Christine Hampshire: The Wyoming Food Freedom Act and Raw Milk
Leiter, Wyoming is wide open country nestled along Clear Creek in eastern Sheridan County. Although Wyoming is not known as a major dairy producing state, the openness and bounty of grass and grazing land make it fitting for raw milk production.
Christine Hampshire runs Cross E Dairy, a raw milk operation, in Leiter, Wyoming on the family beef cow and calf ranch. While she grew up helping with the family milk cow, her own dairy venture began in 2014.
Christine’s approach to raw milk relies on sanitation, freshness and health. Christine utilizes the best technology to keep her milking equipment sanitized, she delivers her product weekly and has her milk tested quarterly for any problems. She range feeds her cows on natural grasses in the pasture and supplements their diet with flax, sunflower seeds, and barley for healthy omegas and nutrients as well as hay that is grown and harvested on the ranch.
“Raw milk is fresh out of the cow,” Christine says, “First, I clean the cows udders and the equipment, then I milk the cow, then I filter it. Then as soon as it’s filtered I rapidly chill it, so it's getting down to 40 degrees or less in an hour or less so that it stays fresh and bacteria can’t grow in the cold temperatures.”
Before pasteurization, people only drank raw milk.
“It goes back to the War of 1812,” Christine says.
Christine explains that as a consequence of the War of 1812, America lost their whiskey supply from the British West Indies, and so the US liquor industry was born. Whiskey distilleries started popping up in New York and people moved to be close to the factories for work. A lot of people moved from rural settings to urban areas, bringing their traditional food sources like dairy cows with them. At this time, cows went from grazing to a more commercial type dairy operation. A confined operation was seen as necessary to supply milk to the urban population.
Eventually, the commercial type dairies and the whiskey distillery operations actually met in the middle. The distilleries had leftover distillery mash byproduct which they gave to the cows as a food source. Christine says the whiskey byproduct diet is extremely unhealthy for cows. Their stomachs weren’t meant to digest that grain. On top of their diet, the cows lived in confinement, causing a multitude of sanitation problems. The cows were forced to stand in their own manure and milk contamination happened consistently. Additionally, the workers milking the cows didn’t practice good sanitation while handling the cows. There was a tuberculosis outbreak among dairy workers in the confined operations which only worsened the problem. Diet, sanitation, confinement, and handling all led to disaster. Multiple illnesses, like tuberculosis, and many deaths from milk production occurred because of these serious health issues in the confined dairy operations.
Philanthropist Nathan Strauss, a founder of Macy’s, was one of the architects in persuading the US to utilize pasteurization to keep milk safe. Strauss looked into the technology created by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s, which required the heating of milk followed by rapid cooling, killing all necessary dangerous microorganisms and making the milk safe. Pasteurization of milk in that era saved countless lives.
“Raw Milk Done Right”
Christine’s argument is that when done safely and sanitarily, raw milk is actually better on our digestive system than pasteurized milk.
During pasteurization, milk loses a lot of the enzymes and healthy benefits that milk offers in its raw form.
“A lot of our processing is what has caused our dairy intolerances,” Christine says, “pasteurization treatment changes the enzyme components in milk. During pasteurization, some of the components in milk are damaged, if not completely destroyed. Enzymes are very heat sensitive and so those enzymes that are naturally in milk, to help digestion are destroyed when heated...so then we struggle to digest milk, leading most of the population to be lactose intolerant.”
The dairy industry has seen huge changes in the last few decades. This is partly due to consolidation and vertical integration in the dairy industry, but also in part to the fact that US consumers are not drinking much cow’s milk these days. In 2018, cow’s milk sales were down by more than one billion dollars, while the market for plant milk alternatives, like oat milk, almond milk, and cashew milk, continues to grow. As consumers struggle to digest cow’s milk, they look to other options to fill that void.
Christine understands and encourages consumers to search for a digestively tolerable milk, but at the same time she feels bad for the dairy farmers who are being displaced.
“I have a little bit of a hard time sometimes with this topic, because when you read the news, you hear how much dairy farmers are struggling, and how dairy farms are going out of business on a daily basis,” Christine says. More than 2,700 U.S. Dairy Farms Closed in 2018. “I feel bad sometimes promoting my product and saying ‘don’t go to the store and buy commercial dairy products.’ I feel for those families that that has been their existence, and they're selling off their farms.”
Christine says it’s hard to watch fellow dairy farmers go out of business. She knows all too well how hard working in agriculture really is.
“Any form of agriculture is not easy, it's a lifestyle that you pursue because it's deeply ingrained in you, it's how generations before you were raised, and you appreciate their hard work and the things that you learn and the way that you work together as a family works towards that legacy you pass on to your children. And that's what causes you to put in crazy, insane hours and in all sorts of weird weather and environments and for low pay. I feel bad for what the dairy industry and those farmers are going through. So it's hard for me sometimes to talk about a message that's kind of contrary to what they're doing.”
Christine Believes in Her Product
Christine really believes in her product and what raw milk can do for consumers.
In July 2017, the Wyoming Food Freedom Act was amended, allowing Wyoming citizens to market their homemade products to consumers. That Act allowed Christine’s raw milk business to grow significantly. Christine went from delivering raw milk to her friends and family to delivering her milk to the Sheridan Farmers Market, Landon’s Greenhouse Farmers Market and an indoor, year round farmers market in Gillette.
“There needs to be a lot of education when it comes to raw milk,” Christine says. “The health benefits far outweigh the concerns from raw milk, especially if you know and can trust your producer is producing properly.”
Christine says there are reports of raw milk curing gastric issues and other common ailments. This “raw milk cure” that the Mayo Clinic published in the late 1800s is still embraced by some.
Christine thinks raw milk gets a bad rap in the mainstream.
“Every year, we have roughly 48 million sicknesses, 128,000 hospitilizations and 3,000 deaths from foodborne illnesses. While I don't want to say there's never any risk from raw milk, there’s a perspective that’s important to look at.”
One of the big concerns and oppositions to the Wyoming Food Freedom Act was that producers would improperly make food and consumers would get sick.
“People who were in opposition of Wyoming passing that freedom of food act said, ‘well, you know, now you're going to see a spike in illnesses,’ and we haven't seen that, there's been nothing reported. And so I think that a lot of times those concerns are really blown out of proportion,” Christine says.
Thanks to the Wyoming Food Freedom Act, hundreds of producers are now able to sell their goods. The Act has created new markets and opportunities for producers and consumers alike. Year round farmers markets, more variety at stores, and new products showing up on shelves because of the legislation.
“As far as raw milk from producer to consumer, I'm in an environment where it's still isolated from commercial food products, so I can't walk in and sell my milk on a shelf in a conventional store, so there's a little bit of a limitation there, that hopefully, in the future, will be revised,” said Christine.
Christine says that the outcome of Wyoming Food Freedom Act has helped relieve some of the tension around her product. When the legislation passed, and new opportunities arose for her business, Christine went from spending almost every day working on the ranch to being in town and going face to face with customers. Those interactions and feedback Christine gets from her customers and other producers at markets helps fuel her busy workload.
“Those interactions between my customers other producers have been so rewarding,” Christine said. “There’s this big sense of community. I hope that we can continue to find better marketing opportunities for all of the producers, and I hope in some of these areas, maybe we can start to create food stores or food hubs where we can show off everybody's hard work better and make it more available for the consumers.”
Christine is adamant that the legislation passed is a step in the right direction to changing the food system for the better.
“The local involvement and interaction at markets not only enriches our community it's really bettering our economy, our food system, our culture, and our relationships,” Christine says.