Raw and ready: Dairy herdshares give members access to unprocessed milk

Photo: Creambrook Farm Photo: Creambrook Farm

For proponents of raw milk, there’s simply no substitute: “No other health food is so easy and so complete to consume,” says Robby Lisenby of Sweet Land Farm. Fans of unpasteurized, unhomogenized milk from grass-fed cows say it contains more enzymes, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals than processed milk, that it boosts immunity through its abundant probiotics, and that it can ease a panoply of health problems from allergies to eczema. You’ll often find raw milk users making yogurt, cheese, and kefir at home, too.

As for safety, advocates say raw milk contains its own anti-microbial system and is safe when good farming practices are followed. Government agencies don’t tend to agree, which is why you can’t buy raw milk in Virginia. But wait! There is still a way to access the stuff without keeping your own cow. A “herdshare” arrangement lets milk drinkers become the part- owners of a dairy herd, then pay a farmer a fee to care for the cows and bottle their milk.

At Sweet Land Farm, for example, where Lisenby and his wife Erin tend 17 cows in Franklin County, members pay $55 to buy into the herdshare, then $11.25 weekly for a boarding fee that includes a gallon of raw milk, delivered to three different Charlottesville locations. (Extra gallons are $9.25 weekly.) He’s been at it for eight years and, with 300 members, is beginning to feel that his farm is sustainable. “It’s a really hard life,” he says, “but we’re finally not at the point where we’re struggling every day.”

Like Lisenby, Ben Beichler of Middlebrook’s Creambrook Farm stresses that testing every batch of milk for safety is one of his most important practices. He and his wife Kristen launched Creambrook in 2017 but he’s been raising cows for about a decade, and now has around 100 members. To buy into his herdshare costs $34 and the boarding fee is $10 per week, including a gallon of milk. Beichler delivers to several spots in Charlottesville as well as others outside town.

Raw milk doesn’t only come from cows. Kathy Mullins keeps 80 goats at A Better Way Farm—soon to move from the Valley to just outside Charlottesville—and charges a $40 buy-in fee plus $40 monthly for a boarding fee that includes half a gallon of raw goat’s milk each week. Her members pick up milk right on the farm, the better to meet the goats.