SILVANA — For more than a dozen years, the Sinnema family’s dairy barns sat empty on their farm near Island Crossing.
Jim Sinnema, his brother, Ron, and their father, Neil, had to call it quits in the late 1990s when the price paid for wholesale milk was going down while overhead was going up.
These Darigold farmers sold their herd of Holsteins and most of their pasture. They stayed on the farm, but Neil retired, Ron started making custom gun barrels and Jim drove a cement truck.
Then a few years ago, Jim Sinnema, 42, got the idea that his family should get a milk cow. He and his wife Kelli wanted to give their four home-schooled children something to do around the farm. Sinnema bought a Guernsey named Sally and put his kids in charge.
“The milk was great. The kids loved it. So I bought a few more Guernseys,” he said. “Then I started thinking seriously about getting back into dairying.”
Sinnema decided to sell raw, unpasteurized milk. He figured that because of consumer interest in fresh, local farm products and especially in raw milk, he could confidently market what he and his family drink each day. With the price of a gallon of raw milk hovering around $10, compared with about $3 for a gallon of pasteurized, it could be an opportunity to make some money.
Still, health officials remain concerned about milk that has not been pasteurized to kill harmful pathogens, which primarily occurs when even small amounts of manure contaminate the milk.
That doesn’t faze Sinnema.
“Nobody says any more that organic farming is a joke. Raw milk is a change that is happening. But for it to be sustainable, the market has to get bigger,” he said. “Some people say you’re playing Russian roulette if you drink raw milk. I’m not a gambling man, but if I was, I’d be a millionaire. People have been drinking it for thousands of years.”
Pasteurization is the process of heating milk to a temperature that kills salmonella, listeria and E. coli. It began in the late 1800s when public health issues emerged in industrialized urban areas.
In 1939, raw milk — and poorly pasteurized milk — still was considered the cause of about a quarter of all food-borne illnesses and many deaths nationwide.
After World War II, at the height of agricultural production in Western Washington, dairy farmers invested in new equipment, adopted new practices and sent nearly all of their milk off to be pasteurized.
Today, Washington and 10 other states allow retail and farm sales of raw milk. Canada prohibits the sale of raw milk, as do 17 states. Another 22 states allow very limited raw milk sales, mostly at farm stands.
About 18 dairies in Washington produce raw cows’ milk — just a fraction of all milk sales in the state — and are licensed by the Department of Agriculture. The state seeks to uphold strict standards and work hard with producers to stop problems before they reach the retail level, said Kirk Robinson, the department’s assistant director of food safety.
Raw milk producers must be licensed and are required to post warning labels on each container. Pregnant women, children, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system are considered most at risk of illness.
The CDC in January published its two-year summary of reports of food-borne disease outbreaks. An outbreak is when two or more people get sick. For the first time in 11 years, raw and pasteurized dairy products were identified among the foods (along with beef, fish and poultry) most commonly associated with outbreaks. The majority of the dairy-related outbreaks during the 2009-10 survey period were caused by consumption of contaminated raw milk products, primarily cheese.
The Snohomish Health District has no record of any disease outbreaks related to raw milk originating in Snohomish County during the past five years. Of the 176 singular cases of illness caused by E. coli, seven found unpasteurized milk or cheese, such as queso fresco, as a possible risk factor, said health district spokeswoman Kristin Kinnamon.
Seattle attorney Bill Marler, in lawsuits filed across the country, has represented people who have fallen ill after consuming unpasteurized dairy products.
“Because their farms are small, raw milk dairymen believe it can’t happen to them and they see a profit opportunity because more and more people are getting into drinking raw milk,” Marler said. “But if you sicken just one kid, your farm is gone.”
At one time, when hundreds of dairies dotted the landscape, Silvana was a hub for farmers in north Snohomish County. A couple of creameries were located there, so when Jim Sinnema named his raw milk dairy the Old Silvana Creamery, it was a good fit.
Adjacent to his older barns Sinnema outfitted a new building with what he needed for a cooling tank, bottling and sanitation.
He opened for farm sales with an honor-system collection box on the day after Thanksgiving in 2011. An industrial-sized refrigeration unit holds gallon and half-gallon jugs, keeping the milk temperature at just above freezing. The refrigerated shelf life for raw milk is about 10 days.
In the winter, Sinnema and his family work hard to keep their 19 Guernseys and six heifers clean and happy in the barn, feeding them bales of organic alfalfa, grass and hay. In the summer, Sadie, Buttercup, Freda, and their sisters graze in the pasture out back.
The operation is not certified organic because Sinnema wants to be able to seek conventional veterinary care if the life of a cow is endangered. However, he said he doesn’t use hormones, chemical fertilizers, herbicides or genetically modified feed. The “girls,” as he calls them, get just a little barley to entice them into the milking parlor.
Machines drain the cows’ milk into stainless steel pails, which are emptied by hand through a strainer and into the stainless steel refrigerated milk tank.
“It’s the way we used to do it in the 1960s,” Sinnema said. “It’s a lot easier to inspect a milk bucket than a pipeline.”
