Raw Milk Finds its Niche

By mid-December, the mix of fescues, orchard grasses, and brome grasses that cover De Smet Dairy’s one hundred fifty acres have turned from green to brown. The forty cows that the dairy milks at any one time munch a mixture of dry hay along with whatever stubble remains in one of Bosque Farms’ last open spaces while the sun lowers behind the cottonwoods that line the Rio Grande.

From their ranch-style home opposite the pasture, Mike and Erica De Smet, the husband and wife team who own and operate the dairy, relish the bucolic scene. “It’s a great lifestyle to be able to look out and have cows grazing out your front window,” says Mike, whose grandfather purchased the land in 1949. “I’m third generation here, so it would be great if my kids could figure out a way to keep moving it forward.”

His father and grandfather ran a traditional dairy, but when Mike and Erica returned to the area and resumed dairying in 2013, the business landscape had changed dramatically. As De Smet describes it, a “small” dairy typically milks at least two thousand cows, and there was no way his family’s land could support such an operation. They knew they would not be able to sell their milk to a creamery and would have to sell it themselves. Upon realizing that New Mexico is a raw milk state—one of twenty-nine that allows some form of raw milk sales and one of thirteen that allows off-farm sales—they decided to take a chance.

A few years before De Smet returned to the farm, his father had sold the cows and reverted to growing corn and alfalfa. Soon after taking over day-to-day operations, he was presented with the unique opportunity to rent his land for the filming of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie, The Last Stand. With that seed money in tow, he purchased the cows and equipment—including a pasteurizer—needed to resume the dairy.
Growing up, De Smet drank raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurized) on a regular basis. “Every kid who grows up on a dairy drinks raw milk,” says De Smet, who is well built, with a short beard and long hair tied into a loose bun. “We’d run across the street and open up the bulk tank.” Even though raw milk wasn’t new to him, he was still nervous about there being enough of a market to sell exclusively unpasteurized milk. “I thought we were going to have to be traditional and ease people into raw milk,” admits De Smet. But that has not been the case. “Three years later, I haven’t pasteurized one drop,” he says proudly.

Pasteurization, the process developed by Louis Pasteur in 1864, kills bacteria by slowly heating it. By killing enough pathogenic microbes, pasteurization limits the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, and prolongs the shelf-life of dairy products as well as wine, beer, cider, and certain varieties of nuts. The United States began to adopt pasteurization techniques by the 1890s, and starting in 1971, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required the pasteurization of all milk bought and sold across state lines.

In recent years, the local food movement, along with Americans’ increasing desire to avoid processed foods and “know your farmer,” has expanded interest in raw milk. Raw milk has engendered significant controversy, with both sides debating its health benefits and safety. Proponents, the De Smets included, not only insist that the product is safe, but that it is healthier as well.

Among many claims, these advocates assert that raw milk contains many more probiotics that aid the digestive system, has higher levels of fat-soluble vitamins, and decreases allergies and childhood asthma. Additionally, from his experience, De Smet says that many people who claim to be lactose intolerant have been able to drink his milk without getting sick. Supporters of raw milk are also quick to emphasize how much better the taste is. “It gives the milk a fuller, creamier flavor,” says De Smet. “The taste is so much better than anything you’re going to process.”

Few debate the flavor comparison, but many scientists, including those at the FDA, vociferously discourage the consumption of any raw dairy products. The FDA points to studies that refute the health benefits and rebut claims that pasteurization has any ties to lactose intolerance, allergies, or asthma. The FDA also insists that raw milk is unsafe. According to the FDA, pasteurization is “the only way to be sure” milk is safe. According to the Center for Disease Control, since 1998, there have been 136 outbreaks tied to raw milk, with 2,468 documented illnesses and two deaths. This is in comparison to thirty-one outbreaks, with 2,840 documented illnesses and ten deaths, that have been tied to pasteurized dairy products.
Statistics aside, De Smet takes these health concerns seriously and proudly touts the many proactive steps their dairy takes to ensure its products are safe. Before milking the cows, he goes through a nine-step process of cleaning the udders and equipment. Step one, according to De Smet: “If you’re not willing to put your mouth on that teat and suck milk out of it, you should clean it again.”

Additionally, De Smet is diligent about rotating the cows and water tanks around the pasture so they are less likely to lie in their waste, which increases the chance of unwanted bacteria getting into the milk. He conducts independent health checks on a weekly basis in addition to the monthly inspections mandated by state law. State law also requires that raw milk carry a “sell-by” date marked four days after it is produced—even though it can be consumed for at least seven days beyond that. This makes for a tight timeline. The milk is shipped to retail stores from Las Cruces to Taos as soon as possible, often the same day it is bottled. This quick turnaround allows it to be on shelves as long as possible.

For De Smet, this narrow window certainly makes the business aspect more difficult because many stores do not want to be stuck with excess milk on their shelves, but over the past three years, the dairy has built a solid customer base that knows what day milk is delivered to their local store.
The De Smets say this is integral to how they view their business. “People want to put a face to their food,” says Erica, who regularly posts pictures and videos of their cows on the farm’s Facebook page. This enables them to speak directly to and educate the people who buy their products and is what attracts many to the local food movement.
In November, when their cows got into a patch of milkweed, which produces an intensely bitter flavor in their milk, Erica was able to alert their customers via Facebook and offer to exchange any bitter milk the following week after the cows had been moved to a new pasture. Similarly, when the dairy expanded beyond its initial sixteen cows, De Smet faced a choice. He could not find any certified organic cows for purchase, and any non-organic cows would need to be on the farm for a full year to be considered eligible for organic certification. Forced to choose between expanding and retaining their certified organic status, Mike and Erica turned to Facebook to poll their customers. By informing them that the dairy’s practices would not change, they felt comfortable letting go of their organic status, and as a result, their business has not suffered. “Our customers understand what we’re doing,” says De Smet confidently.
For this reason, Mike and Erica encourage customers to visit the farm and see the cows that produce their milk. They’re not only proud that their milk is healthy, but that their cows and grass are too. When De Smet took over the farm, it could not support the same grass or crop production that he remembered as a child, but since then, he has worked to restore the land, rotating different grasses and alfalfa, so that the soil gives and receives a balanced source of nutrients.
De Smet also consults with a nutritionist to ensure the cows are receiving the appropriate mixture of grasses and dried hays that allow their stomachs to ruminate. “Our cows eat better than we do,” jokes Erica.
Customers visiting the dairy can buy direct from the farm’s creamery, which operates on the honor system, selling milk, yogurt, and free-range eggs that are produced in coordination with a Mennonite farmer thirty miles south. “That’s what is great about what we do,” says De Smet. “We’re linked directly to our customers, whether it’s on Facebook or they come directly to the farm.”
With limited space to expand, De Smet Dairy is unlikely to grow significantly in the near future, but for Mike and Erica, their focus is more on consistently producing a quality product in a sustainable and transparent way that allows customers to have confidence in what they are consuming. Says De Smet, “It’s a great, amazing thing to look out and say ‘That’s our family’s.’”