Certified Raw Milk in California: Visits to the Two Raw Milk Dairies

November 25, 2011 · 17 Comments

When we first started living in Southern California in early 2009, we began to look for sources of raw milk for our family. Our family has been consumers of raw milk for many years, starting back when we lived in the Philippines and milked our own goats.

So we began to research where we could purchase raw milk. There was a stand in one of the Farmer's Markets that was selling raw goat's milk, but you had to be a member of their CSA to be able to purchase it. We looked into the CSA, but we were not able to visit the farm to see the actual goat milk operation, and since it was not a certified raw dairy, I was hesitant to purchase milk I knew nothing about.

As most of you know, raw milk is legal here in California, and there are two legal raw milk dairies. Organic Pastures is the most popular one, by far. The milk is advertised in many places, including Farmer's Markets, as coming from cows that are "100% grassfed." Having grown up in the dairy state of Wisconsin, I knew that this was nearly impossible, but we figured that the cows were probably getting the bulk of their nutrition from nutrient-dense grass. The other dairy is Claravale. One Internet site that listed raw milk sources listed Organic Pastures as "pasture-fed", and Claravale as "not pasture-fed but are given hay and grains." (They have since slightly revised their listings after seeing our videos below). All over the Internet there were many people singing the praises of Organic Pastures, so we started consuming their milk.

When it came to time to think about putting together the Healthy Traditions Buyer's Club, we began to look into the possibility of purchasing raw milk wholesale to offer it to the Buyer's Club at a better rate. I looked at Claravale's website for the first time. I was surprised at what I read! It seemed like a really great operation, and they were saying that what they fed their cows was no different than what Organic Pastures fed their cows. You can read their very nicely written and educational FAQ here: http://claravaledairy.com/faq.html

So I decided to contact the farm, and ended up talking to Ron Garthwaite, the owner. We then arranged for a tour of the farm in September. He is a short video of our tour:



Claravale has around 65 cows they are milking at present, and Ron has no desires to grow larger. He is committed to "traditional dairy" practices, and feels that "in the old days" each community had a dairy nearby to serve them, and that those dairies seldom were larger than 50 cows. He feels there was wisdom in this number, and that one tends to lose control of the quality of the operation if it grows beyond that. If they were to expand their operation, they would start a new herd in a different location somewhere. Claravale's herd is a closed herd today - they currently do not need to buy dairy cows from any other farm. Their own herd produces enough calves. Their herd is 100% Jersey cows, which produce what Ron calls the "best cream in the U.S." He has a new ice cream product made from this cream, and I can tell you first hand it is incredible! They offer cow's milk and goat's milk, and hope to offer cheese in the future. They package their milk in returnable glass bottles.

Next, we arranged a tour of Organic Pastures Dairy. We knew that they made deliveries to buyer's clubs in Southern California, so we wanted to see their operation and see if they could be a potential supplier to the Healthy Traditions Buyer's Club. Their website About Us page is here: http://www.organicpastures.com/about.html which states: "Only organic green pasture and approved naturopathic methods are used to feed and care for the cows." Here is the video of our tour:



The Organic Pasture herd is 450+ cows at present, and it is a mixed herd of Holsteins, some Jersey, and a couple of other breeds. It is not a closed herd. They have been buying quite a few full-grown lactating cows from an outside source recently, according to our tour guide. When they have enough milk, Organic Pastures also produces cheese and butter. They package in plastic.

Our family drinks Claravale milk whenever we can get it. We appreciate their honesty in advertising, and we love how much cream we get from their milk!

At present we are not able to purchase bulk Clarvale milk to offer to the Healthy Traditions Buyer's Club. Since they are a small operation, their product is in high demand and supplies are limited. We have talked to a couple of goat milk dairy operations that plan on becoming certified raw, but they are not committed to organic GMO-free feed at this time. So Claravale remains the best option for now - if you can get it!

Note: These farm tours occured before the current raw milk recall, and we have no knowledge and no opinion on the recall of Organic Pastures products.

