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Raw Milk: A Healthier Alternative?

Alice Jongerden wanted to give her family a healthy start, so she bought a cow. Then another, and another. Now she finds herself at the centre of a court battle over public health
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Alice Jongerden’s Home on the Range Dairy raises its herd on the back 40 of a derelict farmhouse in Chilliwack. From there, the unpasteurized milk and other dairy products travel to depots around the Lower Mainland; what families do after that intensely i
Alice Jongerden’s Home on the Range Dairy raises its herd on the back 40 of a derelict farmhouse in Chilliwack. From there, the unpasteurized milk and other dairy products travel to depots around the Lower Mainland; what families do after that intensely i Shannon Mendes
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Alice Jongerden wanted to give her family a healthy start, so she bought a cow. Then another, and another. Now she finds herself at the centre of a court battle over public health

The day after I visited Alice Jongerden at her Chilliwack dairy, I found myself rushing into hospital. A few hours before, my daughter had turned pale and started vomiting. No one—not the nurses, not the paramedics—could explain what was obviously a violent reaction to her 18-month vaccinations. “She’s still breathing!” the nurse said, as if this were the only concrete reassurance she could give. Driving the winding highway into the emergency department—we’d insisted on the ambulance and this trip—I found my mind wandering back to Jongerden. Blame it on anxiety.

A happily married mother of five and devout Christian, Jongerden has the laugh of a woman who doesn’t care if you’re laughing with her. With the help of two full-time workers, some part-time staff, and her husband Bert, she spends between 70 and 80 hours a week tending a 22-strong herd on 40 leased acres in the heart of Chilliwack dairy country. In exchange for feeding and milking the cows, and bottling and distributing their milk, Jongerden—or, more properly, her Home on the Range Dairy—receives $18.50 per gallon from each member of the cow share that owns them, on top of money for whatever extras (butter, yogurt) she makes from the leftovers. Profits have been slim, with upfront expenses for equipment and maintenance fees and cows (a new cow goes for between $1,500 and $2,000), but member contributions allowed Bert to quit his job two years ago to take care of maintenance, deliveries, and quality control and for the Jongerdens to focus on the cow share and on home-schooling their two oldest full-time.

It may seem that the family is living out a perfectly scripted Fraser Valley farming story, but the reality is something different. Home on the Range Dairy distributes milk that hasn’t been pasteurized, and Jongerden—its lead farmer—has become the face of a small but growing movement of British Columbians preparing for an all-out battle with the provincial government over their right to consume their milk raw.

Across North America, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of similar cow shares, most set up to get around the prohibition of raw-milk sales in their region. In B.C., there are at least two others that Alice knows of—smaller, but growing fast. Jongerden grew up on a dairy farm north of London, Ontario, and even though their milk was sent for pasteurization, her family drank its own milk raw. About four years ago, in her mid 30s, she decided she wanted her family to drink raw milk also. She wanted her children to have the same strong bones and good health she had growing up.  It was a mother’s wish, but with sales prohibited across the country, she couldn’t find raw milk. So she bought a cow. Any excess milk, she shared with friends. Soon other families wanted in. She used the proceeds to buy more cows. In three years, she was delivering raw milk to over 400 families from Chilliwack to Whistler.

 “I didn’t set out to take on the government,” she said, standing outside her milking parlour in overalls and gumboots. “It’s just been one decision after another.”

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