A lot of cleaning goes on each day at the dairy: Milking equipment, boots, hands, the milking parlor floor, as well as the cows’ backsides and udders.
“The state makes an inspection once a month, but we also take our milk to a lab in Bellingham each week for testing,” Sinnema said. “I want to keep an eye on bacteria and be on top of the quality of our milk. My family drinks more than a gallon of our milk each day. I would never want them to drink anything that might harm them.”
Raw milk enthusiasts include libertarians who want the government to stay out of their food choices, environmentalists and locavores who want local food from small farms, and, increasingly, people who believe in its health benefits.
Mari Budlong said all it took was a tour of Sinnema’s dairy to feel safe about drinking Old Silvana Creamery milk. She appreciates the milk’s rich golden color and the earthy taste, but it’s also a matter of health for her family, she said.
“I don’t drink pasteurized milk and haven’t since high school. It always gave me terrible stomach cramps. With raw milk, I’ve never had that problem,” said Budlong, 33, of Marysville. “I believe pasteurizing kills the good stuff that helps our bodies use milk more efficiently.”
Budlong is not alone.
Many food activists believe that most pasteurized milk in America is from factory farms where animals are fed genetically modified grain, treated with hormones and antibiotics, and that the milk is stripped of good bacteria during the pasteurization process.
The Campaign for Real Milk, a national organization, says what is needed is a “return to humane, non-toxic, pasture-based dairying and small-scale traditional processing.”
But plenty of governmental sources suggest that it’s a myth that pasteurization makes milk less healthy. The CDC says on its website: “There are no health benefits from drinking raw milk that cannot be obtained from drinking pasteurized milk that is free of disease-causing bacteria.”
Still, the popularity of raw milk is growing, and those who drink unpasteurized milk are passionate about it.
Cass Wheelock-Rowse, 31, of Everett, is a public health nurse and a mother. She and her young children have been drinking raw milk for several years, enjoy the taste of raw milk and have fewer stomach aches.
She gets her milk at the Sno-Isle Food Co-op in Everett, where most milk sales are of raw milk, with pasteurized certified organic milk coming in second. Raw milk also is one of the top sellers of all products sold at the food co-op, said Gretchen Weimer, a member of the management team at Sno-Isle.
“People ask for raw milk all the time,” Weimer said. “We don’t promote it, but we know that people really like it.”
Among Wheelock-Rowse’s friends, she knows no one who has gotten sick from raw milk.
“I can’t help but think that opposition to it comes from the dairy industry,” Wheelock-Rowse said.
The Washington State Dairy Products Commission is quick to underscore the government health warnings. However, the commission doesn’t take a position on the raw milk controversy and believes it’s up to consumers to make their own decisions, said Mark Leader, a commission spokesman.
Sinnema figures he sells about 70 gallons a week from his Old Silvana Creamery farmstand and up to another 300 gallons a week at stores. He tells new customers to take it slow when they try his milk for the first time, to “let their guts get used to it.”
They have to get used to the price, too. At $5.50 for a half gallon at his farmstand, he admits it’s not cheap.
“People spend $5 for a mocha, well, this is the Starbucks of milk,” Sinnema said. “And if that wasn’t true, I would not sell out each week. It tastes good and people get hooked.”
Alan Shank, a farm planner with the Snohomish Conservation District, has been following the raw milk trend for about eight years. He doesn’t promote raw milk in his job, but he does encourage local farmers to find alternatives to conventional dairying in order to make money.
Successful Eastern Washington dairies producing pasteurized milk have grown their herds to include thousands of cows in order to compensate for an ever-thinning profit margin, Shank said.
“With the economic downturn and operating costs going up, we keep seeing more small dairies operating in the red or going out of business,” Shank said. “Raw milk has been a way for some farmers in Western Washington to stay in business.”
Sinnema continues to drive a cement truck and isn’t making any take-home money from his dairy yet, though he does pay his kids for their hard work and has put the profits back into the business. He was able to buy a refrigerated delivery truck to bring his milk to more than 15 health food stores, co-ops and independent grocers in Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom and King counties.
On his way to deliver milk south of Monroe, Sinnema drives near the farm of his childhood friend, Art Groeneweg, another new producer of raw milk in Snohomish County. Like Sinnema, Groeneweg is a former conventional dairy farmer who’s been drinking raw milk most of his life.
Groeneweg, 47, owns the Art of Milk dairy, which has the motto “Back to the Basics.” The business has been up and running for about five months. Groeneweg sells milk in half-gallon glass bottles primarily from a stand on his family farm. To ensure quality, he tests his milk from 20 grass-fed Holsteins several times a week.
“My customers want the real deal, and I want to make sure they can buy it.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; email@example.com.
The Art of Milk, Art Groeneweg, 22426 Highway 203, Monroe, WA 98272; 206-595-6182; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Old Silvana Creamery, Jim Sinnema, 1105 Pioneer Highway, P.O. Box 412 Silvana, WA 98287; 425-268-7961; www.oldsilvanacreamery.com.
For more information from supporters of raw milk, go to www.raw-milk-facts.com.
For more information from those who caution against raw milk, go to www.realrawmilkfacts.com.