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kathy // Nov 25, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    Thanks so much for making these videos available, they are quite revealing.
    The Organic Pastures commentary, by Public Relations Mgr. Marcy Oliver, was especially chilling to me. For them, its all about "production". The health and well being of the animals seems to matter only when it detracts from "production". Thirteen cows had to die from heat stress in one summer before they invested in shade structures. Marcy talks about the cows as though they are objects, not alive and feeling. Also, their advertising is obviously untrue when it states "Only organic green pasture. . . are used to feed . . . the cows". Given their location, its not possible for the pasture to be organic. Nor does it look very green. Rather, it appears stubbly, overgrazed and not very nutrutious. Marcy even states it isn't nutrutious enough to insure good milk production. As a result, cows are fed grain and hay for up to 2 hrs/day. Finally, their method (only recently-installed) for flushing waste away from the feeding area looks really low-budget and hygenically questionable.
    I'm very disappointed in Organic Pastures dairy. Cost cutting at the expense of animal welfare and hygene are not what I want from my raw milk producer.
  • 2 Joan // Nov 25, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    I agree with Kathy.
    I can't believe that anyone would allow an animal of any kind to suffer through 110' heat before they provided shade. If they were a proper humane operation they would have provided an open building structure for the animals to seek relief from the heat and inclement weather of any kind.
    You can bet that the owners didn't stand out in 100' heat all day without going inside to rest in their air conditioned offices. Just amazing and it shows the ignorance of their management that Marcy would even admit to the fact that it took the death of 13 cows from heat prostration before they realized why they weren't getting the milk production they expected from the poor the cows.
    I expected the video to show several fenced pastures of grass for rotation feeding and that only supplemental grain was offered during milking like Claravale. And where are the salt/mineral blocks??
    Why hasn't this dairy been sited for having the waste piled up so close to the feeding troughs? Incredible...
    Organic Pastures is on the right path, trying to be organic but it is a poor operation. And it's obvious that they are doing it for the money and not because they care about the animals or take pride in their operation.
    I'm glad to know what's happening there, I won't be spending money on their products until Organic Pastures corrects their farming and animal practices.
    Thank you for your research into the quality of your products before you represent them, it's eye-opening. Keep up the great work!
  • 3 Brian // Nov 25, 2011 at 5:19 PM

    Kathy, Organic Pastures IS certified organic. Their certification was up-to-date when we checked it. There are certified organic operations in the Central Valley, but one has to wonder about water supplies and whether or not current USDA NOP standards for buffer zones are sufficient for places like the Central Valley. One also has to wonder about how nutrient dense the soil is after so many years of intensive farming throughout the years. We tend to stay away from organic grapes and olives from the Central Valley, as well as organic carrots from Bakersfield. We look for organic farmers in the Farmer's Markets from the coastal areas instead.

    Joan, the piles of manure were dry and not smelly at all, like a commercial operation would be. And she said that they were there before the new flush lane. I didn't sense it was an issue, other than to show that the cows obviously spend a great deal of time there feeding if they have to remove that much manure.
  • 4 Amanda // Nov 25, 2011 at 7:52 PM


    Thank you for taking the time to do this analysis. I have been frustrated for years by the OPDC "grass fed" label when its pastures look like it might provide 20% of the herd's intake on a good day.

    What makes your analysis particularly good is that you have a background in grass operations, providing consumers with grass fed meat products. Most people who tour their dairy have no ag background at all, much less knowledge of these feeding systems. A few months ago I wrote up a Raw Milk Buyer's Guide to help consumers examine these farms themselves:


  • 5 Kristen // Nov 26, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    I am very grateful to you for taking time to visit both dairies your posting these videos. In a perfect world, we would all "know your farmer" like the Weston A. Price foundation recommends. The truth is, at least for myself, is that I have small children and not the time to make heads or tails of the marketing claims by Organic Pastures versus the criticism of OPDC I read about on The Complete Patient blog. I could go and visit, but honestly before now I did not know what questions to ask, and my visit to Organic Pastures would probably look something like this: http://renourishment.org/2011/11/12/organic-pastures-dairy-visit-part-two-know-your-food/

    I am curious as to the farm practices of Claravale after watching the Organic Pastures video. Does Ron Garthwaite provide shade for his cows?

