On a sunny May Saturday — one which promised to be a good day at the market — I found myself instead walking down a forested path in Shrewsbury. I wanted to take a pointed look at what was not at the market or, more precisely, what was banned from the market. My quest took me to Tangled Roots Farm, and the path led me to an open pasture where goats happily grazed.
Tangled Roots Farm is a diverse, beginning farm run by Lucas Jackson and Maeve Mangine. Nestled into the lush, forested hills of Shrewsbury, the farm sits on 110 acres that Maeve’s family has owned — un-farmed — for years. When you drive up, there’s a long-neglected orchard that Lucas is clearing and replanting. Farther down, stacks of logs sit in the woods waiting for shiitake mushrooms to appear. Cross the dirt road, and you’re back at the goat pasture and the real reason why I visited the farm: raw milk.
Raw milk is simply unpasteurized milk, but it’s a lightning rod for controversy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is strongly against it, pointing out that three people have died in the last 23 years from illnesses traced back to raw milk. Yet, Vermonters, especially those from dairy families, have been drinking raw milk for generations. Advocates point out that raw milk is fresher, tastier and a way to support small dairy farmers that cannot afford expensive pasteurization machinery.
Without a doubt, big dairy farms need pasteurization to protect their customers and prevent disease. Large herds mean less individual attention and more sanitation concerns.
In contrast, Lucas and Maeve have a much more intimate operation. When Maeve walks into the goat pasture, her herd of goats flocks to her and nuzzles against her side. She knows each by name and can describe their individual quirks and attitudes. In the mornings and evenings, she milks the mama goats by hand in a meticulously clean milking shelter complete with tracking charts and daily measurements.
Despite their small scale and close attention to sanitation, Tangled Roots Farm cannot sell their milk at the farmers’ market or to any grocery store. Vermont laws mandate that raw milk must be bought directly from the farm. Even free raw milk “tastings” at the farmers’ market are banned. If your dairy happens to be on Route 7, your farm could put up a raw milk sign and benefit from a steady flow of raw milk enthusiasts and curious tourists. If, however, your farm is like Tangled Roots — down a long gravel road that most Shrewsburians don’t even know about — then you have a problem.
Yet, Lucas and Maeve are making the best of their situation. A month ago they postered Rutland with info about their milk, and on June 12, they’re hosting a Paneer, Caramel and Ice Cream Workshop in partnership with Rural Vermont and Rutland Area Farm and Food Link to highlight all the tasty treats that can be made from their milk.
They’re also using their website (tangledrootsfarm.com) to explain the benefits of raw goat milk: it has more calcium than cow milk, can help with lactose intolerance and can be drunk fresh or used to make cheeses. Plus, raw goat milk never goes bad. When it begins to sour, it can be used as a buttermilk substitute or made into yogurt.
Let’s also get the “goat-y taste” assumption out of the way. Fresh goat milk does not have a goat-y smell or taste. When I tried Maeve’s milk, it was quenching, refreshing and an easy adjustment from cow milk. I can imagine dunking some homemade chocolate chip cookies into a full glass and being quite happy. In other words, Lucas and Meave have a delicious product but are inhibited in selling it by the laws surrounding raw milk.
Thus, like many of the 150 raw milk farmers in Vermont, Tangled Roots Farm’s story starts and ends with the land. Lucas and Maeve are beginning farmers with a tight budget. The land that they have access to is perfect for goats but is located down a road less traveled. They both believe their sales would increase if they could sell their milk at a more visible spot, like the farmers’ market. Maeve also continually laments that she cannot offer tastings at the market or at Pierce’s Store in Shrewsbury. She believes that once you taste her milk, you’ll be hooked. I can’t disagree.
Products that are banned from farmers’ markets often straddle the line of public safety and economic opportunities. With Lucas and Maeve, I have no doubt that they could sell their milk at the market safely, but how do you make sure that’s true of all raw milk? I can appreciate the debate that the Vermont Agency of Agriculture struggles with when developing their regulations, though, I wish they could come up with a solution that would better support small dairy farmers.
Since nobody can buy raw milk from the market currently, my advice for anyone seeking raw milk is to do your research: tour the farm, ask questions and make sure you’re buying from a reputable farm.
Tangled Roots Farm is an easy drive up Cold River Road to Stagecoach Road, and their stand is self serve. To reserve some milk, call Maeve at 236-1178. If you’re interested in attending Tangled Roots Farm’s workshop on how to make paneer, caramel sauce and ice cream, sign up at www.ruralvermont.org.