."

When a red pickup truck with a horse trailer pulls up, several men, women and children dash outside to help carry crates containing 150 gallons of raw milk. All of it, says Marcy, will be gone within a few hours.

Lucy stands in the back, her cooler almost empty. She'll have to bring more goat milk and cheese next time, she says. The word is getting out about raw milk, and every week she runs out sooner.

"This really is an underground network," she says as the crowd gathers their gallon jugs of milk. "It's a shame you have to go underground to eat healthy."

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