Joining the herd

Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston recently received a permit from the state to sell raw milk. "There's a
At Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston, primary operator Charles B. Curtiss hooks up a milking machine to one of his red Holstein cows. Curtiss, a fourth-generation farmer,  received a state permit in January to sell raw milk.
At Willow Marsh Farm in Ballston, primary operator Charles B. Curtiss hooks up a milking machine to one of his red Holstein cows. Curtiss, a fourth-generation farmer, received a state permit in January to sell raw milk.

Cyndi Pastore’s family likes unprocessed whole milk, and used to make an occasional drive from Saratoga County to Hawthorne Valley Farm in Ghent, Columbia County, to get it.

So the town of Milton resident was overjoyed when Willow Marsh Farm here got a state permit in January to start selling raw milk to the public, and she has become a repeat customer.

“My family loves their milk,” Pastore said. “They like the taste, they like the freshness. It has a different mouth-feel. It’s creamy.”

Willow Marsh, run by two generations of the Curtiss family, is moving to the cutting edge of dairy marketing with an old-fashioned practice: selling milk produced on the farm directly to the public.

It’s called “raw” milk because it doesn’t go through the pasteurization and homogenization process of a commercial dairy. Pastore is like many people in thinking it tastes better and has more health qualities.

Raw milk

Where: Willow Marsh Farm, 343 Hop City Road, Ballston.

More info: 885-0310

“There’s a lot to be said about the health advantages,” said Charles B. Curtiss, the fourth generation on the farm and currently the primary operator. “I’m the only person I know who hasn’t been sick all winter.”

The public must come to the farm on Hop City Road to get the unprocessed milk — that’s state law — but plenty of people are doing it, even though they pay a premium price for it compared to supermarket or convenience store milk. Darlene Curtiss, the farmer’s wife, oversees the operation.

“Everyone wants to be close by, to see the farm where their food comes from, to be able to drive by and see the cows,” said Curtiss, 49, as he milked the herd of 50 Holsteins Thursday night.

The herd size makes Willow Marsh small by modern standards, when many farms have had to get bigger to survive. Many have hundreds of milk cows, and milk nearly around-the-clock. Everyone working on the Curtiss farm is related.

Driven by demand

The family got the required permit from the state Department of Agriculture and Markets in January, becoming the 23rd farm in the state with permission to sell raw milk. The next closest are in Hoosick Falls or Columbia County.

While that’s only a tiny fraction of the state’s 6,000 commercial dairy farms, it’s more than double the 10 farms that had raw milk sales permits two years ago.

The increased number is a response to public demand, according to various dairy experts.

“Along with [the] buy-local movement, I think there’s been more interest in raw milk,” said Paula Schaefer, agricultural economic development specialist for Saratoga and Washington counties.

“A lot of people are realizing there’s a demand, that it’s something people are looking for,” said Jessica Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which inspects dairies and issues raw milk sales permits.

The state permit process is about being sure the milk is safe even without processing, Chittenden said.

Among the permit requirements is that a prominent notice be posted on the door of the room at the back of the farmhouse where the milk is sold: “Raw Milk Sold Here. This milk does not provide the protection of pasteurization.”

That means it hasn’t been through the 30-second rapid heating method developed by French chemist Louis Pasteur in the 19th century as a way of killing bacteria. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires pasteurization of all milk sold in stores to prevent disease being spread through milk.

The permit requires extensive testing for harmful bacteria at the farm — and milk with germs like salmonella, listeria and e. coli has to be thrown out, as does the milk from any cow that is on antibiotics.

Richard Smith, the Cornell Cooperative Extension dairy agent for Saratoga County, said pasteurization was needed when the process first came into widespread use in the 1950s, but modern farms are largely free of bacteria anyway.

“When pasteurization came on board, there was a great need for it, but today milk is a well-cared-for product,” Smith said.

There’s a movement that contends the pasteurization process, in addition to killing any harmful bacteria, kills beneficial micro-organisms. Those micro-organisms are part of the cheese- and yogurt-making process, and some buyers are using the raw milk for those purposes.

“I think it’s good for the farmer and good for the people,” said Charles E. Curtiss, the family patriarch, who still works daily on the farm.

The raw milk permit requires the Curtiss milk to be independently tested once a month — a random unannounced visit by a state milk inspector who samples the milk and must find it free of impurities, and also tests the farm water to be sure it’s pure. The farm installed an ultra-violet water purification system as part of the process.

Curtiss said the frequent testing isn’t an aggravation.

“You always like to know more and be able to head things off. I’d be testing every other day if I could,” he said.

The farm-based milk sales are currently only 10 or 15 gallons a day, out of the roughly 300 gallons the herd produces. The bulk of the milk is sold to Stewart’s Corp., which buys local milk for its huge milk and ice cream operation.

The price Stewart’s pays is based on the national market, and fluctuates month by month. Milk prices rebounded last year, after farmers suffered some unsustainably low prices for a few years before, but it has dropped some this spring.

Raw milk sales let the farmer set his own price.

“That roller-coaster, I really despise it,” the younger Curtiss said. “You make the milk and it’s gone and then three weeks later you find out what you’ll get paid.”

In addition to selling its own milk, the Curtiss family has shifted to selling more of the corn, tomatoes and other vegetables directly or at farmers’ markets, and recently began selling firewood and compost from the farm.

“Farmers are innovators. They have to be to survive. For that little bit he sells, there’s no middleman,” Smith said.

Farms like Willow Marsh are also survivors — there are only 43 or 44 commercial dairy farms left in Saratoga County, out of the hundreds that covered the countryside at the time of World War II. Many farmers sold their land for development over the decades, after years of getting pounded by high costs and low milk prices, while others have switched to horses or raising beef.

The Curtiss family, however, plans to remain on the land. The fifth generation, son Christopher, is an 18-year-old freshman studying dairy farming at State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill.

Last year the town of Ballston applied for and received a $1 million state grant to buy the development rights from the Curtiss family. While the deal has yet to be completed, it means the 134-acre farm will never be sold for development.

“As we become the only farm around, we’re something special, and people will be willing to pay a little extra for that,” Curtiss said.

The Curtisses charge $5 for a gallon of raw milk and $2.50 for a half-gallon, and still find they’re selling out what they’ve set aside. The farm also sells eggs, veal and pork from the farm store.

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