Farmers milk profits from cow share programs, but experts warn of health dangers from raw milk

By Kyra Miles

Jeff Sykes on his family farm in Mebane with his cows Bernadine (foreground) and Elise. (Eleanor Burcham)

To some it’s a cure-all, to others it’s a stomachache… or worse. Raw milk, or milk fresh from the cow, is the growing health trend you can’t buy off a shelf. Three years ago, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law to allows people to buy raw milk, but only if you’re willing to buy part of a cow.

Kyra Miles reports.




KYRA MILES: When Katherine Williams runs out of milk, she doesn’t go to the grocery store, she goes straight to the source.


KATHERINE WILLIAMS: Fresh raw milk from the cow tastes sweet, like ice cream. It’s a beautiful, delicious food.

MILES: 10 years ago, William’s love for cows led her to raw milk and she never looked back. Now the family of the Chapel Hill mom drinks 3 gallons a week- not just for the taste, but also for their health. 

WILLIAMS: I think it healed my asthma. What raw milk became was actually almost a form of medicine. I was shocked to discover this, it wasn’t like a crusade I went on. But when you can’t breathe, and something helps you breathe? Discussion is over, breathing wins. What raw milk became was, actually, almost a form of medicine.

MILES: There’s skepticism about health claims and unpasteurized raw milk, but it’s becoming a popular health trend and while raw milk is illegal to sell directly in North Carolina, three years ago the legislature legalized cow-shares, opening an avenue for consumers to raw milk.


MILES: A cow share is a contract between a farmer and consumer, that’s like a cow sponsorship. You buy a portion of the cow, the farmer milks the cow and you pick up your milk from the farm. This way, it’s technically not the milk being sold, it’s the cow. Consumers like Williams pay $150 a year and $9 a gallon as a shareholder at Sykes Family Farm in Mebane.


MILES: Jeff Sykes took over the 70-year-old family dairy farm in 1992. But three years ago, due to a declining dairy industry, he had to sell most of his cows.

JEFF SYKES: Right after we sold out, we were trying to figure out what to do and a neighbor had mentioned that there in Virginia, they were selling cow shares.

MILES: In about a year, Sykes attracted 34 shareholders and these cow-shares helped the Sykes avoid shutting down their farm. Cooperative Extension Agent Marti Day has helped dozens of farmers, including Sykes, to set up cow-share programs.

MARTI DAY: We have a lot more people doing the necessary work to set up cow shares and to meet this market demand. It’s become a big part of the calls that I get. The interest from, not only consumers, but also from the farmers.

MILES: Day helps farmers navigate this growing market for raw milk, but there’s still some serious controversy in the health community. 

DAY: Some people think raw milk, cures everything, and other people believe that raw milk is like toxic waste.

MILES: A 2015 study from the National Institute of Health reported that one-third of raw milk samples contained harmful pathogens like salmonella, e.coli, and listeria and unpasteurized raw milk is the frequent source of foodborne illnesses. State Environmental Health Director Larry Micheal’s job is to protect the public from potential health hazards.

LARRY MICHAEL: According to national data, this is from 2009 to 2014, the risk of illness is over 800 times higher for consumers of unpasteurized dairy products than consumers of pasteurized products.

MILES: There’ve been a few European stories that show a correlation between raw milk and lower asthma rates but most findings report that the proven health risks outweigh the possible benefits of unpasteurized milk. So from a public health perspective…

MICHAEL: The only thing that, that I would advocate for is to not allow the consumption of raw milk, period.

MILES: Some legislators are trying to outlaw cow-shares as a way to access raw milk, but for now, consumers can help local farmers by incorporating raw milk into their diets. In Mebane, I’m Kyra Miles.

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