By Connor Lynch
KILLALOE — For raw milk farmer Michael Ilgert, who milks about 10 Jerseys at Killaoe, an hour and a half west of Ottawa, it’s not enough to say that raw milk should be an option for people, even if it has health risks. He firmly believes it’s better than pasteurized milk; more nutritious and even medicinal.
“I’m like a doctor, only better than a doctor,” he tells Farmers Forum. He turns and points to his herd. “This is real health care.”
Ilgert believes that his product, raw milk, which he distributes through his cow-share program, is not only a viable option to pasteurized milk, but a superior option. He also believes that if the Perth Health Unit, which ordered him in March to stop distributing raw milk, is seriously concerned about people’s health, it should allow raw milk distribution. Ilgert says his raw milk is consumable by the lactose-intolerant with “no adverse effects.”
Ilgert has run a cow-share program from the farm for the last seven years. Families can buy a membership for six years for $300. That gets them between 6 and 10 litres of milk every two weeks, which Ilgert delivers himself. A single person who needs less milk can buy a $150 share, also good for six years, which gets him two to five litres of milk every two weeks.
Ilgert estimates he has about 70 members in his cow-share program, but that it could easily triple in size in three months if he was allowed to advertise. “(The health unit) doesn’t even want me on Facebook,” he says.
He grew up on a mixed farm that’s connected to his current property in Renfrew County. His parents raised beef animals, had a milking cow and a few chickens, largely to feed the family, he says. Although he spent the last 20 or so years in the construction industry, and still supports his part-time farming doing drywall contracting, Ilgert wanted to get back to farming, and a particular kind of farming at that. “Mostly natural and organic, a niche market that nobody else was doing.”
Then he heard about Michael Schmidt, a lightning rod of controversy and a raw milk farmer in Western Ontario who has spearheaded the effort to legalize raw milk. That’s where Ilgert learned of the cow-share method, where members buy shares of the cow. Since there’s an exception in Ontario law that allows a farmer with cattle to drink raw milk himself or share it with his family, Ilgert and Schmidt believe their operations are legal, since the cow-share members own part of the cows themselves, they are allowed access to the milk.
He says that not only is the general public on his side, but most other farmers he talks to, even dairy farmers. “They say, ‘well, my family drinks raw milk right out of our bulk tank. What’s so wrong with it? We’ve been doing that for generations.’”
A Toronto appeal board upheld a ruling against Ilgert in March, which said that he had to comply with a cease and desist order from the Renfrew County Health Unit to stop distributing raw milk. Ilgert refused, and will continue to distribute raw milk, he said. When that ruling was upheld, he says, that left the field open for him to be raided any time, just as soon as the health unit has a warrant.
“I don’t know what they’re going to take. They can dump the milk, but I’ll have another 50 litres in 24 hours. They can take my milker, and there are a couple of places in Cobden where I can get another one. They’re not going to take my tractor because 24 officers can’t even figure out how to start it.
“I’m fighting it until the end.”