  • 6 Brian // Nov 26, 2011 at 3:25 PM

    Kristen, Yes, there is shade. If you look at the pan shot to begin their video, you will see two structures in the pasture. The one closest to the camera did not have a roof on it at the time, but the far one did. That is where most of the herd was when we were filming.
  • 7 SBNaturally // Nov 27, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    Here we go - more Organic Pastures bashing.

    First farming is hard - I think people should try doing it yourself before b.tching or telling people what to look for.

    Organic Pastures is located in the south where the climate is different (less water than in the north). They have only been in operations for 10 years or so shading didn't make sense until the death of 13 cows. People make mistakes and learn along the way. They did the right thing by getting shade.

    There is nothing that isn't transparent with both farms. You can walk on them and check it out yourself. If you don't understand enough to ask which questions, obviously you haven't farmed or know much about having a farm business. It's hard work.
  • 8 Amanda Rose // Nov 27, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    Hi SBNaturally. I don't have an issue with them getting shade. In fact, it may well have been my comments about their lack of shade that helped them actually provide shade to the cows.

    My big concern about OPDC is not what they do, but what their marketing materials claim they do or don't do that's not actually true. Why say they grass feed 100% if it's not true? Why say they have a mobile milker that can be plumbed into 30 different spots on their pasture if they really only move it between two spots and if it's only two spots (instead of 1) because the county makes them move it? Why claim that their cows live for a decade when they apparently have to buy quite a few (161!) and when they have an apparently successful grass fed beef operation selling the beef of culled dairy cows (that apparently aren't grass fed). If cows lived so long there, they wouldn't have to buy so many replacements. Why say they have a closed herd when they don't? Why claim they are environmental stewards when they had a shallow pit to dump their dead cows before the county stopped them? Why sell me product from a 10K dairy to feed to my son and claim that it is grass fed?

    I realize you're going to say that none of these issues are important -- it doesn't matter that the milk barn doesn't really move much or that the cows eat quite a bit of non-pasture food or that OPDC has a history of outsourcing. I hear that a lot. And whether you agree with that point, I'll note anyway that if none of this really matters, it should not be part of the marketing arm of OPDC because they risk looking like liars for something that is apparently not all that important after all.

    I do agree with you, though, that it really only takes a working set of eyeballs to see all of this for yourself.

  • 9 Kristen Papac // Nov 28, 2011 at 1:31 PM

    @SBNaturally: "First farming is hard - I think people should try doing it yourself before b.tching or telling people what to look for."

    Really? So unless I have farmed myself I should not ask the farmer I get food from any questions or what to look for??? We should be informed consumers when it comes to CAFOs, conventional farming, Big Ag, Big Dairy, farmed fish, etc etc etc but UNEQUIVOCALLY support "small farms" (OPDC is not a small farm, BTW, but grosses millions per year). We should know what is wrong with those conventional farming methods, but when a raw milk producer makes misleading marketing claims and false health claims, we should not question it?

    Thanks for that revealing logic that I feel is endemic in the WAPF social strata.
  • 10 Ray // Nov 28, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    Organic Pastures: "We had one year where we had 13 cows die from the heat." Wow. That's one particular year? Must have been 2009 when it got to 117 in Fresno. I bet you don't lose nearly as many cows to heat exhaustion when it's only 108, like in most of the other recent years. Probably still some, though, I'd guess.

    To their credit they tried: "I mean, we would try to put shade structures out in the pasture..." And the way she said it, "we would try", implies that it was an ongoing or occasional effort.

    But if you're letting a dozen cows die of heat in a particular year -- what a horrible way to go -- in my book you're not trying hard enough.
  • 11 Amanda // Nov 29, 2011 at 10:38 AM

    I received a message about my comment here suggesting I was nit-picking and that there are some seasons when there won't be enough grass.

