The cows, about 75 of them, graze and enjoy an unseasonably warm day on the 260-acre Bellevale farm in Baltimore County, about 20 miles north of downtown. It's a few hours until milking time.
Together they produce hundreds of gallons of raw milk that is sold to organic milk producer Horizon for about $3 a gallon. It's pasteurized and turned into cartons sold at the grocery store. Part of farmer Bobby Prigel thinks that's a shame.
There are enough people in Maryland who would pay $6 a gallon or more for the unpasteurized, or raw, milk directly from him - if that were legal. State health officials say raw milk is dangerous because it can carry E. coli, salmonella and other nasty bacteria, and has already made many people around the state and nation sick.
"It would be easy for me to sell it," said Prigel, a fourth-generation dairy farmer who drinks the milk from his cows. "I wouldn't have to change a thing."
Raw milk consumers are a small and not-yet-mainstream faction of a larger movement of people who have turned to food grown locally, organically and unadulterated by excessive processing in an effort to lead a healthier lifestyle. They reject the safety warnings because they believe raw, also called "real" or "fresh," milk is more nutritious.
Many are getting it from illicit drop-off sites set up by farmers in Pennsylvania, where it's legal.
The demand has reached such a pitch that Del. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties and who recently gave up cattle farming to join the military, introduced legislation Friday to make it legal for farmers to sell raw milk to consumers who buy a share in one of their cows. It's legal in Maryland to drink the milk if you own the cow, but the state has refused in the past to allow such "cow shares."
He is the third Maryland legislator to offer a bill in three years. He believes the bill will have more support than ever, though its prospects for passage remain slim.
The General Assembly has already approved a pilot program that will allow a handful of Maryland farmers to sell cheese made from raw milk as long as it's aged 90 days, a process that mimics pasteurization. Three farms are expected to begin selling the cheese in the spring or summer. A small amount of raw-milk cheese made in Pennsylvania with Maryland milk is already available in local stores.
"I'm not getting into the debate about whether raw milk is good or bad for you," Jennings said. "It's about choices. And people are already drinking it."
Jennings said the legal sale of raw milk will be a boost to a small number of Maryland dairy farmers who would want to sell it from their farms. Unpasteurized milk has a shorter shelf life and wouldn't likely be sold in retail grocery stores.
More immediately, it would make legal the actions of Marylanders who are using one of the 10 or so delivery sites in the region found by word-of-mouth or on the Internet. Area moms say a gallon of raw milk sells for between $6 and $10 a gallon, far more than the $3.50 a gallon regular milk was selling for at area groceries last week, but closer to the $3 to $4 a half-gallon of organic milk costs.
Supporters claim the heat of pasteurization kills nutrients and good bacteria, though public health experts say raw and pasteurized milk are nutritionally the same. Some supporters also believe that raw milk has other health benefits, including improved behavior in children; improved health of those with osteoporosis, cancer, asthma and allergies; and better development of fetuses and babies. Health experts say such assertions aren't true.
Liz Reitzig, a Bowie mother of four, is one of the believers. Mornings in her house include fruit, reading, the occasional cartwheel and, always, glasses of raw milk. She has been buying raw milk for four years and feeds it to her children, from 6 months to 6 years. The famile goes through six to 12 gallons a week.
She declined to discuss drop-off sites in the state but said she would prefer "to buy products from the producers of my choice in Maryland."
That would be good for her and good for the environment, she says, because the milk wouldn't travel as far, and good for the state's economy because her money would stay here.
Reitzig also said she knows of no one who has been sickened by raw milk, but notes that other legal foods have caused illnesses, including packaged spinach, which was blamed for a 2006 outbreak of E. coli, and peanut butter, which has been blamed for the current outbreak of salmonella.
"What about deli meat or hot dogs?" she said. "You're so much more likely to get sick from those. There's a bias against fresh milk."
She said she'd keep working for legalization as president of the Maryland Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, which promotes local farm-to-consumer goods.
But the forces against raw milk are vast: the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association and World Health Organization, among others. Many farm bureaus also oppose the sale of raw milk. Officials at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene fret that they can't convince raw-milk drinkers that raw milk can make them sick or even kill them.
"It's not an argument we've been able to make," said Ted Elkin, deputy director of the Office of Food Protection and Consumer Health Services at the state Health Department.
"Some people think it's magical," he said. "This is like arguing about religion. But the department's stance is quite clear and consistent. We agree with the WHO, CDC, FDA. It's unsafe for human consumption."
Elkin said one outbreak of food-borne illnesses related to raw milk was confirmed in 2005 in the Washington suburbs. Five children were sickened and one died after consuming a raw-milk cheese called queso fresco that contained a bacteria that can cause tuberculosis. In general, it's not always possible to prove what makes people sick, so he couldn't say how many people become ill from raw milk versus deli meat, for example.
A CDC report showed that from 1998 to 2005, there were 45 confirmed incidents of 1,000 or more people becoming sick from raw milk across the country. Agency spokeswoman Lola Russell said most cases are not reported. In 2007, there were 1.4 million confirmed cases of salmonella from all sources.
Pasteurization began in the late 1800s, and in 1987 the government banned the sale of raw milk between states. Now, 29 states allow some form of raw-milk sale, mostly direct from farmers as milk or cheese. Others allow the milk to be sold as pet food. And a few, including Virginia, allow cow shares, such the kind proposed in Maryland.
Many who lobby for legalization of raw milk in more states also oppose state-run inspection programs, which Jennings, the delegate, had considered including in his bill. They see such programs as overzealous enforcers that end up harassing farmers rather than ensuring the safety of milk.
One of the groups that provides legal aid to farmers is the Washington-based Weston A. Price Foundation, named for a nutritional researcher. The group promotes raw milk's consumption, and its president, Sally Fallon, estimates that about 500,000 people are consuming raw milk across the country, many of whom started in the past couple of years.
"Raw milk is where organic was 20 years ago, on the fringe but poised to go mainstream," Fallon said. "Within 20 years, there won't be any pasteurized milk. It will take over as people realize the health benefits and safety."
For more on the dangers of raw milk, go to www.fda.gov and search for raw milk. For more on the benefits, go to westonaprice.org.