MEBANE — Jeff Sykes drives his mud-covered Polaris Ranger up to the silos that tower over his dairy farm.
Wearing jeans, boots and a flannel shirt under his Carhartt jacket, he walks over to the feeding stalls and slings a bucket of feed into the trough. Two golden-brown jersey cows dip their heads in and start to eat.
The farm seems empty these days, but there’s a sense of peace that fills all 300 acres.
Just over two years ago, Sykes Family Farm was home to 125 Holstein cows. The feeding stalls were full, and the farm bustled with energy. Sykes and his employees milked the cows twice a day, sometimes getting help from his wife, Cindy, and their three children. He spent his life building up that herd, carrying on the legacy that his dad, Vernon, started in the 1950s.
But by 2018, Sykes saw the writing on the wall.
He was selling his cows’ milk for about $15 per hundredweight, or roughly 85 cents per gallon—about the same price he was getting when he took over the family farm in 1992. It was the highest price he could get from the dairy cooperative he belonged to, but it wasn’t nearly enough to break even, let alone pay the bills.
He had to sell out.
He sent his herd, his life’s work and passion, to market, where it was sold to a farm in Pennsylvania.
He was fortunate to find work with an engineering firm, but he missed being on the farm, where he felt most at peace. He missed his cows, which he cared for and knew by name. He missed his routine, milking the cows every 12 hours.
He missed it all.
But soon, he got it all back.
Around the same time that Sykes sold his herd, a 2018 amendment to the state’s agriculture laws legalized herd shares, which are contractual agreements between farmers and consumers that allow consumers to legally obtain raw milk.
It’s a move that has allowed small-scale, often retired, dairy farmers, such as Sykes, to stay in the dairy industry or reopen their barn doors after selling out.
But where farmers see opportunity, others see a glaring public health risk.
Like Sykes, John Ager spent most of his life living and working on a dairy farm—and drinking raw milk.
“I’m a big raw milk fan,” said Ager, a Democrat who represents part of Buncombe County in the N.C. House of Representatives. “A lot of people in my area out here go down to South Carolina, because raw milk is legal in South Carolina, and they drive down there to get raw milk.”
That demand led Ager to introduce the amendment to the North Carolina Farm Act of 2018 that legalized herd shares.
The law does not legalize the sale of raw milk, but allows consumers to buy shares of individual cows and other lactating animals, such as goats. As partial owners of the animal, shareholders are legally allowed access to the raw milk that the animal produces.
At Sykes Family Farm, for example, cow shareholders pay Sykes a flat fee of $150 per year to join the program, which entitles them to one gallon of raw milk per week for $9, or a half-gallon per week for $6.
That’s a premium price for milk, but it’s one that the close to 35 members of Sykes’s cow share program are willing to pay.
Considering Sykes started the business in April 2020—one month after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic—he couldn’t be happier with the response. He estimates that, annually, he will make as much money milking five cows now as he did when he milked 125 cows commercially.
While Ager acknowledges that his main objective in legalizing herd shares was to cater to the demand for raw milk, he sees the new opportunities that the programs have given dairy farmers as an added bonus.
Milk production in North Carolina hit an all-time high in the mid-1980s, but steadily declined after that. Since then, milk prices have generally been volatile and unpredictable, and, like Sykes, many small-scale farmers have left the business, while larger farms have grown.
“One thing people may not realize about dairy farming is there are so many barriers to getting in it,” Ager said. “It’s a complete lifestyle. Your whole life revolves around taking care of the cows, milking the cows, vet checks, all that. And it’s a wrenching thing for farmers when they feel like they can’t afford to do it anymore.”
Because farmers are not required to register or permit their cow share operations, the exact number of cow share programs that exist is unknown, but “several dozen people” have approached Marti Day for more information about starting an operation over the past two years.
“They miss their cows and want to find a way to get back in and make some money and provide a product that the consumer is seeking,” said Day, who is a specialized agriculture agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension.
But cow shares and raw milk aren’t popular with everyone—especially public health officials.
State law still dictates “Grade A,” or fluid grade, milk as the only milk that is fit for human consumption, and it remains the only fluid milk that is eligible to be sold in stores. Among other sanitation requirements, Grade A milk meets federal regulations for pasteurization, which is the process of heating milk to kill bacteria.
“Pasteurization is one of the greatest inventions for public health,” said Larry Michael, North Carolina’s environmental health director. “It’s prevented millions of illnesses and deaths, and is considered one of public health’s most effective food safety interventions.”
But many raw milk drinkers, such as Katherine Williams, believe raw milk has health benefits that outweigh the risk for illness—especially if the milk is handled properly.
Williams, who is a member of the cow share program at Sykes Family Farm, has been drinking raw milk for more than 10 years, a practice she thought would be a cheaper alternative to organic milk.
“It’s not cheaper at all. I learned that,” Williams said. “But I discovered a lot of other beautiful things along the way.”
Williams believes that drinking raw milk healed her asthma, and she and her daughter have also experienced improvements in their seasonal allergies, which they associate with their switch to raw milk.
There is no clear evidence that supports such claims about raw milk’s health benefits, and public health officials, such as Michael, are quick to dispute them.
“One thing that we hear a lot in terms of the debate is that pasteurization may destroy some of the beneficial components of milk,” Michael said. “And based on the science, that’s just not true. I mean, there’s no negative impact to the positive qualities of milk, based on the science.”
But Williams feels comfortable in her choice to drink raw milk, especially because she sees firsthand the careful attention Sykes pays to sanitation and proper milk handling on his farm.
Once a week, Williams helps feed and milk the cows at the farm, working closely with Sykes to ensure that proper sanitization processes are followed.
“They were a professional, standard dairy farm for most of Jeff’s life, and the sanitation is completely standardized and the same as sanitation on all dairy farms that are selling commercial milk,” Williams said.
Sykes wouldn’t have it any other way.
After leaving the dairy industry once, he knows that it would take just one misstep to bring his new opportunity crashing down.
“Every farm works different, but what does not change is your routine of milking and the process you go through to milk, to sanitize, to clean your cow’s udders, to do all that to get your quality milk, and to have it tested,” Sykes said. “That is just something that is ingrained in me, and I would be afraid to put anything else out there that would get people sick.”
And nothing is better than being back with his cows.
“That’s where I’m in my element, and it’s where I need to be,” he said.
UNC Media Hub is a collection of students in the Hussman School of Media and Journalism who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina.