Western Washington dairy farmers Vic and Judy Jensen were just days away from becoming raw milk producers. Their herd had been inspected, and the state had licensed the dairy to start selling raw milk.

But then, something stopped them in their tracks: An E. coli outbreak linked to raw milk from a nearby dairy sickened several people.

Raw milk is milk that hasn’t gone through pasteurization, a process that heats milk to high enough temperatures to kill pathogens that can sicken or kill people.

Judy said the outbreak, which occurred about 3 years ago, had them going back to the drawing board and double-thinking their plans.

“We knew the dairy,” she said. “It was as clean and neat as a pin.”

“We decided it was just too risky,” Vic said. “We didn’t want to get anyone sick.”

Swamped by low dairy prices but still in search of a way to keep their farm from going under, the Jensen family did some “exhaustive research” and hit upon another idea: processing their own milk and selling it direct.

golden-glen-dairy.jpgThe farm was already making and selling farmstead cheese under the brand name Golden Glen Creamery, which enjoyed an excellent reputation for its products.

But this time, instead of turning to raw milk as a solution, the Jensens brought in a pasteurizer that does what is referred to as “vat pasteurization” or “low-temperature vat pasteurization.”

Unlike standard pasteurization, which is designed to handle huge volumes of milk at high temperatures, vat pasteurization heats the milk at  lower temperatures but for a longer length of time. As part of the process, the milk is held at 145 degrees F for 30 minutes and then cooled as quickly as possible.

Proponents of this method say the milk is of a higher quality and tastes better than milk put through standard pasteurization, which typically involves several handling procedures in which it’s separated into milk and cream, homogenized, and reformulated.

“It doesn’t bruise the milk,” Judy said, referring to vat-pasteurization. “It tastes better when it’s pasteurized this way.”

Another selling point is that the dairy doesn’t homogenize its milk.

Homogenization breaks up the fat globules in the cream into such a small size that they remain suspended in the milk, a procedure that some dairy experts and dairy consumers say results in a flatter-tasting product.

Golden Glen has a cream separator and in addition to several flavors and kinds of milk, sells cream and four kinds of butter. A half-gallon of milk sells for $4.

Going one step further in tapping into consumer interest in buying farm-fresh milk from local dairies, which is often coupled with a yearning to return to “the good old days” when a thick layer of cream topped each bottle of milk, the Jensens sell their milk and cream in glass bottles.

“That’s a real selling point,” Vic said.

Customers pay $2 for each bottle but don’t have to pay that deposit fee again as long as they return the bottles when they stock up on more milk or cream.

The dairy, which produces 450 to 500 gallons of vat-pasteurized milk each day, sells its milk, cream, egg nog, butter, and cheeses to stores and grocery chains in the Puget Sound area, among them Whole Foods, Puget Consumers Co-op, Red Apple, and Thriftway.

The dairy also sells direct to customers at farmers markets. And on weekends, people often drive up from Seattle or other cities in the area to visit the farm and buy its milk and dairy products.

“We do our best to show them what we do,” Vic said. “They want a connection with the farm.”

And while the older customers say they like the dairy’s milk because it reminds them of the milk they drank when they were growing up, young families also seek it out.

“People often tell us that now that their kids have tasted our milk, they won’t drink any other,” Judy said.

Vic has had people tell him that they quit drinking milk “until we found yours.”

When looking at the strength of the market, both Vic and Judy say they know they could sell anything they could bottle. And Vic also believes that would be true if they sold raw milk.

But whether the milk is raw or pasteurized, he emphasizes that cleanliness of the cows and dairy is of the utmost importance.

Like the Jensens, farmers across the country have crafted and are crafting strategies to satisfy strong consumer demand for milk from local farms. And while some dairy farmers have made good headway in tapping into this movement by selling raw milk, other dairy farmers are looking at alternatives that don’t involve raw milk.

In his search for an alternative to raw milk, Steven Judge, a former Vermont dairy farmer, has designed and built an on-farm pasteurizer for small herds that uses what he says is a “gentler” process than standard pasteurization.

bob-white-pasteurizer.jpgUnder the Bob-While System (left), cold milk is gently pumped through the system’s heat exchanger at a gallon per minute, where it’s heated to 163 degrees and held at that temperature for 20 seconds.

The milk is then rapidly cooled back down as it flows into a small bulk tank where it’s further cooled and stored.

Under this system, the milk is not homogenized, separated, or standardized. Judge said that handling the milk as little as possible safeguards more of the milk’s nutritional value and cream content, as well as its farm-fresh flavor.

On the health front, Judge said that lab testing of 50 different nutritional components–among them vitamins, fructose, glucose, proteins, saturated fat, linoleic acid, and fiber–revealed that milk pasteurized with his system compared favorably with raw milk.

“There’s very, very little nutritional degradation,” he said. “We’re trying to create the closest thing possible to raw milk.”

Referring to the various handling procedures standard pasteurized milk goes through, Judge said that by the time the milk goes into a carton, it’s been “roughed up a lot.” And because the flavor of milk is very sensitive, when the fat molecules are damaged, they release an “off flavor.”

So why do people buy it?

“Most people don’t know what real milk tastes like, so they don’t have any way to make a comparison,” Judge said. “When people taste our milk, they say it tastes like ice cream.”

On his own farm, which is now a research facility, Judge milks four Jersey cows and typically gets 20 gallons a day, which is fed to calves and provided to nearby pig farms.

“We could supply 60 people with the milk we produce,” he said.

And while he doesn’t see his pasteurizing system as a “silver bullet” for dairy farmers struggling with low prices, he does see it as a good option for those with very small or micro-herds as small as 4 cows or less.

Judge said that in designing his system, the goal wasn’t to see how big a dairy it could serve.

“Our goal was to see how small we could get while still offering a positive cash flow,” he said.

When all costs but labor, which can be done by the farm family, are factored in, and with the milk priced at $5 per gallon, Judge said a farmer could make a profit of $5,000 a year. With his system priced at under $20,000, it would take only about 4 years to pay it off.

Tomorrow Food Safety News will look more closely at small-scale pasteurization, with interviews from milk producers, a state department of agriculture
representative, and a university extension specialist.

Pictured:  Golden Glen Creamery’s milk, cream and butter — all in glass bottles except for the butter.  Photo by Cookson Beecher.  The Bob White System.  Courtesy Bob White Systems.