If you do the math, Joe and Janet Streit are bringing in about $80 for every 100 pounds of milk that leave their Hamilton, Ohio, dairy farm. In comparison, other Ohio dairy farmers who sell milk through the Federal Milk Marketing Order system have been making less than $20 per hundredweight — sometimes a lot less.
The difference is that the Streits are not selling milk. In fact, it would be illegal for them to sell milk, because their dairy is not inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and the milk is not pasteurized. Instead, they’re getting paid a boarding fee to feed, milk and clean up after cows owned by a group of herd shareholders.
“It’s no different than if you had a share in Proctor & Gamble or some other big company,” Joe says. And, like many big companies, the dairy pays out dividends to shareholders. For each share they own, shareholders receive 1 gallon of raw milk a week.
In Ohio, selling raw milk for human consumption is illegal, but farmers can legally sell shares of animals, explains Alexia Kulwiec, executive director of the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group that promotes the rights of farmers and consumers to engage in direct commerce. “Ohio courts have upheld the rights of farmers and individuals to maintain herd-share agreements, caring for animals in exchange for providing the raw milk products to the owners.”
Those herd-share owners typically want raw milk because they consider it to be nutritionally superior to pasteurized milk, Kulwiec notes. “More and more consumers are demanding raw milk for its beneficial health properties lost through the process of pasteurization.”
Owning a herd share also gives consumers a feeling of connection with the source of their food. That’s one reason Cincinnati resident Sean McCarthy recently brought his four children out to tour the Streits’ Double J Farm. With a baby in a sling and a toddler on his hip, he led his two older children through the milk house, milking parlor and freestall barn as Joe Streit explained the farm’s production practices.
Sean and his wife, Libby, want to know what they are feeding their children, McCarthy explained. “We’re just looking for the best food we can get.”
Joe and Janet Streit are themselves enthusiastic advocates of raw milk. When they were in their late 50s, they both were suffering from multiple health problems, Joe recalls. They decided to try changing their diets and started attending meetings of a local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation. The foundation advocates the consumption of nutrient-dense whole foods, including animal fats — such as those found in raw milk. After revising their diets and switching to raw milk, the Streits’ health improved. They bought their own milk cow in 2005 and soon had like-minded people in their community asking for herd shares.
The Streits added a couple more cows, thinking that if they were milking one, they might as well milk two or three. But as they expanded, even more people asked for shares. “For those first few years, we kept buying another cow every month,” Joe recalls.
In 2009, the Streits built a six-stall milking parlor to replace the bucket milkers they had been using. Then in 2015, they built a freestall barn with a center feed alley. “At $80 (per cwt), you can afford to build buildings and do things other farmers can’t do,” Joe points out.
For the last couple of years, the Streits have been milking 30 Jersey cows and handling 450 herd shares. It’s a retirement career he never anticipated, Joe says. He spent 20 years working as a cabinetmaker before running his own furniture restoration business for 15 years. In 1985, when he and Janet bought their farm, they had no intention of farming it themselves, he recalls. They were more interested in restoring the historic log house on the farm.
Even though Joe and Janet both grew up on farms, they weren’t interested in farming themselves, because they’d seen their families struggle financially. They even agreed they would never milk cows when they got married in 1964, says Joe. “Janet said she never wanted to milk another cow, and I told her she’d never have to.”
Now Janet laughs about that memory. “He lied at the altar,” she points out.
Although she did help with the milking early on, these days Janet keeps busy keeping the records of milk pickups and deliveries, as well as managing the market on the farm. Joe takes care of the livestock, milking, bottling and deliveries with the help of one full-time employee, one part-time employee and additional seasonal workers.
A herd share at Double J Farm costs $50; then, share owners pay a boarding fee of $30 per month for each share. Some owners have several shares because their families drink more milk, and a few have half shares because they only want a half-gallon each week. Owners can also take their weekly dividends in the form of cheese, yogurt, sour cream or butter.
Settling on a fair boarding fee took a little time, Joe says. He started out at $20 per month, but realized he wasn’t covering his labor and expenses, so he increased the fee to $25 and then to $30. “I don’t anticipate that changing now,” he notes.
To maintain herd health, the Streits work with a veterinarian who specializes in organic production. They test for Johne’s disease two or three times a year and check somatic cell counts in the milk monthly. The Streits do carry liability insurance for the farm, but that might be a problem for others interested in starting herd shares, Joe points out. His insurance agent told him the company’s legal department was not interested in taking on additional herd-share policyholders.
Besides managing the dairy herd, the Streits raise grass-fed beef and pastured hogs. They use AI to breed their best cows to Jersey bulls, so they can get replacement heifers. The rest of the cows are bred to Angus bulls, and the calves are used for beef, Joe explains. The hogs are Red Wattles, a heritage breed adapted for pasture production. The hogs also consume whey and other dairy byproducts. The meat from the beef cattle and hogs is sold mostly to herd-share owners.
The dairy has attracted share owners primarily through word of mouth, although the farm does maintain a website, doublejfarmohio.com. Once they sign up, most herd-share owners continue with their herd shares; but, Joe notes, the farm lost a few share owners because driving to the farm to pick up milk got to be too much.
So, in 2017, the Streits got a refrigerated van so they could begin making deliveries to drop-off points in Blue Ash, Germantown, Cheviot, White Oak, Cincinnati, Yellow Springs, Fairborn and Dayton, Ohio. “I got to talking to people, and they were willing to pay,” Joe explains. For delivery, each owner pays an extra charge of $10 to $15, depending on the location. That charge covers delivery of all the owner’s dairy products as well as any meat ordered from the farm.
The farm’s business has grown because it has evolved to meet the preferences of the share owners, Joe points out. “If you’re going to do this, you have to listen to what people want.” For instance, most of the farm’s herd-share owners want the animals kept on pasture and fed non-GMO feed with no soy products in the rations. The Streits also follow organic production practices, although the farm is not certified organic.
The dairy herd has access to pasture and is fed a forage-based mixed ration that includes hay, silage and sorghum. Cows also get a little grain at milking.
During the winter months, when the pasture isn’t growing, Joe uses a hydroponic system to sprout barley in trays. He harvests the seedlings at about 7 inches and mixes the forage into the cows’ rations. “It keeps the quality of the milk up all winter,” he says. “Herd-share people want that cream.”
Raw risks remain
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn about the serious health risks of consuming raw milk because it can carry disease-causing organisms such as Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. As more states have legalized sales of raw milk or herd-share arrangements, the numbers of disease outbreaks associated with raw milk have increased, according to CDC studies.
CDC is joined by the Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics in advising consumers to drink only pasteurized milk. FDA points out that the health risks of raw milk are well documented in scientific literature, while the nutritional and health benefits of drinking raw milk have not been scientifically substantiated. Research shows no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, according to FDA. For more information, visit cdc.gov/foodsafety/rawmilk.