    I do totally appreciate that perspective but in my visits to the dairy since 2005 in all different seasons, I haven't seen pastures that would support more than about 20% of the diet of the cows, certainly no where near 100%. That's seven years, not one bad hot summer.
  • 12 Nonie // Dec 6, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    While I appreciate the information and videos provided in this post, the negative commentary is uncalled for. Joan (above) surmised that OP is in production for the money, that they don't care about their cows or take pride in their operation. I have met several OP employees, including Mark McAfee, and can tell you that is not the case.

    I am not qualified to say whether their products are of the highest quality available, I have not taken a tour of the dairy, and I can't speak for the company, but I still know that they care about their cows and their customers. They have done a great service in making such a quantity of raw dairy available to so many people. This is a priority for them. My family would not have access to good raw milk if it weren't for Organic Pastures. We are among tens of thousands of grateful beneficiaries.

    Mark, in particular, is not only a huge raw milk defender, but an avid educator, having recently founded the Raw Milk Institute to set standards and increase understanding about raw dairy among farmers, consumers, legislators, and regulators. He is an advocate for the right to consume this living food (not just that produced by his dairy).

    If raw milk is thriving in California, I suppose we owe Organic Pastures a small debt of gratitude, whether or not we choose them as our source.
  • 13 Kristen // Dec 7, 2011 at 1:10 PM

    Hi Nonie,

    I often come off angry or sarcastic because I feel frustrated that so many people, in my opinion, are being deceived.

    I wrote a little blog post about my concerns about Organic Pastures. Read it if you feel like it.

  • 14 colleenwhalen // Dec 18, 2011 at 2:32 AM

    I used to buy OP products on a regular basis at the Nugget Market and Downtown Sacramento Farmers Market and Davis Farmers Market. In the late summer of 2011 OP decided to drop all those venues because they stated they were not "profitable enough". This seemed very odd to me since the Downtown Sacramento Farmers Market is enormous, a thriving, vibrant place, and one of the biggest farmers markets in the entire state of California with over 400 booths - with a waiting list which is over one year long, nearly a mile long waiting list for growers and ranchers to get a booth. OP's booth at the Davis Farmers Market and Sunday Downtown Farmers Market was always packed with customers and it seemed to be a popular site with a strong, loyal following of regular customers. Nugget Market is a very good chain of family owned gourmet grocery stores - I think there are at least 8 Nugget Markets in the greater Sacramento area. If these high volume outlets are not good enough for OP I wonder what the heck their marketing strategy and corporate culture is about. When OP decided to voluntarily drop those venues last summer, I called OP office twice and spoke to their staff and found out the owner isn't really interested in selling at ANY retail stores. Instead, I was informed I could buy it by having it shipped to customers homes via UPS in dry ice. Shipping would cost $30 which makes it preposterous! I would have to be dumber than a sack of hammers to waste $30 on shipping! I have no idea what OP's ranching practices really are - so the debate and yet to be confirmed controversy about whether or not the animals are treated humanely, grass fed or grain fed - I have no idea. All I know is the owner of OP doesn't seem to have common sense. The other info I have is totally anecdotal - but the first week OP disappeared from Downtown Sacramento Farmers Market - the director of California Certified Farmers Market, Dan Best told me the owner of OP showed up in his Cadillac the last day they were selling raw dairy products at that site and informed Dan Best "there isn't any money in selling at Farmers Market". I am not an Eco-Nazi, but I really do not think it is sustainable for a rancher who is supposed to be an organic rancher to be driving a gas guzzling Cadillac. OP seems to be all sauce and no stuffing - all style and no substance. While I do appreciate their highly educational literature with the chart which explains in excellent detail the difference between raw and pasturized dairy - my intuition leads me to believe OP is more about driving Cadillacs and less about sustainability. It is impossible for me to even find it at any location in Sacramento since they dropped all the retail stores and Farmers Markets they used to sell at. It seems the biggest problem OP is facing is not harrassment by the FDA or recalls, being shut down, etc - but by their own decision to drastically limit the ability of their customers to even find their product. OP used to be carried at Taylors Market on Freeport Blvd in Sacramento but that ended a long time ago. I am really thrilled to learn about the buying club - had no idea it existed. I would love to find raw, organic kefir and raw organic butter that is truly grass fed, pastured, alfalfa hay during seasonal periods when grass is not growing - I don't mind paying a premium to get a quality product if I know for sure the animals are treated humanely with adequate shade, water and grass fed. IMHO no ruminant should ever be fed grain or soy. I was watching California's Gold on PBS a few days ago and was shocked to see a small, indie goat milk rancher feeding their goats PELLETS and not grass. I was gullible enough to believe that all goats were grass fed if it was an indie, small family rancher.....this was an eye opener for me! I live in Downtown Sacramento and if there are folks who want to do a buying club I would be thrilled to join!

