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Exploring Raw Milk

Niche Farming: On Johns Island, Celeste and George Albers are milking new strategies to survive

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Celeste Albers works full-time on her family's Wadmalaw Island Farm, providing straight-from-the-source milk and eggs to some of the best restaurants in town - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • Celeste Albers works full-time on her family's Wadmalaw Island Farm, providing straight-from-the-source milk and eggs to some of the best restaurants in town

It's a warm spring morning on Wadmalaw Island, and there is a pastoral peace presiding over Rosebank Plantation. Dahlia, Lily, Violet, Jean, and Mandy certainly seem at ease as they rhythmically chew their cud and bat their long eyelashes. Not even the rumbling roar of the generator coming to life and their subsequent milking disturbs them. These are indeed happy cows. They spend their days roaming the pasture and eating their fill of various grasses. It's a far cry from the concrete confines of life at a large commercial dairy.

Celeste and George Albers tend this herd of five Jersey cows and bottle their Sea Island milk straight from the source. The milk comes out looking creamy and rich, almost a pale yellow in color, and it tastes sweet and wholesome. It undergoes no pasteurization or homogenization —— making it "raw milk," a highly regulated product in South Carolina.

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In order to obtain permitting from the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), the Albers' dairy had to undergo two years of bureaucratic scrutiny, and even now that they are fully licensed the milk can be sold only at farmers' markets or in a store where no food production occurs. Still, the Albers firmly believe in the positive powers of raw milk. Celeste estimates that she, George, and her daughter Erin drink one to two gallons of their milk each day.

"I don't think we could have kept going," says Celeste. "You just get such a good energy from raw milk." The Albers definitely need that energy, as they physically labor every day of the year. Celeste says that she does not stop moving from 5:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. — and they have not had longer than an afternoon away from the farm in the past five years. This is the reality of being a small farmer, and they would not trade it despite the hardships.

Celeste and George have been longtime stalwarts in the local farming community, earning deserved fame for their Sea Island eggs, produce, and shrimp, but the dairy business is a recent development. Their motivation to seek out a new niche in the agricultural economy is somewhat of a sad story for the Lowcountry, because it stems from their desire to relocate. They lost their Johns Island farm to developers 10 years ago, and now a portion of the land they lease on Wadmalaw is up for sale. Because soaring real estate prices have prevented them from buying land in the area, the Albers began to look elsewhere.

A program in New York called Farmlink caught their attention, as it connects aging farmers who lack successors with folks like the Albers who lack the land. When the Albers went to investigate, they found most of the viable options to be dairy farms. Meetings with these farmers took place, but ultimately none seemed ready to sell.

"They are like us," says Celeste. "They see the writing on the wall but don't want to give up. They say, 'Well, our son might come back.'"

Undeterred by these roadblocks, the Albers found their trip to be an impetus to learn more about the dairy business. Once Celeste began to investigate the subject of grass-fed cows and raw milk, there was no turning back. The health benefits so impressed her that Celeste decided to pursue raw milk for her family if nothing else, and subsequently the Albers bought their first cow, Dahlia.

Buying the cow proved to be the easiest part of the Albers' quest. Next, they tackled the DHEC permitting. The regulations surrounding raw milk vary from state to state, and in some states it's actually illegal. Since raw milk is legal for limited sales in South Carolina, DHEC had no choice but to work with the Albers, but it wasn't an easy road. Their first inspector had no interest in the project and offered little support. "He would have been just as happy if raw milk had been illegal," says Celeste. Thankfully, their second inspector came from a family of dairy farmers and understood the Albers' vision. With his support, they got their DHEC permit.

Celeste attributes their success in negotiating the logistics to George. Since they lack the facilities of a large commercial dairy, George streamlined their operations into a minimalist, entirely mobile operation. First, he designed a milking parlor that is essentially an open-air trailer for the cows to stand on since they cannot legally stand on the ground. This allows the Albers to milk the cows where they are pastured rather than bringing them into a barn. (Ironically, they assumed this to be a novel idea, but when reading dairy history they discovered this strategy was implemented long ago for milking cows in the Alps.)

Next, George designed their bottling trailer by rebuilding a construction office trailer that friends gave to them years ago. He took inspiration from his other livelihood — shrimping — and lined the interior with fiberglass, which makes it easy to clean (just like his boat). Celeste spends every morning there bottling the 14 gallons of milk that the five heifers yield each day. Currently, they milk the cows only once a day, which limits their production — more frequent milking would stimulate the cows to produce greater quantities, but there are simply not enough hours in the day for the Albers' work.

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Up until this year, Celeste had continued to grow vegetables along with developing the dairy business, but now she focuses on cows and chickens. George continues to shrimp, but the maintenance alone of their two farms on Wadmalaw could be a full-time job. The mobile hen houses that he designed require constant relocation to insure even fertilization of the land, and of course all those eggs must be gathered and graded.

