The risks and rewards of raw milk

AMELIA, VA (WWBT) - Many Americans are skipping the grocery store to buy their milk directly from the farm.

The sale of raw milk in Virginia is illegal, but that doesn't mean you can't get it. The raw milk movement is filled with plenty of risks if you believe the government and many rewards if you trust those who drink it every day.

As the sun sets at Averys Branch Farms in Amelia County, the work of the Alexander family is just beginning. In what is somewhat of a second act in their lives, Joy Alexander, and her family took over an abandoned farm to share a special product.

"It has all of its life giving nutrients all in it," says Joy while describing raw milk.

Two times a day the Alexanders collect gallons and gallons of milk, not one drop of which is technically "sold".

"It is illegal to sell raw mill in Virginia," notes Joy.

Instead, for a $100 onetime cost, families buy a "share" of one of these cows. They pay a monthly $35 fee for its care and feeding.

"In exchange they get a gallon of milk each week from their cow," said Joy.

The milk goes right from the cow, into a jar, onto tables across Virginia. Tables like Shawn Doran's in Bon Air.

"It actually tastes a lot better," said Doran

Doran and his family gave up on pasteurized milk bought in the grocery story just a few months ago.

"The bad bacteria in raw milk is almost non-existent," he said.

After extensive research Doran decided raw milk is healthier for his family. His view is contrary to organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The government believes raw milk offers no special health benefits, and brings with it unnecessary risk.  From 1998 to 2005, the Centers for Disease Control linked 45 different food borne illnesses directly to raw milk. 1000 people got sick.

Just recently more than 30 people across four states came down with a serious illness after drinking raw milk from a dairy in Pennsylvania.

Joy believes those statistics, and individual anecdotes, don't tell the whole story about this staple of human nutrition for centuries.

"We know that it's safe because if not, all of civilization would've died out," she said.

There is not one recorded death connected to raw milk and Shawn Doran argues that the opportunities for potential problems drops dramatically, when the consumer knows their farmer.

"There is definitely something to local farming and supporting your local farms," he said.

Doran appreciates that the cows at Averys Branch farms produce milk that is different. It is different because of what they eat, grass from sprawling Ameila County pastures.

"It is all about the care of the cow," contends Joy.

The Alexander's cows spend little time penned up inside a barn and aren't given any artificial hormones or grain. Something Doran made sure of before he bought his share.

"We can visit the farm, we can see the cow, our cow and see where our food comes from, where our milk comes from," he said.

For now the selling of raw milk remains illegal in Virginia and there is no serious momentum to change the policy.  The decision to drink raw milk remains a personal choice, one Joy hopes is around forever.

"Their milk is filled with nutrition and it is good for us as it was for our ancestors," she said.

There is a difference in cost. A gallon of milk in the Richmond area costs $4. Milk shares don't advertise their price per gallon. At Averys Branch Farms it works out to about $10 a gallon.

Copyright 2012 WWBT NBC12.  All rights reserved.