    So where is the profit margin which is good enough for OP - driving their business into the ground by expecting customers to blow $30 on UPS shipping with dry ice?

    What planet are these guys on?

    I have been very pleased with raw milk organic cheese from Pedrozo Dairy. They are local in the Central Valley and a multi-generation organic raw dairy rancher. They sell large wheels of 100% grass and alfalfa hay fed raw milk organic cheese for $20 which is a great price. Pedrozo Dairy does not sell kefir, milk or butter - they specialize in raw cheese - and it comes in many flavors. They are always at the Sunday Downtown Sacramento Farmers Market and the Oak Park, Sacramento Farmers Market which is on Saturdays (currently that venue is closed during winter - but will begin YEAR ROUND in the spring when the whole site is being refurbished to transform from a spring summer farmers market to year round).

    Is Sacramento Natural Foods Coop the only place where Claravale is sold? I was a member of the coop for 13 years but quit shopping there in 2007 and don't have any plans to ever shop there again.....long story. If Claravale is available any place else in Sacramento, I'd really appreciate it if this info was posted to me. Gee whiz, if I had a backyard I would get a couple of goats! It is so hard to find raw, organic dairy products - it seems in terms of raw cheese there is more European raw cheese available than USA raw cheese - is this correct?
  • 15 Hailey // Jan 6, 2012 at 12:20 AM

    Thank you for posting your tour of both OP and Claravale. I've been contacting Claravale for a long time now because I had questions and I wanted to tour the farm, but I would never get a call back or get emailed back. I understand Claravale is a small dairy operation so they probably don't have time to field every call and email, but it sure would be nice if I would get one email or call back. Maybe you have to have a succesful blog in order to be able to get a tour of the dairy farm. I've had both OP and Claravale's milk, and I personally prefer Claravale's milk. It tastes creamier since it's all jersey cow's milk. I haven't visited OP's farm since we don't really drink their milk unless we can't get Claravale. But I have to say, I emailed Mark McAfee and he actually emailed me back answering all my questions. I appreciated that. Either way, I am very thankful that we get raw milk here in CA.
  • 16 Bruce Hofstetter // Mar 17, 2012 at 12:54 AM

    I grew up in the dairy & poultry region of Southern New Jersey in the 50's-60's. Simply put, Claravale Farms has it together, OP doesn't. Even the word, "Organic", as used in labeling has been tainted by the political process & those trying to manage something they have little or no knowledge about. One does not learn the ways of animal husbandry by,"...making mistakes & learning along the way.", as SB Naturally suggests. That fluid dairy product that your making mistakes on so you can learn the ins & outs of the dairy industry is going into the stomachs of trusting folk! An experienced dairy farmer would cringe several times just looking at that OP vid. I did.
  • 17 DeAnn // Jul 13, 2012 at 7:12 PM

    I've been drinking Organic Pastures for years since it is the only raw milk the Bakersfield health store carries. Today I drove instead to Lancaster and found Claravale raw milk. Wow. What a difference in flavor. Organic Pastures milk sometimes has an odd flavor and smell. Not so for Claravale. Their milk was soooo sweet and smooth. A real pleasure to drink. I hope I can continue to purchase it on a regular basis.

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