Recently, the Albers joined forces with another local farmer, Rita Bachmann, and that move seems to present some hope of at least managing their workload. Celeste describes their partnering as a "symbiotic relationship and cooperative effort." Bachmann works with Celeste three days a week, and on other days she farms the land that the Albers nurtured for the past 10 years. There, in that dark, rich soil, Bachmann grows lettuce, radishes, beets, potatoes, and much more. These days, the only crop Celeste grows is spring onions —she finds sales of milk and eggs to be much more consistent than sales of produce.

"People get into a routine," says Celeste of her milk and egg customers. Currently, she sells thousands of eggs each week (many to local restaurants and bakeries, such as FIG, McCrady's, High Cotton, Hominy Grill, and Sublime), and she recently sold 42 gallons of milk at the Saturday farmers market in Marion Square.

Now, the Albers' milk and eggs can also be purchased at the Homegrown Grocery (formerly Sublime Pies and Cakes), located at 829 Savannah Hwy. Sublime's founder and proprietor Tamlyn Willard recently transformed her small Avondale storefront from a retail outlet for her baked goods into a market that focuses on South Carolina food products. Since no food is made on-site (Willard has a separate commercial kitchen for her bakery operations), raw milk can be sold there. Willard is a staunch supporter of the Albers' products and uses the eggs exclusively in her baking. In fact, she credits Celeste with her decision to keep her business and small and local. "I had an awakening with the product," she says of the Sea Island eggs.

Such acclaim seems to follow the Albers' products around town. Marti McGowan-Chitwood, a local dietician and owner of Viriditas Rejuvenation Center, says she's probably told over 100 people to buy eggs and milk from Celeste. Chitwood doesn't drink milk herself (she finds it doesn't agree with her body), but she believes in the Sea Island milk because it comes from animals "living the way they should." She believes the major problem with large commercial dairies stems from the improper care of the cows, which leads to a need for heavy medication.

Chitwood says raw milk is probably not for the "average Joe." She recommends that interested persons seek out a website — www.realmilk.com — that details the history and legality of the subject. To detractors, she says, "If you get your information from heavily lobbied government agencies, then I would have to question whether you have really done your reading. I would just compel them to do some homework."

Of course, detractors are the least of the Albers' problems as they fight to stay afloat. Celeste does acknowledge that they are luckier than some.

"We are earning our full living farming, which is very unusual in this day and age," she says. "Usually, at least one person has an outside job."

But the land battle is an issue that constantly haunts them. When the land they have worked for so long (known as Alabama Bend) went up for sale eight months ago, Celeste took the news like a physical blow. She found out that one person approached the owners about buying the property to sell off the topsoil, and rage took over her usually gentle demeanor.

"I didn't want to think about what I would do," says Celeste. Thankfully, the property owners realized that such a sale would truly be raping the land and turned down the offer, but the reality is that the property will eventually sell.

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The Albers have some hopes that the half-cent transportation sales tax, which was implemented in May 2005, might offer an incentive for the owners of Alabama Bend to keep their property. A portion of revenues from this tax will go towards the Greenbelt Program, which can buy development rights from property owners.

Lewis Hay, the Director of Land Protection at the Lowcountry Land Trust, acknowledges that this is possible, but that the Greenbelt Program can rarely afford to pay anywhere near to the land's appraised commercial value. He contends that they only way to truly protect rural land is to go back to a mixed economy on farmland. He tells landowners who do not want to sell that they should consider income from renting rights to farming, timber, and hunting.

Luckily, the Albers' cows are in no danger of being displaced. They spend most of their time at Rosebank Plantation, a property owned by Dana Sinkler who has no intention of selling. Celeste describes Sinkler — as a "patron saint of the agricultural arts", and indeed he does seem to be a savior. Sinkler's family has owned 1,200 acres on Wadmalaw since 1950, and he is a strong conservationist. "I believe the land should be preserved as much as possible," says Sinkler. "Otherwise it will just be subdivision after subdivision."

While Sinkler's forward thinking offers some help to the Albers, it does not solve all their problems. "It would be hard to rely on Rosebank for all our livestock," says Celeste. The land there is simply not as fertile as Alabama Bend, which they've nurtured for many years, and it has poor drainage.

While some might let this difficult situation impede their ambition, the Albers refuse to lose hope. In fact, they have big plans for the future. "The dairy business is really the reproduction business," George says, meaning that in order for the cows to continuously produce milk they must be kept pregnant. At a large commercial dairy, the offspring will be divided into heifers (to keep for milking) and bulls (to sell off.) The Albers are not selling off their bulls, as they see this as another business opportunity — grass-fed beef. When Dahlia gave birth to a bull, they put their idea into motion and raised him on the Rosebank pastures. When he came of slaughtering age, the Albers turned the event into a celebration. Celeste gave various cuts to area chefs and then threw a party with the help of the local chapter of Slow Food (an international culinary preservation group). The grass-fed beef tasting proved a success, and the Albers now have several baby bulls that are "slowly growing." Once the Albers have the operation in full swing they plan on selling to restaurants and at Homegrown Grocery.

Such optimism in the face of adversity seems to define the Albers. "We are always looking for opportunities and ways to hedge our bets and keep things rolling," says Celeste. "We don't easily give up."

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