If you’re having trouble finding milk and eggs at your local grocery store, or would rather avoid the store entirely during this time of social distancing, local farmers have farm-fresh eggs and raw milk to offer.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, people have been stockpiling everything from bottled water to toilet paper, causing shortages and supply issues in grocery stores throughout the country.
Luckily, Natural Roots Farm in Stanardsville has plenty of milk and eggs to share.
Rebecca and William Lunsford started their farm three years ago, and just this year started selling farm shares to the community.
“We want to be a farm that connects to the community,” William said. “We want to be an educational farm that produces for our community. We want to teach the community’s children about farming and where their food comes from. We want to experience the joy of a child seeing all the chickens around her feet and to dabble in agro-tourism for those who want to come out and experience the tranquility of a farm, whether it be for an afternoon or a weekend.”
During the current crisis, local farmers are being hit hard by the loss of a ready market for their products.
“We would love for people to come out and support the farmer’s markets, to meet the people who produce your food who want to sell you food locally,” William said. “That’s your food chain right there—my wife and I—we did it all ourselves. It’s produced right here.” The farm, located off route 810, originally operated with just the young couple and their young daughter, who live in the original circa 1840s farmhouse on the property. Now with a second baby in the family, the farmers have hired two interns who moved in to help learn the ropes this summer.
Natural Roots Farm will be participating in local farmers markets as they are able, but selling online or at a drive-through market is not the same as what they’re used to and not as many shoppers will be in attendance. Starting this week, they are also starting a local delivery option for their farm shares of raw milk and eggs.
“This is a community-based program and it is a fresh daily program,” said William. “We’re very interested in delivering as we can safely do so.”
So what’s the deal with raw milk?
Raw milk, which is illegal to sell in Virginia as well as many other states, is milk which has not been pasteurized. However, farmers can legally sell shares of stock in their cattle herd and then give milk produced by that herd to shareholders.
“Before the advent of pasteurization, people drank raw milk all the time,” Rebecca said. “Every house had their milk cow, their chicken, their little gardens…Then the industrial revolution happened.”
With the advent of cattle farms raising and milking hundreds of cows at a time, laws had to be passed to ensure proper sanitation, as one sick cow in a herd could infect hundreds of gallons of milk.
“Anything can be dangerous, but as far as raw milk goes, as long as we have a cleaning process for our equipment, for her udders, for the jars, there’s a process for everything to make sure everything is safe, and as long as you adhere to that and start with a healthy animal you stay healthy,” Rebecca explained.
“The answer to why raw milk is illegal is because the Food and Drug Administration set up procedures for how food can be produced and sold in stores,” William said. “When milk was produced and distributed fresh daily locally, there was a lot more regularity. Now that milk is shipped all over the world and all over the United States, our milk that we might be drinking from WalMart might have come from some farm in Wyoming.”
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) publishes safety guidelines for raw milk share programs, which are legal so long as proper procedures are followed.
“What we’re doing is we’re not selling you milk,” William explained. “You buy in and you buy one-fifteenth of our beautiful girl Honey Butter [the cow]. You’re paying me to take care of your cow, just like you pay at Massanutten for them to take care of your timeshare so when you go and use it for two weeks out of the year, it’s clean and ready for you.”
“So you own Honey Butter’s nose,” said Rebecca, laughing.
“You buy a share of our cow and that’s your milk that comes from your cow,” William agreed.
Milk shareholders can cancel at any time, freeing up their share for another buyer because the farm can only sell as many shares as they have milk to share. Natural Roots Farm currently has three Jersey cows, though they hope to expand through breeding programs.
As for how raw milk compares to the store-bought variety, there are several differences.
“As far as your glass of milk or milk to put on your cereal shelf life, it is shorter,” Rebecca said. “It will sour over time, but not curdle. It sours into a different product, so if you left a jar of our milk on the counter, it would go from milk to the milk solids and whey, it would separate even more and if you salt it you could get sour cream or cream cheese.” While milk bought from a store will begin to rot when left out for too long, raw milk keeps its essential proteins intact much longer.
“It tastes so much better because it’s definitely sweeter,” she said.
“I love milk; I grew up on milk,” said William. “But the great difference in the taste is you’re actually tasting the oils and the fats still in the milk, because the milk hasn’t been processed, it hasn’t been boiled. The milk you buy in the supermarket is the flavor that the (industry) thinks milk should be… because that tanker truck of milk might come from 400 different cows.”
In addition to the differences in taste, the texture is a little different as well.
“Raw milk has not been emulsified,” William explained. “Every day you just shake it up. Processed milk has been emulsified and blended together so it does not lose its viscosity with the oils and it doesn’t have as much of the oils in there because they’ve been drawn out.”
While grocery-store whole milk contains around 4 percent milkfat, raw milk from a Jersey cow contains anywhere from 27 to 36 percent fat, according to the Lunsfords.
“Jerseys are renowned for their cream, it’s one of the highest butterfats you can get,” said William, explaining that mainstream cattle farms generally have Holstein cows, the giant 1,500- to 1,700-pound variety that can yield the maximum amount of milk per day.
“Jerseys are the homestead cows, the family milk cow,” said Rebecca. “Their milk is super-rich so if you want to make butter or cheese, that’s what makes everything taste so good.”
Studies have shown that even those who experience lactose intolerance or dairy sensitivity can generally tolerate raw milk well because the enzyme lactase that helps humans break down milk in their system is still intact. As for how they know the milk is safe to drink, these two farmers spend every day of the year with their three cows.
“We know the milk is safe to drink because we take care of our cows every day,” William said. “We milk them by hand every day, we’re hands-on every day, so we know the health of that cow.” Between twice daily interactions with the three cows and strict cleaning protocols, Rebecca and William work hard to ensure the health of the cow and its product to consumers.
The couple, who had been excitedly planning a farm festival for this spring, were disappointed when world events forced them to cancel the festival along with plans for new workshops and farm tours. Right now, they are focused on finding buyers for their product, especially difficult with modifications and cancellations of local farmers markets.
“I make my money and do my business by being able to look you in the eye and tell you about my product, to tell you how we pasture-raise our animals, our organic principles and practices, and how we raise our products with the love of our family, and that sells our product,” William concluded.
Natural Roots Farm is located at 1097 Haneytown Road in Stanardsville and at https://www.facebook.com/naturalrootsfarm.info.