Carbondale-area dairy taps valley’s thirst for raw milk
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
CARBONDALE – Milk comes from a cow, not a carton.
That, at least, is how a small but growing number of Roaring Fork Valley residents see it. They’ve invested as shareholders in a modest herd of Guernseys in order to get their hands on “real milk.” Once a week, they head south out of Carbondale on state Highway 133 and turn onto the gravel drive at Sustainable Settings, where a menagerie of barnyard animals raises an endless ruckus and the shareholders’ weekly allotments of fresh, raw milk awaits in glass, half-gallon Ball jars stored in the office refrigerator.
The burgeoning dairy is the latest venture in cooperative food production for Sustainable Settings, a modest, nonprofit farm dedicated to education and community agriculture.
Close to 40 shares in the herd have been sold, and there’s a waiting list of people eager to sign on, but there are only so many cows and only so much milk. No truck arrives to restock these shelves – a baffling notion in contemporary American life.
“We can have anything we want anytime we want it. We’ve lost track of the seasonality of food,” said Brook LeVan, who founded Sustainable Settings with his wife, Rose. That’s not the case at Sustainable Settings, where what’s on the table is what’s in season. When it comes to a dairy operation, things get even more complicated.
Cows give milk when they’re pregnant or nursing a calf, and production varies, peaking shortly after calving. That means the LeVans must time the pregnancies, with help from three bulls that are part of a herd of 14, to keep the milk flowing.
These days, five cows are milking, but the days of someone sitting on a short stool and spurting the milk into a pail are over. A supporter of the operation provided a milking machine last summer, speeding up the once-a-day process of getting the milk from udder to stainless-steel milk can. Then it’s filtered into jars and ready for consumption.
Notably absent from the process is pasteurization, the USDA-regulated process of heating raw milk to eliminate harmful bacteria before its sold.
In Colorado, explained LeVan, it’s illegal to sell unpasteurized milk. That’s why Sustainable Settings must sell shares in the herd. Buyers own the cows, giving them access to the milk and cream. A share is $150. On top of that, shareholders pay a monthly boarding fee of $64 and a $20 jar fee per share (they return the empty jars for reuse). It works out to a gallon of fresh milk per week, per share.
Most of the shareholders live in the Roaring Fork Valley, between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, but a few drive from as far as Silt and Eagle to pick up their jars of the thick, creamy milk, loaded in butterfat and – according to raw-milk advocates – the vitamins, proteins and beneficial bacteria and enzymes that pasteurization destroys.
“The more bacteria in our bottle, the better, while the USDA freaks out about it,” LeVan said.
Current Sustainable Settings intern Zopher Sabo feels strongly enough about the benefits of raw milk – he said it cured the arthritis that developed in his hands after years of computer work – that he looked up a farm when he went home to Kansas City for the holidays and bought 14 gallons of fresh milk to tide him over until his return.
“I will not drink milk if I can’t get raw milk,” said Jody Powell, a naturopathic doctor in Basalt who purchased two shares in the herd. Patients who suffer an intolerance to lactose or the proteins in pasteurized milk are often able to digest raw milk, she said.
“There are plenty of parents who have discovered this is an amazing food – that their children can tolerate it and thrive on it,” Powell said.
Stefanie and Jerry Gillespie, of Carbondale, also signed on as shareholders in the herd last month after Stefanie Gillespie researched the benefits of raw milk.
“Pasteurized milk and raw milk are just two totally different things,” she said. “I’ll never go back to pasteurized milk.”
LeVan compares the benefits of raw milk and the products that can be made with it to yogurt, valued by consumers for the health benefits of the live bacteria it contains.
“It’s still a living food – it’s alive,” he said. “It’s full of beneficial stuff that makes your gut work better.”
This summer, Sustainable Settings hopes to add sort of a “Raw Milk 101” to its list of educational offerings, though shareholders are already experimenting and swapping advice on what they can do with the product, according to LeVan. The farm will offer instruction on how to make butter, fresh cheeses such as ricotta and mozzarella, yogurt and kefir, a cultured, sour drink.
The long-term vision calls for more cows, but not too many. With 90 acres of irrigated pasture available, LeVan figures Sustainable Settings can support a herd of 24 grass-fed animals, 18 of which would be milking at any given time. The demand for raw milk would support the venture, but first the farm needs a dairy barn.
The Raw Dairy Initiative is a $1.7 million project that still needs another $500,000 or so in funding commitments. The timber building – to be erected through an old-fashioned barn raising but powered with solar panels – would be outfitted with a commercial kitchen and large walk-in cooler to accommodate the farm’s expanding dairy and vegetable efforts.
Ultimately, the facility could serve 300 families with 14,000 gallons of milk annually, generating an estimated $120,000 per year that could go back into the farm’s operation, LeVan said.
But the ultimate vision is a Roaring Fork Valley that is once again dotted with milk cows. The Sustainable Settings model is all about replicating sustainable practices in community agriculture, whether it’s greenhouses, chicken coops or cows.
To that end, the farm has already helped foster milk production elsewhere. A Missouri Heights Jersey cow spent time in the company of a Sustainable Settings Guernsey bull last summer.
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Development in Basalt barely skipped a beat in 2020 despite the coronavirus. It’s expected to be busier next year.